The Poop on Poop

Dog waste isn’t a topic most people talk about on a daily basis, but this “business” should be discussed. Pet owners who don’t have their dog’s droppings top of mind likely aren’t aware of how harmful it is to our environment when the poop isn’t scooped.

So, I’m out to start and share the conversation. You see, it’s been pretty commonplace in my family. My mother-in-law is English. Born in Ely, Cambridgeshire, she embodies many English ways of thinking, including a love for dogs I believe can only be topped by Queen Elizabeth’s love for her corgis.

When you’ve got a dog lover like this for a relative, you hear everything about dogs: what goes in and what comes out. Over the years, I’ve heard more than I ever intended to hear about dog waste. I didn’t think it was a topic to share beyond the family. Who speaks of poop in polite company?

Well, when I joined SGA, I discovered that everyone in the office talks about dog waste because we know the problems it causes. And now, I want to get you talking about it with your family and other pet-loving friends, too.

Dog waste isn’t fertilizer. It doesn’t help the environment; it hurts it. Dog poop contains unhealthy bacteria. In fact, the EPA estimates that if there was a spot with just two or three days of dog waste from 100 dogs, that would equate to enough bacteria to close all watersheds within 20 miles of such a location. That’s because dog waste that is not picked up washes into these waterways. That bacteria? It can lead to a variety of harmful viruses that can cause intestinal illnesses and kidney disorders in humans. In the book, “The Truth About Dogs,” author Stephan Budiansky states that there are 65 diseases that can be transmitted to humans from dog feces. Some will give you skin rashes, but others can be more harmful and may turn deadly.

So get the conversation going. Let others know the poop on poop. Picking up after your pooch isn’t simply the right thing to do, scooping the poop and disposing it in the trash or toilet keeps it from washing into waterways. This, in turn, keeps our rivers and ocean cleaner for all of us.

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4 Simple Ideas to Improve Outreach

It’s difficult to imagine a time before randomized trials and data. But as an article in the December 12 issue of the Economist points out, before the 20th century, “The sick were wise to stay away from doctors. Medical treatments were often worthless and sometimes dangerous.”
Then in the 1920s, English statistician Ronald Fisher used randomized controlled experiments to test the effectiveness of fertilizer on farms, and quality and production escalated. The medical field soon picked up the method. More than any single discovery, controlled experimentation contributed to the 20th century’s miraculous increase in lifespan.

In the realm of public policy and outreach, this technique can be tricky. Changing behavior is often hard to observe and quantify. What’s more, local government programs don’t have the budgets for lengthy experimentation and controls.

But things are changing. Online media provides the ability to conduct small and inexpensive controlled experiments that allow us to determine if people are taking the initial steps towards behavior change. For example, we can test degree of awareness, intent to change, influence of social norms and more.

In 2015, SGA began testing out how online experiments can help build better, more reliable outreach programs. Here are four simple, but important, lessons we’ve learned:

  1. Reach beyond likes and unique visitors. The biggest problem using social media likes and website visits as a proxy for success is that you don’t know why people took the action. They could have been searching for your content and found it engaging. Or they might have randomly clicked on your website during a Google search and quickly jumped off, never to return again. You just don’t know. While building a strong foundation of fans is important, it’s just the beginning. To build a community, you need to test how engaged your fans are through controlled messaging experiments.
  1. Embrace A/B testing. If you really want to understand the value of your likes, you need to see if they are repeatable.  The key is to run two sets of posts—an A version and a B version. (You can also run multi-variant tests if you want to move more aggressively.) Then see how each performs with your community over time. You can set these up on social media, websites and e-newsletters. For e-newsletters, send the two variations to a random subset of your subscriber list a few days before you intend to send out the newsletter. Then send the one that does best to the rest of your list.
  1. Turn data into insights. Once you have some data to work with, you can look at the demographics of the people who engaged with your content as well as the content that got the best response. Facebook and Twitter insights and Google Analytics can tell you loads about your followers. Understanding the type of content that resonates with them will help you understand how to inspire them with behavior change messaging. This data allows you to paint a more robust picture of your audience, which you can incorporate into outreach both offline and online.
  1. Create a call to action. Find the route to engagement by asking your fans to do something. When determining your call to action, be sure it is something you can measure and start small. Ask fans to opt in to receive emails or post their own content showing actions they have taken. One of our projects for the Orange County Stormwater Program asked people to post photos of how they were saving water in their yards. By having residents show their actions, it verifies the behaviors taken and starts to build a social norm for the action—and engagement in general.

In 2016, we will see more and more emphasis on data as online marketing’s balance of art and science continues to demand more of the science. Business and commercial marketing has already shown this. With simple experiments, you can better understand your audience, their motivations and whether they’re buying your program’s message or merely window shopping.

Naming our Data: Bringing Data to Life through Characterization

It often began with the question, “Have you heard about IPM?”

You yourself may be wondering, What is IPM?

For the past year, we worked under a CalRecycle grant to promote Integrated Pest Management (IPM) to the City of Thousand Oaks and the neighboring cities of Camarillo and Moorpark. We got to work and surveyed a number of local residents to gauge their understanding of IPM, where they struggle in the IPM process, and to assess their willingness to try IPM practices.


A few months ago, we mentioned that data on its own doesn’t mean a whole lot. Often times, due to an overwhelming amount of data collected, not much is done with that data. We decided to take the extra step with our findings, and identified how our data might prove useful for the City of Thousand Oaks in improving its strategy.

