The Inconvenient Truth About Community-based Social Marketing

I always feel a bit deflated when I meet someone and they ask, "How's your bulb organization?" or refer to me to others as "The Bulb Guy."

"You guys hand out CFL bulbs, right?"

Okay, so maybe that's how One Change started -- by getting neighbors and friends to ring doorbells and give out bulbs as a simple action to help people save money and cut pollution. And we have moved a lot of bulbs: 3.8 million so far, with the help of 14,000 volunteers in over 1,200 communities from Old Crow, Yukon, to Newark, N.J. Oh, plus 160,000 digital tire gauges and (very shortly) 40,000 water conservation kits. I'm a bit worried about becoming known as the "toilet dude." More on this another time.

What people go on to ask after I share these statistics is, "Why do thousands of people of all backgrounds gladly volunteer to attend training sessions and wear brightly colored t-shirts to knock on doors to hand out little things?"

The answer is pretty simple and can be summed up in a comment I hear regularly at training events and volunteer appreciation parties in New Jersey.

"Thank you for letting me volunteer. It's not often our community opens up like this. It's great to be able to talk to my neighbors and to do something so positive."

See, the thing is, it's not about the bulb. There's a pent-up desire out there for positive, accessible action.

There are some important lessons here that need to be put in context. Consider how approaches to energy and environmental marketing have changed.

First, there was information to drive awareness. The theory was that once people knew the facts, they would act. This failed. After decades of awareness-building, including everything from street protests to Al Gore's Oscar-winning film, there are still four billion incandescent bulbs burning in the United States. Clearly, information alone can't get people to do even the simplest thing.

Then marketers and program developers turned to product distribution to turn awareness to action. Surely, mass mail-outs of free products, or buying down the cost of energy efficient products at retail would tip the balance. Nope. Turns out a stack of free CFLs in a community center, at an eco-fair or in a big box store are, well, just free bulbs. And buy-down programs are rife with free-ridership and consistently fail to meet their targets.

So then we started to hear about social marketing. The notion was that reinforcing awareness messages with personal testimonials would help. And it did, a bit. But increasingly, people tune out the ubiquitous politically correct clip art and polished feel-good messaging. It's not real.

Where does this leave us? You've probably heard a lot lately about the newest buzz-phrase: Community-based social marketing (CBSM). Emerging from behavioral science research, CBSM is a methodical, research-based approach to marketing that first attempts to identify barriers to behavior change. Simple questions like "So why don't people check their tire pressure regularly" sheds light on often simple things that can become the key messages of a community-focused effort. Believe it or not, people are more likely to check their tire pressure regularly if they use a digital tire gauge that is hanging from their key chain (not lost under the seat or in the bottom of the glove compartment out of sight and mind). Simple, right?

CBSM is a rich and multifaceted marketing approach that holds enormous promise as we work to promote and normalize green choices and behavior. Basic principles such as the power of reciprocity, social norming, verbal commitment, and the impact of multiple (and diverse) points of contact provide our best hope to transform society.

But, ironically, there are barriers to adoption of the CBSM approach itself. Running a "by-the-book" CBSM program is beyond the reach of most cash-strapped municipalities and does not fit easily within the regulatory framework of major utility energy and environmental program portfolios.

So where does this leave us? Let's take the CBSM textbook and boil it down to digestible bites. We can identify barriers by engaging people where they live, by running low-cost marketing campaigns that redirect ad dollars to door-to-door. We need to harness the power of real people who are eager to engage each other with positive messages about local action. Every step needs to be documented so lessons can be learned and shared. And all marketing campaigns must include measurable, immediate environmental benefits, but also cater without shame to the marketing self-interest of corporate sponsors.

In short, we need to throw more mud against the wall and see what sticks. It's not perfect, but life is already messy and inconvenient and we can't wait for everyone to fully understand what we're doing. So "Yep, I am the bulb guy."

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