It takes time; Encouraging behaviour change amongst the population


Preparation, patience and a willingness to play the long game

These were some of the insights shared by Lisa Cohen, National Programme Manager of Scottish mental health programme See Me. Lisa recently gave a seminar in Wellington about engaging populations to create positive social change, hosted by the Health Promotion Agency and Superu.

Many of the factors she raised that contribute to and hinder the success of social marketing programmes are the same ones we’ve been thinking about at New Zealand’s Social Marketing Network*. In particular, we’ve been examining the challenges faced by two distinct groups – practitioners (the ones designing and conducting social marketing programmes) and authorisers (the ministers, managers or chief executives who create the budget parameters, timeframes and programme boundaries).

Some of these are worth giving a wider airing. Combining some of Lisa Cohen’s lessons with discussions we’ve been having on this same topic in New Zealand, here are four factors that contribute to the environments for creating real and sustained social change.

1. Programmes, not campaigns

Social problems require a systematic response, and social marketing, in its true sense, requires a programme approach. Too often, we hear talk of “social marketing campaigns” – generally one-off or single-layer interventions, often advertising based. But while advertising campaigns can be powerful, on their own they rarely change behaviour.

A campaign, says Lisa Cohen, may be a part of a social marketing programme, but it’s crucial to think about the programme as a whole.

The challenge here for social marketers is that the advertising campaign is something you outsource; it’s finite, tangible, and easy to measure. Programme authorisers often ask for the campaign, without also demanding the rigour of a broader programme.

The trouble is, there’s not much sizzle in an integrated programme. They have less well-defined boundaries, tend to be slower to build, and less glorious to trumpet. But they also work better and – in the long run – are more cost effective. So our call to practitioner and to authorising forces is to demand and invest in programmes, not just campaigns.

2. Co-design, collaborate and engage (don’t preach)

Engage and involve the target audience in programme identification, design and implementation as much, and as soon, as you can. The sooner you do, the more you invest in meaningfully gathering and implementing their input, the better the results in the long term. In the Scottish See Me programme, it’s possible to see the strengthening of the programme (in terms of its reach and impact), the more they involved the voices of people with lived experience of mental illness in their programme planning.

Lisa Cohen says it’s all about talking to people – reaching them one conversation at a time.

The requirement for practitioners, therefore, is to identify communities early on, and engage them meaningfully in programme design and development. And for programme authorisers this means giving your teams the time and space to do this respectfully and properly.

3. Be specific about the change you want

The See Me programme put real effort into clearly identifying the specific actions people could take to make a difference and targeted those actions to specific audiences.

In New Zealand, in our rush to implement, we often keep our programme goals vague and our calls to action general. Being specific requires patience and a robust analysis (including audience research) to properly understand your programme goals and the behaviour you’re seeking.

To increase the likelihood of positive change occurring, practitioners and authorisers alike need to adopt the discipline of being very clear about exactly whose behaviour they want to change, and what they want them to do.

4. Invest in the planning process

Lisa Cohen said they were intially put in the difficult position of creating a campaign before they had a programme in place – “building the plane while we were flying it”.

That’s certainly something we experience in New Zealand, and while this is frustrating for practitioners, that’s not the real problem. The real problem is the potential financial and social costs of this ad hoc, tactical approach to addressing social problems. The costs include, at worst, creating a campaign that has negative impacts and causes unintentional harm. Other risks include wasting public funding and depleting sector, stakeholder and public goodwill.

To successfully create positive social change will require a stronger and more robust authorising environment that understands the value of a programmatic approach and properly engaging with citizens.

It might take time, but to quote Sun Tzu, it’s the slow route to victory.

* Tracey Bridges is the chair of New Zealand’s Social Marketing Network. She also sits on the board of the Australian Association of Social Marketing.