If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.

Abraham Maslow

The preceding seven chapters introduced a series of behavior change tools that can be incorporated into a community-based social marketing strategy. To showcase how to utilize these tools, a hypothetical program to foster the purchase of products with recycled-content will be introduced. Following this example, elements of effective strategy design will be discussed.

Imagine that barrier and benefit research identified the following barriers to consumers purchasing products that have recycled content: 1) these products are viewed as difficult to identify; 2) shoppers forget to consider whether a product has recycled content; and 3) buying recycled content products is not seen as the “right thing to do.” Knowing that recycled-content products are difficult to identify when shopping suggests that prompts could be effective in promoting these purchases. That consumers forget to consider these recycled-content products when making a purchase also suggests that prompts may be an effective tool in promoting the purchase of products with recycled content. Finally, that buying these products is not seen as the “right thing to do” indicates that an effective strategy will need to foster supportive social norms.

What might a community-based social marketing strategy look like which incorporates these behavior change tools? Prompts are most effective when presented at the time an activity is to occur. To encourage the purchase of recycled content products, prompts should be placed on the store shelves directly below these items. To assist shoppers in easily identifying these products, a graphic design that visually suggests the importance of purchasing recycled content products would be used. The prompt would also contain a brief explanation of why buying products with recycled content is important. Remember that for a prompt to be effective, it should contain all of the information that is necessary for someone to act appropriately. Occasionally, it is possible to overcome two barriers to a sustainable behavior with one tool. In this example, prompts make it significantly easier for shoppers to select products that have recycled content, while also increasing the likelihood that shoppers will remember to consider these characteristics when they are shopping.

How might social norms that encourage the purchase of recycled-content products be fostered? Asking shoppers to wear an “I buy recycled” sticker would assist in establishing descriptive social norms as well as enhance commitment to act. Nonetheless, the stickers would only be worn for a short time before being removed. A more permanent way to establish social norms would be to ask shoppers as they enter the store to sign a display in which they commit to purchasing products with recycled content. This display would not only foster the development of social norms, but would also serve as a reminder of their commitment each time they enter the store. Note that these two strategies are not mutually exclusive. We might ask shoppers to wear the sticker for one day in order to build presence for the campaign, while also asking them to sign the display in order to obtain a more permanent commitment. Since people wish to behave consistently, agreeing to wear the sticker and/or sign the display increases the likelihood that they will purchase recycled content products. Furthermore, having check-out clerks utilize injunctive social norms by thanking shoppers for making recycled content purchases would also assist in establishing this norm.

Recall that when developing a social marketing campaign we wish to reduce barriers to the behavior we wish to encourage, while concurrently increasing barriers to the behavior we wish to discourage. The use of the stickers and display will simultaneously lead to the purchase of recycled content products being viewed positively, while the purchase of non-recycled-content products will increasingly meet with social disapproval.

The proposed social marketing strategy deals with each barrier to the purchase of products with recycled content. However, simply selecting and incorporating the tools discussed in this book into a community-based social marketing strategy will not ensure its success. Prior to implementing a strategy broadly, it should be tested through focus groups and a pilot.


While focus groups can be used to explore barriers to a behavior, they can also provide useful information on the appeal and acceptance of a proposed strategy. To obtain feedback on the above strategy, several focus groups of six to eight individuals would be conducted. For each focus group, the purpose of the campaign would be explained and participants would be introduced to drafts of the proposed prompts, stickers, commitment display sign, and supporting materials such as brochures, posters and an informational video. Focus group participants would be asked whether these materials would capture their attention and if they are clear and easy to understand. Once feedback had been received on the materials, participants would be asked if they perceived any problems with the proposed strategy and if they had any suggestions for how it could be strengthened. Following completion of the focus groups, responses to the program materials and proposed strategies would be tabulated to uncover any themes in participants’ responses. Where warranted, the strategy would be refined based on the feedback received. After refining the strategy, the pilot is conducted.


When developing a community-based social marketing strategy, keep the following in mind:

  1. Select Tools based on Barriers and Benefits. Begin by selecting behavior-change tools based on the barriers and benefits that your research has uncovered. In doing this, use the following table for guidance. As the table indicates, if your target audience lacks motivation, three tools might be used.

