Igniting Your Early Adopters: What’s Wrong with Preaching to the Choir?

preaching to the choirWe hear it all the time from folks looking to promote an environmental program or behavior: “We don’t want to preach to the choir.” This old adage is quoted so often, it must be true, right? Wrong. When it comes to behavior change, it turns out that preaching to the choir is actually the answer to your outreach prayers!

Why focus on choir members and not the unconverted, you ask? After all, isn’t it the sinners who cause all the trouble in the first place? Maybe so, but the return on investment you’ll get from chasing after those sinners will be low. You only have so many hours in the day and so many outreach dollars to spend. A tried and true choir member — or Early Adopter in marketing parlance — will influence countless others, while your run-of-the mill sinner, or Laggard, isn’t likely to influence anyone at all. And this only if you achieve the near-impossible and successfully convert him to your cause at long last. The fact is, Early Adopters and Laggards are different by nature, so you can pretty much count on your choir member whistling a happy tune to all her friends while Laggard Larry hum-bugs away at home.

Keep ’em Singin’!
If you’re lucky enough to have found yourself with a good-sized choir coming to church every week — not to mention those tiresome rehearsals — don’t let them get away! For example, you’ve got a high curbside recycling participation rate in a certain neighborhood. That’s fantastic, but now’s not the time to rest on your laurels. Have a behavior confirmation campaign at the ready, or you risk hearing only crickets in the pews once again.

What’s a confirmation campaign? It can employ any number of tactics, but it always involves some sort of expression of gratitude. A simple “Thanks for recycling!” inserted into the next trash bill mailing would be a great start. This, plus a little concrete feedback (“You recycled 5,000 tons last year alone!”) serves to reinforce the desired behavior and help sustain it into the future. Without that, you can actually lose those valued members of your flock, who begin to think their efforts aren’t being noticed or making a difference after all.

Add a New Song to Their Repertoire
Another nifty thing about the so-called Confirmation stage of behavior adoption is that you can often successfully “piggy-back” a new habit onto the old. You say you’ve already got over 50% of your community recycling yard trimmings? Wonderful! Now get them to add food scraps or, for those already doing that, food-soiled paper. It’s like asking a choir to try some new material that’s a bit more challenging. And, while you’re at it, mobilize them to recruit new members. After all, you can’t do it all yourself, and your choir members are your biggest allies.

Recruit Soloists from the Ranks
Certain choir members are likely to stand out from the rest. If you work for a public agency, this is the guy who shows up at every board meeting, the lady who volunteers every year for your Earth Day clean-up event, or the high school kid who just won your poster contest. These are people who are already engaged and, best of all, they got that way of their own accord. Once again, it’s that ROI staring you in the face: “I’m going to give you a big return on a small investment!,” they’re saying through their stellar actions. Why not invite them to engage further by joining a steering committee, becoming a volunteer captain for next year’s event or doing a presentation at their school? This is how an outreach program gets rolling on its own.

The Coda
A final note: We hope by now it’s clear that good outreach takes more than faith (although a good dose of hope and optimism doesn’t hurt). Outreach that produces real and lasting behavior change requires a strategic approach. Sometimes that means doing precisely the opposite of what “common sense” tells you to do.

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