Top Three Public Outreach Takeaways: It’s All About People

Reflections before riding off into the sunset…

Shana McCracken and Lisa Duba co-founded Gigantic Idea Studio as one of the first marketing agencies dedicated to environmental outreach. After more than 13 years, Shana is moving on, and she leaves us now with some guiding thoughts as the Gigantic team continues this important work.

As my stint at Gigantic Idea Studio comes to a close, I can’t help looking back at the lessons I’ve learned. The big take-aways? Here are my top three for those working to promote environmental behavior change:

  1. More people care than you think. Writing off the public with a cynical “People just don’t care” does a disservice to more than just the public. It will also hold your organization back from achieving its behavior change goals. A study repeated annually in the U.S. consistently shows that only a small percentage of the population—hovering around 15%—could really be described as not caring about the environment. The problem is that many of us focus far more than 15% of our time and energy on this small segment, maybe because these people just plain bug us. Projecting their minority views onto the majority also gets us off the hook. After all, if nobody cares, what’s the point in doing outreach, right? In reality, there are plenty who are concerned about the planet. Our job as outreach professionals is to find out what else they need to put this concern into action. Some are confused about the finer points of participation or don’t realize they’re “doing it wrong.” Others want more reassurance that their actions matter. And still others have language or financial barriers. Identify the need and meet it as best you can.
  1. Norming, norming, norming. You can talk all you want about the merits of different tactics, but if you’re not communicating that the behavior you’re promoting is the norm as you deploy those tactics, it won’t be adopted by anyone but the Innovators. People want to know that what you’re asking them to do will be perceived as normal. So be bold and communicate a message of “everybody’s doing it” verbally, visually, any way you can. Not doing so will prevent green from going totally mainstream. The good news? We’re already there with the basics. We just need to be sure that each time we add a new “ask” to the list, it sounds perfectly ordinary as well as easy.
  1. Test your assumptions. Similar to the “people not caring” belief, we all have assumptions about how the public relates to our key issue (recycling, pollution prevention, energy conservation, etc.). We think we already know what they understand, how they feel and why they do what they do. Trouble is, without research, we’re probably wrong and, as a result, our outreach will be off-target and ultimately ineffective. The best way to find out what’s really going on inside people’s heads is to ask. Usually this is done by conducting a survey or a series of focus groups. (Have the budget for both? Even better!) Besides finding out what makes people tick, you need to know what they encounter when they finally engage with your organization or issue. For example, does your website deliver what your materials say it will? Don’t expect your constituents to tell you they couldn’t find the information they were looking for. Ghost shop! That means pretend you’re an average user and go through all the steps they would to complete an action or find some information. Better yet: Recruit friends or family members to do this for you. They’re less likely to understand jargon that you may take for granted and won’t have pre-conceived notions about the best path to a given piece of information. If they can’t find it on your site promptly and easily, it’s time to put some energy into improvements. The best part about this method? Anyone can do it and it’s free!

I could go on listing valuable lessons ‘til the proverbial cows came home, but I’m afraid it’s time for me to saddle up and mosey on down the trail. Good wishes and good outreach!

Bite-Sized Outreach: A Single-Material Campaign Focuses on Food Waste

A typical set of curbside recycling instructions can leave residents confused. At this year’s California Resource Recovery Association/SWANA conference in San Jose, Gigantic Idea Studio presented an alternative approach: make it bite-sized.

To kick off our session on behavior change outreach and food waste diversion, Wendy Wondersort (aka our own Stefanie Pruegel) hosted the Sorting Game, with NorCal competing against SoCal to win the coveted Golden Pizza Slice. One team was given a long, complicated list of recycling instructions. The other received more straightforward directions. Can you guess who won?

The golden pizza slice winner
And the winner of the coveted Golden Pizza Slice is…Deb Phillips of the San Joaquin Regional Conservation Corps!

The Sorting Game helped us demonstrate how too many messages can lead to poor recycling outcomes. To show a real-world example, we presented the concept and results of a single material outreach campaign conducted with our partners at the City of Livermore earlier this year. This “bite sized” campaign focused on one material – pizza boxes – and used multiple tactics to reach residents. The simple instruction: pizza boxes go in the green cart.

