University of Vermont

Snowy Day

Community-Based Social Marketing with Doug McKenzie-Mohr

by James Wilcox, 2010-2011 CEF Education and Outreach Fellow

Political action, community organizing, technological development, and policy change are all key components to sustainable transition, but what about the myriad instances in which people need to take action in their everyday lives? Community-Based Social Marketing offers a proven, research-based process through which to effect change at the level of individual behavior. This approach can succeed where information campaigns and appeals to rationality often fail. On April 7 and 8, my colleagues, Office of Sustainability Fellow Anna Mika and Recycling and Solid Waste Manager Erica Spiegel, and I travelled to Toronto to participate in a Community-Based Social Marketing (CBSM) workshop offered by Doug McKenzie-Mohr, a social and environmental psychologist and an expert on fostering sustainable behavior, a topic about which he literally wrote the book.

What was most striking to me about CBSM was its precision, a quality McKenzie-Mohr took time to highlight and emphasize during our two-day session. Through a literature review and empirical research, CBSM practitioners are called upon to identify "non-divisible," "end-state" behaviors and to identify barriers and benefits to their enaction and adoption. Next comes the selection of effective strategies to promote behavior change, which McKenzie-Mohr has identified from the social psychology literature and from empirical studies of CBSM campaigns. Interestingly, the most common types of strategies, information campaigns and appeals to economic rationality, have been shown to be ineffective at promoting behavior change. McKenzie-Mohr suggests other, more nuanced strategies, such as asking community members to make public commitments, promoting or building towards social norms, designing prompts into campaign materials, or taking steps to make the desired behaviors more convenient, instead. Before widespread implementation, a pilot campaign is also highly recommended to test for general efficacy and unintended outcomes.

CBSM seems appropriate for many scenarios and it can be implemented by a diverse array of groups, from college and university offices to non-profit organizations to government agencies, and encouragingly, representatives from the latter made up the majority of the audience in our workshop session. I believe that CBSM, especially when combined with additional, open-ended ethnographic research methods, can be an effective approach to fostering sustainable behavior.