If you've been to a hotel recently, you've probably been subject to a social experiment. Ever notice that card in the bathroom asking you to consider the environment and reuse your towel? That was an experiment in behavior-change communications work.

Behavior change communications specialists are trying to figure out how to persuade people to adopt a healthy behavior, like conserving water by reusing hotel towels. Researchers Noah Goldstein and Robert Cialdini (2008) decided to take on this particular challenge. To do it, they applied constructs from social psychology like social norms to influence the guests’ behavior. They got remarkable results.

Researchers divided hotel guests into three groups. Each group received one of the following messages on their towel placard:

Message 1: Please consider the environment and reuse your towel. (Control group.)

Message 2 (Hotel): Please consider the environment. Most guests in this hotel reused their towels. (Guests were 26 percent more likely to reuse their towel.)

Message 3 (Room): Please consider the environment. Most guests in this room reused their towels. (Guests were 33 percent more likely to reuse their towel.)

The results suggest that what your mom told you about peer pressure is true: People do what they think others are doing. Guests who believed that most hotel guests were reusing towels were 26 percent more likely to reuse the towel. When told guests who stayed in their room reused towels, guests were 33 percent more likely to do the same, even though the connection between the current and past guests was purely arbitrary (Goldstein & Cialdini, 2008).  

The towel experiment demonstrates that it can be easy to impose an identity on someone. Playing off social norms can significantly influence behavior. And, as marketers, isn’t that what we’re trying to do?

What is behavior change communications?

Much like commercial marketing, behavior change practitioners are trying to figure out what motivates their audiences, remove barriers to taking action and understand the emotional triggers that prompt change. The key difference between traditional product marketing and social marketing (the approach most frequently used in behavior change campaigns) is the aim to benefit society. Examples include campaigns encouraging people to exercise regularly, quit smoking, use condoms, sleep under a mosquito net, etc.

How can this impact my marketing strategy?

Behavior change typically focuses on changing long-term behaviors, applies behavioral theory and requires rigorous measurement of outcomes and impact. Digital marketers can benefit from adopting some relatively simple best practices traditionally used in behavior change efforts. Here’s how:

Use behavior change models to inform strategy.

Behavior change models are well-researched explanations for why people behave the way they do. For example why do I recycle? Is it because I’ve seen the behavior modeled? Is it because I think my neighbors will respect me for it? The National Cancer Institute has a good overview of behavioral models.

Understand social norms and emotional triggers that drive your audience.

The Washington Traffic Safety Commission wanted to increase seatbelt usage. The organization held focus groups and tested positive messages like “We love you. Buckle up,” but they simply did not motivate the target age group of 18-24 year olds. Messages like “Click it or ticket,” which stressed the penalty for not wearing a seatbelt were far more effective (Lee & Kolter, 2004).

Frame issues in a way that resonates with your audience.

The Chesapeake Bay is famous for blue crabs. In 2003, the crab harvest hit a historic low, partially due to harmful lawn fertilizer that polluted the bay. So the Academy for Educational Development, the Chesapeake Club and partners came up with a clever campaign to persuade people to wait until the fall, after crab season ended, to fertilize their lawns. With ad slogans like “protect the crabcake population,” the organizations reframed the environmental issue as a culinary one. As a result of the campaign, the number of people who planned to fertilize their lawn in the spring dropped from 52 percent in 2004 to 39 percent in 2005 (Lee & Kolter, 2004).

Be aware of barriers to behavior change and try to overcome them.

This can be as simple as timing a tweet correctly. Being aware of the most effective time, place, and channel for reaching your audience is critical.

Make participation fun, easy, and popular.

This is an often-repeated behavior change axiom. It links back to the behavioral models, which emphasize self-efficacy and motivation (fun), reducing barriers (easy) and social norms and social support (popular). 

So the next time you see a placard on a hotel towel rod or you skip out on exercising or your marketing campaign is struggling to take off, consider applying some basic behavior change communications strategies.

Did I mention that most people who read this article shared it on their social networks?

Erin Schiavone is a senior communications analyst at Deloitte Digital. Previously, she supported communications for United States Agency for International Development health programs, frequently capturing stories on the ground. She received her MA in Communications from Johns Hopkins University.