To make our outreach message memorable, we created a “story line,” where Binny, the hungry green Organics cart, visits with a Livermore family as a dinner guest and craves the delicious pizza box once the family is finished eating.

The slideshow below goes into detail on the strategy and tactics of this multi-touch campaign, including partnerships with businesses and community organizations, creation of a 30-second video and accompanying contest, and a combination of online and offline tactics to ensure that residents got the message.

Early results show an increase in the number of pizza boxes correctly sorted and a greater confidence in proper disposal amongst residents surveyed. The City of Livermore has been a great partner, and we look forward to piloting more single-material campaigns in the future and continuing to share outcomes.


There were many great questions at the end of our presentation at CRRA, and we wanted to share answers to a few of them:

What were ancillary benefits of the campaign?slide sample: multi-touch campaign

While focusing on one material, we were able to build a character and storyline around it that we can now leverage for other single-material campaigns. In addition to seeing some positive operational results, the campaign’s contest offered the opportunity to opt into receiving Livermore Recycles e-news updates; two-thirds of all contest entrants opted in to receive these news updates.

Is brand consistency between campaign and program recommended?

In general, it is a good idea to have a consistent look and feel for campaigns launched by an agency, and that was our strategy for this campaign. There may be instances when a more neutral or different campaign branding might be appropriate, if appealing to a segment like young people or those who might be distrustful or fearful of government agencies.

Could this type of campaign/strategy be scaled up to a regional or statewide level? 

A bite-sized approach can be scaled up or down, depending on the target audiences. However, a regional or statewide campaign may need to consider leveraging additional or different tactics from a local campaign.

Do you think this type of campaign could be applied to business outreach? 



Here are some resources we recommend for further reading on behavior change theory:

Diffusion of Innovations, Everett M. Rogers

Fostering Sustainable Behavior, Doug McKenzie-Mohr

The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell

Nudge, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein

Influence, Robert Cialdini

Ten Tips to Keep Earth Day Outreach Fresh

Image of woman blowing dandelion 05-13-10 © PhotoTalkEarth Day is now in its 44th year. This is surely something to be celebrated, but it also presents a challenge when it comes to making it feel fresh. I suspect this very minute government agencies and environmental nonprofits all over the U.S. and beyond are intensely brainstorming how to make this year’s Earth Day special. Maybe these 10 suggestions will help.

