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Using community-based social marketing to enable greater change

Do we rely too much on workshops, brochures and fact sheets to promote behaviour change? These information intensive approaches generally don’t work (at least if that’s all we’re doing), so what might be better? In this episode, we’re going to delve into a particular area of behavioural science called community-based social marketing (CBSM). 

Some psychologists refer to conventional information-based programs as being information intensive. These programs rely solely on the distribution of information through fact sheets, brochures, web pages, radio, television, or ads in newspapers as their way of promoting changes in behaviour. It’s also known as the information deficit model, where we assume our target audience are ignorant and are just waiting for us to fill their heads with useful information.

Here is a quick case study to demonstrate our point. Scott Geller, a Professor of psychology at Virginia in the US, organised a three-hour energy-efficiency workshop with 40 attendees who responded to an advertisement in the local newspaper (Geller, 1981). Did you catch that? A three-hour workshop, and they were already highly motivated to make their homes energy efficient, as they had responded to the ad. Scott measured their energy efficiency attitudes and knowledge before the workshop and afterwards, and their attitudes and knowledge shifted substantially as a result of participating in the workshop. So you’d expect that their behaviour would change too.

However, when it was evaluated, only one person had lowered the temperature on their hot water heater, two had put blankets around their hot water heaters (though they had done this before the workshop!), and eight had installed low-flow showerheads. That last figure may sound impressive, as it is nearly 25% of the participants. However, the sad fact is that every single person at the workshop was given a low-flow showerhead, but only eight installed them. Remember, they had already attended a three-hour workshop, yet did not take the five minutes to change their shower head! 

Here is a second quick case study. Unlike the previous one, most programs do not directly engage their target audience, but rather simply distribute information to them. In this example, an organisation in the US prepared a water-use handbook that cost them $50,000 to produce and distribute. Half of the community received the handbook while the other half did not. Each household in the community was individually water metered, so it was fairly easy to determine the impact. So, what impact did the distribution of the handbook have upon water use? Zero, absolutely none. Sadly, the simple distribution of printed material has often been found to have little or no effect upon behaviour. We should stop believing that the use of these materials is likely to result in changes in behaviour. For further examples, see McKenzie-Mohr (2000).

So why are information intensive programs so prevalent? Information products can be relatively quick and easy to create, and they are easy to distribute – so they are expedient and allow us to tick the box and say ‘Done’! Plus, our government funders love them for photo opportunities. Finally, we traditionally measure outputs rather than outcomes. That is, we’re measuring the number of brochures that we have distributed, rather than whether we have actually changed behaviour.

So, let’s introduce community-based social marketing (CBSM) which combines knowledge from psychology with the field of social marketing. It emphasises understanding the barriers that exist within a community to the behavioural changes that are being advocated. Further, it stresses the importance of the ‘social’ aspects of the behaviours we adopt, such as interpersonal communication, social diffusion and social norms. Doug McKenzie-Mohr has popularised this approach and has written the book Fostering sustainable behavior. The book is full of good examples and details the steps involved. He also runs workshops on this topic, and John has had the pleasure of attending both the introductory and advanced ones. 

There are five steps and the first step is to select the behaviours we want to target. We will now work through an example that Doug gives in his book. Let’s say we want to reduce energy usage. Some research would show us there are various sectors we could target. In Canada, where Doug lives, energy use is as follows: industrial (39%), transportation (30%), residential (16%), commercial/ institutional (13%) and agriculture (3%). Due to the funding of his program, he chose to focus on residential energy consumption.

Due to the cold winters in Canada, there is no surprise that space heating is the largest use of energy in the home. He chose to focus on the water heating use, which accounts for 18% of energy use. Further research shows us that there are five non-divisible behaviours that affect hot water heating: install a low-flow showerhead, turn down the thermostat on the hot water heater, install a blanket around the hot water cylinder, install on-demand hot water, or take shorter showers.

At this point we need to talk about terminology. Non-divisible behaviours are those that cannot be subdivided any further. For example, if we look at adding insulation to the home, that could be roof insulation, wall insulation or basement insulation. Why does that matter? It’s because each behaviour has specific barriers. For instance, it’s often much cheaper to put insulation into the roof of a house and it’s done in a matter of hours, whereas to put it in the walls of a pre-existing house can take days to peel off the cladding to then add the insulation. We also talk about end-state behaviours, meaning it produces the desired outcome. For example, purchasing low energy light bulbs is not the end-state. Installed low energy light bulbs are the end-state. Remember back to the case study where every single workshop participant was given a water efficient shower head but only 25% of the participants bothered to change them over!

We now need to compare the behaviours to decide which one to promote. There are three characteristics we look at: the level of impact of the behaviour, how probable is it that the target audience will engage in the behaviour and finally, what level of penetration has the behaviour already obtained with the target audience? For each of these, there are rigorous and less rigorous ways of gathering the data.