    Lack of Motivation Commitment
    Forget to Act Prompts
    Lack of Social Pressure Norms
    Lack of Knowledge Communication
    Social Diffusion
    Structural Barriers Convenience

    Commitments are useful in enhancing motivation when your target audience believes that engaging in the behavior is worthwhile, but they have not yet acted. In contrast, norms can be helpful when your audience does not yet believe it is important to act. Finally, incentives are worth considering when there is little likelihood of the behavior occurring unless motivation is significantly increased. It is worth noting that normally you would not want to use all three of these tools to address the same barrier, as doing so is likely unnecessary and will increase your program delivery costs.

    When your target audience forgets to engage in the behavior, such as turning off their computer equipment, use prompts. In contrast, if few people care whether someone engages in a sustainable behavior this indicates that social norms are not yet operating and should be considered as part of your strategy.

    If your target audience lacks knowledge regarding a sustainable behavior, effective communications and social diffusion should be considered. Finally, if structural barriers exist to an activity, such as lack of shower facilities for cyclists who ride to work, addressing this barrier will make the behavior more convenient.

    This table is not meant to be exhaustiveother barriers to behavioral change exist. It is simply meant to illustrate that for each barrier identified, it will need to be addressed by a behavior change tool.

  2. Maximize the Effectiveness of Tools. Each behavior change chapter concluded with a checklist for the effective use of the tool covered in that chapter. Use these checklists to ensure that you maximize the impact of these tools.
  3. TACKLE SEVERAL BARRIERS WITH ONE STRATEGY. Look for the opportunity to tackle several barriers through the use of one strategy. In the chapter on commitment, an anti-idling window sticker was described. This window sticker served as a prompt to remind motorists to turn off their engines, as well as a form of public commitment. However, it also served as a method to develop descriptive norms and foster social diffusion. This one simple sticker, which cost only a few cents per vehicle, had four different behavior change tools built into it.
  4. USE PILOTS TO TEST ONE STRATEGY AGAINST ANOTHER. If you are uncertain which tool needs to be used, develop several community-based social marketing strategies, with each strategy using a different tool to address the same barrier. This will allow you to assess which of these tools can most effectively address the barrier.


Community-based social marketing relies heavily upon public consultation. As noted previously, the process of designing a strategy involves obtaining information from the community at three separate times. First, just after conducting the literature review, focus groups are conducted to obtain in-depth information on barriers and benefits to the behavior you wish to promote. Second, this information is supplemented by a survey, which provides further information about barriers and benefits, attitudes and present levels of involvement in the activity. Third, the proposed community-based social marketing strategy is reviewed in another series of focus groups which provide feedback on the planned strategy. These three steps help ensure that the strategy you devise will be well-tailored to your community.

This consultation should be part of the development of any community-based social marketing strategy. However, you may wish to add another opportunity for public involvement—active participation in determining which behaviors to focus on as well as engagement in developing the community-based social marketing strategy. Some organizations create a stakeholder consultation committee for this purpose. Whether you elect to create a stakeholder consultation committee, and if you do, when they become involved in the process is a matter of personal preference. My own preference is to create a stakeholder committee whenever the planned program is likely to be of special interest or concern (e.g., implementing user fees for garbage disposal), or when the activity you are attempting to promote is not well-understood and hence you need input from as many sources as possible.

If you decide to form a stakeholder committee, it can be formed at the outset (e.g., prior to the literature review), or after information from the literature review, observations, focus groups and survey have been collected and analyzed. Once again, when you decide to form the committee is a matter of personal preference. I prefer to create the committee at the outset if the program has any potential to be controversial in order to circumvent concerns about decisions being made without public input. On the other hand, early creation of the committee can make some initial parts of collecting information on barriers and benefits, such as the survey, torturous if not well-managed. Don’t place yourself in the position of writing a survey by committee. Do seek suggestions about potential topics that should be addressed in the survey, but avoid having the survey reviewed by the stakeholder committee.

Independent of when you elect to involve a stakeholder committee, you will need to decide beforehand what constraints will be placed upon the committee. For example, if council has made it clear that no subsidies will be provided for the installation of low-flow toilets, your committee needs to know at the outset what limitations have been placed upon the strategies that can be considered. If you are going to be acting as a facilitator for stakeholder meetings, remain impartial when receiving feedback from participants. Your role is to encourage constructive input on the design of a strategy. Remaining impartial will facilitate receiving the broadest feedback.

The following chapter introduces how to pilot test a community-based social marketing strategy.

Next Chapter » Step 4: Piloting