  1. Spotlight local issues. — Instead of tackling global climate change or pollution of the oceans, how about making your Earth Day event about something a little closer to home (not to mention more upbeat)? Some ideas: community gardens, food forests, repair cafes, clothing swaps, and bike share programs. There is so much going on at the local level related to sustainability. Use the energy surrounding these activities to inject some life into your own efforts.
  2. Make it about people, not trees.—I had a friend in college who, when I told her my major (Social Sciences with a concentration in Environmental Issues and Conservation), observed “I guess some people are people people, and some people are tree people” (relegating me to the latter group,). Make sure a visitor to your booth or event leaves understanding that Earth Day is about people, as are sustainable practices the rest of the year.
  3. Avoid visual clichés.—Use graphics other than the “whole Earth” or globe-type image. Your best bet? People – specifically, close-ups on faces and preferably faces that reflect your local demographics. Images of people performing the behaviors you want to encourage — whether it be recycling an unusual item, riding a bike or installing drought-tolerant landscaping — will make those issues come alive.
  4. Pick a theme.— Choose a topic to highlight this year and this year only. As with your graphic, select something more focused than the whole Earth. Making your event about a particular thing instead of Everything will go a long way toward making Earth Day relatable to your audience. Earth Day Network [] has declared this year’s theme Green Cities. Any organization, but especially a city, could build on this concept or come up with something else.
  5. Actively involve visitors.— Why not invite people in advance to bring clothing down to your booth and hold a swap meet right then and there? This will make a great photo opp for your Facebook page — and maybe the local paper — and it will engage your audience before, during and after the event. If a swap doesn’t quite fit in your case, brainstorm other ideas that will better support your message and still be fun and memorable.
  6. Swear off brochures.— Going paperless this year will force your team to come up with more creative ideas and will allow you to model very tangibly a low-waste behavior you’d like to see adopted throughout your community. After all, as interesting as we think our brochures and flyers are, they’re not likely to last more than a few days or hours before being put into the recycling bin (if we’re lucky). A less appealing scenario: Earth Day flyers littering the town square. It doesn’t take a PR expert to know that a spectacle like that would not be good for your agency’s image.
  7. Give the gift of experience. — Scrambling for giveaways again? How about giving visitors memories instead of tchotchkes? An experience of playing a game, sharing a story, having a picture taken with a silly mascot, … (insert your great idea here!) will be remembered far longer than a pencil or a keychain. The bonus? These photo-worthy moments will provide you with endless fodder for your social media.
  8. Remember the Next Day. — Earth Day can be a launch as well as a celebration. How can you reuse and recycle elements of Earth Day to extend the fervor and intention into year –round action?
  9. Listen up. — Use your presence at the event to gain insights into what matters to the citizens of your city. These learnings will pay big dividends in the months to come by saving you the time it would otherwise have taken to guess and by helping your outreach to be more on-target.
  10. Have fun.— This is perhaps the most important tip of all. We all work so hard to advance the cause of sustainability in our communities and the world. We owe it to ourselves and the planet to take at least one day a year to celebrate the progress we’ve made.



Behavior, Energy & Climate Change—Top Ten Takeaways from BECC 2013

The Behavior, Energy & Climate Change (BECC) conference is a favorite of the Gigantic team — one we look forward to every year. I attended this year’s event just two weeks ago and found it energizing and informative, as always. Following are ten of my favorite quotes and related inferences based on what I heard.

Emotional faces
Faces (and emotion) attract.

1. Debbie Slobe, Senior Program Director, Resource Media

Slobe presented on the Science of Successful Visual Communications. She cited research that tells us what works best, including close-ups on faces — and preferably not stock photos. She argued that “real people experiencing real emotion” are more likely to prompt action. “Make people feel, not think,” she declared.

2. Dr. Nicole Woolsey Biggart, Professor, UC Davis Efficiency Center

Dr. Woolsey Biggart noted that faith communities are the largest organizers of people in the U.S. Perhaps those of us doing environmental outreach would benefit from making better use of these extensive and long-standing networks.

3. Brian Orland, Professor of Landscape Architecture Penn State, Institutes of Energy & the Environment

One of the most refreshing aspects of BECC is the fact that human beings are put at the center of the energy efficiency discussion. Now it seems obvious that this is critically important, but it took years before anything but technology and infrastructure was taken into account. As Brian Orland observed, however: “Buildings don’t care if they save energy; people do.” The same goes for waste reduction, pollution prevention, … and the list goes on.

4. Melinda Briana Epler, Chief Experience Officer, Mazzetti Consulting

Epler offered advice about how to understand and influence your target audience. “It’s not about you; it’s about them,” she asserted. “Meet them where they are, and [include them in] the solution-making.” Who better to design an outreach campaign than actual members of the target group?

5. Greg LeBlanc, Lecturer, Haas School of Business and Boalt Hall School of Law, UC Berkeleyorange or candy

LeBlanc gave a fascinating presentation on a relatively new field of study: behavioral economics. The bottom line? Decisions are made by different parts of the brain at different times. Unfortunately, it’s usually the limbic or “reptile” portion of the brain that dominates when a decision impacts us, in the present moment. Example? Do you want an orange or a candy bar right now? The candy, right? But how about tomorrow? You’re likely to make the healthier choice for your future self. So how do you get people to turn down their thermostat or recycle their food scraps now? Activate the frontal region of the brain before making your request.