Meet Diane, Wendy, Frank, and Oscar:

Don’t be fooled, these aren’t actually real people—they’re personas. Using our data, we constructed these personas to help us create an effective outreach strategy for Thousand Oaks.

Just as we did in the case of Downtown Long Beach, we segmented our collective of data and transformed our findings into an actionable strategy for IPM outreach. By transforming data into character profiles, we were able to see how it applied to different segments of the community’s population.

With Diane, Wendy, Frank, and Oscar as our guides, SGA and the City of Thousand Oaks were able to create strategies and decisions based upon which persona our audience was most comparable to:

For the Wendy Willings, we focused on simply asking them to try IPM.

For the Diane Do-Gooders, we created a way for them to share their positive experiences. We gave these Dianes the opportunity to be champions of IPM amongst their neighbors.

For the Franks On-the-Fence, we recruited the Wendy Willings and the Diane Do-Gooders to influence Frank to give IPM a try.

For the Oscar the Outsourcers, we made them aware that toxic pesticides can cause serious harm to the community’s water resources and health, and encouraged them to pursue less toxic pest control services.

Thanks to these characters, we were able to use our data to simplify our target community in a simple, concrete, and memorable way.

The Secret Weapon to Motivating Change

In a sunny Southern California subdivision just outside of San Diego in 2003, a bunch of graduate students slipped into a quiet neighborhood and started reading electric meters. They were looking for an almost invisible force that was getting people to use less energy in their homes. And while they had a hypothesis, they needed hard facts, and what they were finding was surprising.

Like many of us who work with behavior change, the graduate students knew that figuring out how to get people to change is hard. It’s even harder when it comes to environmental issues. Why? Because the people who most need to change (i.e., non-environmentalists) are the ones least interested in making sacrifices for the planet.

In my previous blog Not All Motivators are Created Equal, I discussed the reasons environmental issues like climate change, water pollution and water conservation are such tough sells. Here, I’ll talk about a secret weapon to make those hard sells a bit easier.

Back to the graduate students lurking around people’s homes. The experiment actually began weeks earlier, when the grad students showed residents four versions of a brochure, each with a different motivation for saving energy and asked which one would motivate them most to use less electricity:

  1. Energy conservation helps protect the environment
  2. Saving energy saves you money
  3. Energy conservation is the socially responsible thing to do
  4. Your neighbors are already conserving energy

The most motivating message turned out to be protecting the environment, followed social responsibility, money and the neighbors. Great news, right?

Not so fast. The grad students then randomly placed door hangers with one of the four motivational messages at houses in a different part of the community. Every week for the next month, they returned to read the electric meters at each house to see how the door hanger may have influenced each resident’s energy consumption.

When the researchers tabulated the results, something strange happened. The results were almost exactly the opposite of what the residents had said in the first part of the experiment. Environmental protection and social responsibility had the least impact on energy use, and cost savings did only slightly better. The message about what their neighbors were doing (i.e., the social norm) had by far the best results. In fact, the households that had received the social norm message showed nearly a 10 percent reduction in energy use over the other three. Even more impressively, these savings continued after a month.

So what’s the moral of the story? First, we aren’t so great at predicting what actually influences our behavior. This is important to remember when conducting focus groups or market research. Second, while we like to think of ourselves as high minded and independent (especially in a culture where free-spiritedness is celebrated), much of what we actually do is influenced by the actions of those around us.

When putting together a program to motivate people about environmental issues, it is best to highlight the positive actions other people are already taking. Create materials that provide social proof or show an overall social norm. For most of us, real change isn’t about big ideas. It’s about the simple actions we are all taking. And as individuals, we don’t normally stray too far from the herd.

Not All Motivators are Created Equal [Guide]

In the late 1960s, Stanford University professor Walter Michel began his now classic “Marshmallow Experiments.” He offered four and five year olds a choice: they could have one marshmallow now (he put it in front of them) or, if they could wait 15 minutes, he would give them a second marshmallow.

Not surprisingly, most of the kids couldn’t wait and gobbled down their one marshmallow. But a few did show restraint. What Michel observed was that the ones that waited had found ways to distract themselves and focus on something else for the 15 minutes.

Michel followed these kids throughout school, college and into early adult life and found that those few kids that could delay gratification on average did much better in school, at work, and even in their marriage than those who gobbled down that first marshmallow.

Delayed gratification pays off. But it’s also hard, which is why we struggle to save money for retirement, exercise for long-term health and balance modern life with environmental impact. Smart behavior change campaigns have to overcome this difficulty all the time. Most people can understand the long-term benefit of change. It’s just that the far-away benefit is not as compelling a motivation as the small and immediate barriers and motivators.

For example, let’s take clean water. Many people will say that they are motivated to keep our creeks, rivers and oceans clean. That’s a big motivator. But when faced with the choice to pick up after their dog to keep the water clean, personal barriers (I don’t have a bag, other people leave theirs) and motivators (I want to be a good neighbor, this protects my kids) become far more powerful.

The fact is, we can’t focus on the big long-term motivators all the time. There’s too much uncertainty attached to them and the seductive gratification of our current behaviors is very compelling.

So how do we get around this seeming paradox? We shift our thinking about what makes a motivator effective. Most behavior change campaigns focus on the ultimate goal–the big environmental change or societal improvement that will occur if we just stay determined. To change behavior in a lasting way, we need to focus on short-term wins and immediate gains.

My next blog will show you the secret motivator to bringing about change in a meaningful way!