We can then populate a table comparing the potential impact from the various behaviours. For example, this table shows five different behaviours, such as purchasing green power or using cold water only in our washing machines. It shows the estimation of household reductions in CO2 emissions that are associated with homes, listing the amount of greenhouse gas used for each. The probability figures come from a random sample of homes that were surveyed regarding the likelihood of engaging in these and other behaviours. The penetration values are largely made up as they weren’t available, and are merely an estimate as to the number of homes already using the behaviour. Multiplying these figures provides us with a weighting, allowing us to then choose the behaviour that is most likely to deliver the greatest impact. 

The second step is to uncover barriers and benefits of the selected behaviour. There are four methods that can be used for this: a literature search, observations, focus groups and surveys. We will not go into the details for each, as you are probably familiar with them. Doug covers them fairly thoroughly in his book as well. 

The third step is to develop a strategy. We now want to address two behaviours simultaneously: the behaviour to be encouraged and the behaviour to be discouraged. We want to reduce barriers and increase benefits of the behaviour to be encouraged, and the reverse for the opposing behaviour. This is where we can use a variety of tools from behavioural science, including commitments, social norms, nudges and incentives. 

Let’s for example say we’re creating a program to encourage cycling to work. If we only focused on encouraging cycling, we might create bike lanes and encourage workplaces to have shower facilities. While these may reduce the barriers, many commuters might still see driving as more convenient. To alter these perceptions, we need to increase the barriers and reduce the benefits of driving. Perhaps we might put a carbon tax on fuel, reduce the number of parking spaces or increase the parking fees. These discourage driving and make cycling to work more attractive.

The fourth step is to pilot our strategy. There are particular methodologies to make this more effective. Random selection and random assignment are hallmarks of effective pilot programs. Random selection refers to obtaining our pilot participants in such a way that they’re representative of the larger community to which we will eventually deliver our program. In contrast, random assignment refers to placing our participants in our control or strategy groups, based simply on chance. Random assignment allows us to assert that it was our program, rather than pre-existing differences between our groups, that was responsible for a successful pilot. The addition of a control group makes this a much more effective pilot. The control allows us to ascertain if observed differences between the pre-test and post-test are occurring because of something other than our program.

The fifth and final step is to implement broadly and then evaluate. Since we’ve collected baseline data at the beginning of the program, we’ll be able to easily compare the difference our intervention has made. We then write the final report and celebrate our success with our team.

So there you have it! Instead of relying on information intensive approaches, you might like to consider CBSM. John’s been involved with a couple of CBSM programs, and his experience is that it’s a rather slow, long-winded process, as it’s very rigorous. But no-one said change would be easy! Most of the examples and case studies published relate to environmental programs and we’ve only found a few that relate to agricultural production. John’s currently helping design a program in Victoria that’s using CBSM to reduce the number of farm fatalities. It’s still at the funding stage and it’ll be interesting to see how it goes. All we know is that it’s highly likely that CBSM will be more effective than the traditional information intensive approaches. 

Well, you’ve heard our thoughts, now we’d like to hear yours! Add a comment below the blog post and tell us about your experiences with CBSM, including any tips and further ideas about it. We don’t want this to be just a one-way conversation—join in by sharing your thoughts and ideas with us! 


Geller, E. S. (1981). Evaluating energy conservation programs: Is verbal report enough? Journal of consumer Research, 8(3), 331-335.

Geller, E. S., Erickson, J. B., & Buttram, B. A. (1983). Attempts to promote residential water conservation with educational, behavioral and engineering strategies. Population and Environment, 6(2), 96-112.

McKenzie‐Mohr, D. (2000). New ways to promote proenvironmental behavior: Promoting sustainable behavior: An introduction to community‐based social marketing. Journal of social issues, 56(3), 543-554. Available online.

McKenzie-Mohr, D. (2011). Fostering sustainable behavior: An introduction to community-based social marketing. Canada: New Society Publishers. 

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Graham Harris
Graham Harris
1 year ago

Thanks for this post on CBSM. Look forward to hearing about experiences with its use in agriculture. We do have a tendency to fall back on producing information intensive outputs in our work.

Michele Buntain
Michele Buntain
1 year ago

HI Denise and John, Love your podcasts! I fully agree and feel a lot of frustration with the preference for information intensive approaches. However in defence of workshops – I think it is all in the design of these and how you supplement with other approaches as to how effective they are. Look forward to your next episode – great at keeping me thinking about doing things differently

David Bicknell
David Bicknell
1 year ago

I am a great supporter of the principles explained by Doug in the CBSM approach. The main ones being target specific end-point behaviours for specific, and make unwanted behaviours more difficult. Managers always want big ‘outcomes’ as thought they can just make that happen, when all they can really do is try to influence adoption of very discrete behaviours.

John King
John King
1 year ago

You guys need to have a chat with Graeme Hand (Hand for the Land) about his adaptation of CBSM and how he combines that with Dave Snowdon’s Cynefin Framework for problem-solving to change grazing management behaviour He works in Tassie, Victoria, NSW and SA…..

Darren Hickey
Darren Hickey
1 year ago

Thanks for this one – we seem to be relying too much on websites, fact sheets etc especially in the area of ag recovery from natural disasters, as well as day to day farm management topics. Like you say its quick and easy and ticks the box but are we actually changing behaviours? No idea. Probably not a lot.

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