6. Mithra Moezzi, Research Faculty, Portland State University

Dr. Moezzi uses the framework of storytelling to learn from building operators* what their barriers and benefits are when it comes to promoting energy efficiency in their buildings. She found out that the most important thing for them is limiting complaints from tenants. My inference? Helping them reduce the amount of grumbling they have to listen to about offices being too hot, too cold and so on, will go a lot farther than appeals to their environmental values. Another tip: “Help the building operators look like heroes to their bosses.”


*(For those of us working in waste more often than energy, the equivalent role would be a property or facility manager.)

7. Kathryn Janda, Environmental Change Institute, Oxford University

Janda argued that we, as marketers promoting conservation, need to “tell a new story.” For her, it’s all about relevance. “What do people care about, and how can we activate that?” A few suggestions: responsibility, family, and caring over time.

8. Karen McCord, Marketing Specialist, Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD)

Ms. McCord told the audience that SMUD did “tons of research” before developing any of their campaign collateral and continue to do so on an ongoing basis. We know what a difference research makes as far as using the right tactics and messages, and we applaud SMUD for making it part of their outreach best practices.

9. Eric Olsen, Customer Energy Solutions, PG&E

Olsen was involved in a multi-year campaign targeting small businesses, one of the aims of which was to get them to switch from flat to time-of-use pricing. PG&E was hoping business owners would make other changes at the same time and thought this would be a convenience to their customers. However, the response to this was negative for the most part. The lesson for PG&E? “Make one significant change at a time.” Olsen noted they ended up allowing “a couple of years” to pass between the adjustments they asked their customers to make.

rsz_soyuz_astp_rocket_launch via Wikimedia
There goes your project!

10. George Lakoff, PhD, Professor of Linguistics, UC Berkeley

Lakoff reminded us during his keynote speech: “People reason metaphorically.” And flowing from that fact, a piece of advice: “Think very carefully about the metaphors you use.” You may not think you use metaphors in your outreach campaigns, but you do. We all do — whether we’re aware of it or not. They can be verbal or visual, but they’re there. As Lakoff put it, “Marketing is metaphor,” and the same could be said of outreach. An example? The question of whether to “kick off” or “launch” a new program might make all the difference, depending on whether you’re addressing football fans or space buffs.

Many of the conference presentations are available for download here.

The next BECC conference is December 7-10, 2014 in Washington DC. See you there?

Confessions of an Environmental Outreach Strategist

At Gigantic we have a favorite guerilla marketing example we like to show to our clients, and we refer to it often in our own campaign brainstorms as well: the running toilet video…

In the video, a toilet mascot running across the field at a football game gets tackled by a security guard, followed by the message “Denver Water asks you to stop running toilets.” It’s brilliant, it’s simple, it’s funny, it’s memorable. I’ve been touting it without hesitation and without any qualms about, um, the fact that I’ve had a running toilet at home for months.

Our leaky toilet shuts itself on and off as though it were haunted by some ghost with a bladder problem. It seemed like a relatively minor nuisance — until last Tuesday, when our water bill showed just how significant the leak really is. Comparing 2012 and 2013 over the same period, our water usage went up a whopping 50 percent!

rsz_toiletAs I said, I can’t claim that my husband and I weren’t aware the toilet was running. There’ve been many nights when the sound actually woke us up. We even tried to fix it once, but our repair job was only partially effective. (The ghost’s bladder issues seem to have subsided a bit, but the poor dear’s symptoms occasionally return with a vengeance.) And there are barriers to getting a new toilet: We forget, we have other things scheduled, we’re afraid to find out what other repairs might be needed in the bathroom if we looked too closely at our aging commode. And then there’s choosing the new toilet: we’d have to compare the water usage ratings, check Consumer Reports’ recommendations, make sure it’s just the right one — even though, truth be told, anything would be better than what we’ve got.

