Ever since I cut my teeth in social impact marketing 13 years ago, working on the strategic market research for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Covering Kids & Families initiative and the American Heart Association’s You’re the cure advocacy engagement campaign, I continue to see a common theme across causes and organizations. Most efforts to promote the social good involve motivating people to defer a specific, immediate and tangible reward in the interest of a general, and amorphous future benefit. From my days as a clinical psychologist, I know this is not the easiest way to create behavior change. The easiest way involves immediate reinforcement of a desired choice — so how do we bridge the gap? How do we create a macro change in society with the micro choices of individuals?
The same strategic research highlighting the challenge also shows the pathway to success—identifying the higher-order motivating values that underlie individual decisions. In the case of the American Heart Association, if they stopped their strategy to engage advocates in reducing heart disease and stroke they would limit the pool of individuals they could mobilize. When they went to the higher order motivational gateways of making a difference and a sense of accomplishment, they could provide a reinforcement that was much more immediate and timely. Their focus became communicating to advocates that they had made a difference and done something worthwhile in that moment when they sent an email, called a town council member or showed up at a public meeting—you’re the cure rather than fighting heart disease and stroke. The cure was not a scientific breakthrough, it was a human breakthrough in personal action to communicate the importance of policies, regulations and funding decisions.
The key to success is ensuring that your actions and messages are truly rewarding and reinforcing for your target audiences—that’s why we emphasize the importance of people’s underlying and motivating values in our analysis, research, branding, messaging and communications. With a solid theory of change that identifies the specific behavior you want to change, you can be very precise and disciplined about immediately reinforcing the micro choices that will create macro change.