So I have lots of good reasons for not modeling the behavior I’ve been fervently, if indirectly, promoting. But there are some awfully good reasons why I need to be the first to change:

  1. Being credible. When I suggest that others “stop running toilets,” I’m implicitly saying this isn’t an issue that I have. No, I’m not lying, exactly. But I’m not being completely up-front, either. Modeling the behavior you wish to diffuse is key. Without this, you have no credibility. So what? No credibility means no buy-in from your target audience. Why should they do what you’re asking, if you’re not doing it yourself?
  2. Feeling the pain. You’ll understand how others perceive barriers and benefits if you go through all the steps of adopting the new behavior or innovation yourself. Then your next outreach campaign on the subject will be much more on-target and effective.
  3. Reaping the rewards. You yourself will save water, electricity, gas … whatever resource the new behavior or innovation addresses. Imagine that!

This is all a way of saying that behavior change outreach must begin at home. But I shouldn’t be telling you any of this yet, should I? I have a running toilet to tackle first.

Effective Outreach is Zero Waste Outreach

iStock_000001862125XSmallZero Waste is hot and the word is spreading, with zero waste goals and/or plans adopted in 13 jurisdictions in California and multiple communities in Italy, the Philippines, Canada and elsewhere. The recent Zero Waste Week activities in the Bay Area show that the principle of redesigning product life cycles in imitation of nature is taking hold more broadly than ever before.

While many in the environmental field understand the necessity of using natural resources wisely, all too often outreach resources are managed less prudently. In our years of working with agencies involved with bringing Zero Waste into the public’s daily life, we’ve evolved a few principles ourselves, which we call Zero Waste Outreach™.

Here are the elements that go into making an outreach campaign as efficient –  and therefore as close to Zero Waste – as any Cradle to Cradle® -designed product could ever be:

  • ALWAYS the first step: Make sure your organization is modeling the behavior(s) you’re trying to disseminate with your campaign. If needed, conduct an inreach campaign to make sure this is true before launching any outreach. This includes staff, your board, the hauler, … anyone the public may be looking to for leadership. Your credibility is one of your biggest sources of outreach capital.
  • Make research an integral part of your outreach, including pre- and post- campaign measurement;
  • Add communications-based targets to the more obvious operations-based objectives. Example: a measurable change in attitude, as well as tons diverted;
  • Agree on an overarching strategy (based on your research) before diving into tactics (See Glossary below);
  • Segment your audience by stage of behavior adoption below)to get the right message to the right people at the right time;
  • Come up with a brand (look and tone) for your campaign and stick to it;
  • Make events as effective as possible by making sure operations as well as communications are in place and continually checking in with one another. Example: Make sure organics recycling is available at the event where you’re exhibiting, if that’s the behavior that you’re promoting;
  • Integrate Social Media into your tactical mix from the start;
  • Pilot your campaign — or, even better, two or three versions, together with a control — to test your strategy, tactics and/or message before full roll-out;  and last but not least …    
  • Aim for a waste-free campaign, including estimating printing accurately (if printed materials are even needed) and selecting giveaways carefully.

Whether upstream or down, effective outreach is Zero Waste Outreach™. Because we don’t have a minute, or a dollar, to waste.



Inreach — Outreach internal to an organization, usually for employees.

Stages of Behavior Adoption — Per Diffusion of Innovations theory. The stages, in chronological order, are Awareness, Persuasion, Decision, Implementation and Confirmation.

Strategy — Guiding principle, logic, direction for your campaign. For example: Framing litter reduction in terms of improved real estate values. Emphasis on bottom-up, grassroots channels over top-down.

Tactic — A method or channel for communicating your message. Examples: bill insert, radio PSA, e-newsletter, Facebook page.


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.

The Business Case for Outreach – and Faith in Human Beings

at work in a MRFAre public agencies charged with waste diversion giving up on people too easily?

As an environmental outreach firm working in the solid waste realm, mostly for public agencies, Gigantic Idea Studio has a unique vantage point. We
have long observed a marked underinvestment in outreach by the majority of public agencies. Now these same agencies appear to be giving up on the public when it comes to full compliance and participation in curbside recycling and other resource recovery programs. “It just isn’t working,” or “This is just a community that is never going to cooperate,” are phrases we hear commonly these days. The presumed answer? Technology … such as dirty MRFs, for example.

Will Dirty MRFs Help Us Get to Zero Waste?

What’s a dirty MRF, you ask? Well, a MRF is a Materials Recovery Facility—traditionally an operation in which a combination of people and machines handle the sorting and other processing not taken care of prior to the recyclable materials being placed in curbside carts (or recycling dumpsters, in the case of businesses). At a dirty MRF, unsorted trash—containing all kinds of recyclable material is separated, mostly mechanically, at great expense. And now there are “wet MRFs,” that use water to separate and clean recyclables, and dissolve organic material. These systems require no sorting on the part of residents or businesses, who can throw anything and everything into their cart or dumpster. To many working tirelessly to increase diversion and even reach Zero Waste, this appears to be a wish come true. No more reliance on those pesky humans to do what you want them to, and no more mucking around in the messy business of communication. Or so it would seem.

Giving Up On People Too Soon?

But here’s the thing: wouldn’t it be more beneficial in the long run to change the public’s behavior around recycling? It seems to us that outreach hasn’t been given a proper chance, given the tactics, messaging, design and other communications components that have been used by agencies and haulers thus far. True public outreach is conducted strategically, methodically and unrelentingly—not just when a new program rolls out, but before, during and long after. Effective outreach, resulting in maximum participation by the majority of the public, takes an unceasing drum beat of consistent messaging, compelling professional design and tactics that meet people where they are: out in their communities, not just in their garbage bills. All of this takes resources: budgets of $20,000-60,000 a year in a community of 150,000 just isn’t going to cut it, especially when you remember that public agencies are competing with everyone else’s messaging for “mindshare,” including large corporations with multi-million dollar marketing budgets.

Weighing the Price of Investment: Technology Or Outreach

We can hear the cries of protest already: “If we spent $2.00 a person on outreach, we’d hear from our constituents, and it wouldn’t be pretty.” In a climate of economic downturn and diminishing support for government, we understand that spending on things like websites, recycling guides or exhibit booths can make an agency vulnerable to criticism, and we’re sensitive to that. But consider this: The price tag for building and running a typical dirty MRF runs into the many millions of dollars. If we were sitting in the walnut seats of the venerable City Council chambers around the State, we’d be more worried about the potential outcry about that! Beyond the financial bottom line is the ultimate goal of environmental outreach and a healthier planet And we believe that’s worth working and spending for.

Avoiding the Hero Trap in Environmental Public Outreach

Recycling Man Superhero
He’s super, but is he effective?

If you want to promote a behavior like recycling, appeal to your audience’s aspirations and call those who do the right thing “heroes.” Makes sense, right? We actually don’t think so. After some strategic musings, based on findings from a range of behavior experts, here’s why we think this common approach won’t work.

  1. According to the dictionary, a hero is “a person of superhuman qualities and often semi-divine origin …” In other words, a hero is someone who is special—by nature, outside the norm.
  2. Norming has been proven time and time again to be the most powerful strategy in changing behaviors. To norm a behavior, you want to give the impression that it is literally the normal thing to do. As sophisticated and independent as we like to think we are, the “everyone’s doing it” argument works best with us humans.
  3. So if heroes aren’t normal, and we all want to be normal, it follows that we don’t want to be heroes. Another way to put it is that heroes are anti-norming. (They wear tights in public, after all. Ack!)

But whom to put forth as a model of your target behavior, if not a hero? Why, Clark Kent, of course! Or, if you prefer, Joe Blow, the girl next door, Everyman. Clark will be your best influencer precisely because he is not special.

We recommend featuring a person who appears to be just like the average member of your priority group—in every way but one: the desired behavior. Clark lives in your neighborhood, dresses like you, has the same level of education and makes about the same amount of money as you do. The only difference is he recycles his food scraps, and you don’t. Better yet: Clark and all the rest of your neighbors recycle their food scraps. Sadly, you’re the last one on your block who doesn’t.

The message is two-fold: one, if you aren’t currently practicing a certain behavior (recycling food scraps, for example), you’re standing conspicuously outside your peer group; and two, if you do begin practicing the behavior, we promise you won’t stand out.