Think + Do » an exploration of nonprofit marketing and design

Behavior Change

Image of target with arrows all around - none of the arrows hit the targetI’m going on vacation later this week – a ten-day family road trip. Planning has been ongoing for weeks. At this point, packing clothes and food is all that remains of our preparation. Without being slaves to a rigid schedule, each day is marked by a goal. That goal is represented in most cases by a destination.

Even accounting for detours and bad weather along the way, shouldn’t our trip – like any worthwhile design or marketing initiative – really be measured based on whether or not we ended up where we intended to go?

Missing the point
Listening to someone evaluate the effectiveness of a given design, you may hear:

“It’s very creative.”
“People really liked it.”
“It helped build awareness of the brand.”
“It increased engagement.”

Applying the same standard to our family vacation, one could say:

“Nice shortcut.”
“We had fun.”
“We saw things we’ve never seen before.”
“It was great to spend time together.”

So, what’s wrong with that? Those are all good things. True. But what was the goal? We could accomplish any of those things without stuffing our possessions into the back of a car and driving thousands of miles.

Too often, I see a fundamental misunderstanding about what constitutes effective design. Organizations aim too low (“Make it look nice.”) rather than doing work that really matters. If you want to put butts in the seats, double your endowment, improve products and services, or move people to action, you need to change behavior.

The knowing-doing gap
For the professional trying to encourage behavior change and the people they are trying to influence, there is a substantial obstacle. People already know what to do.

After all is said and done, more is said than done. – Aesop

Self-improvement is a $10 billion per year industry in this country because the most likely purchaser of a self-help book is the same person who purchased one previously. Good intentions are undermined by short-attention spans, risk aversion, analysis paralysis, and other assorted distractions.

To turn knowledge into action, we need to focus less on what to do and more on how we can bring ourselves to do it.

Get more specific
The better a problem is defined, the better the solution. To enact a solution, we need to turn an abstraction – the recognition of an idea or truth – into a belief. For example, eating less and exercising more is an abstract approach to losing weight.

“I believe that if I eat less and exercise more, I will lose weight.”

This is a more powerful statement that can lead to a decision. The decision requires specifics. What is the need? What is the desired outcome? Who stands to benefit and why? What obstacles must I overcome? Is this problem actually many problems?

Assuming the belief in the idea remains, specific answers lead to root causes and direct actions. We must continually ask: What is one thing I could do today that will make this idea real?

“From this day forward, I will walk the dog for 15 minutes, twice every day, rain or shine.”

Getting to the root causes of a design or marketing problem requires similar rigor.

Tell a better story
Every great story is fueled by conflict – obstacles that seem insurmountable, villains who seem invincible. The conflict that most often expands the gap between knowing and doing is fear.

“That’s too risky. We always do it this way.”
“What if I fail? What if people laugh at me?”
“We better wait until our path is more certain.”

As a teenager learning to drive, I struggled with the manual transmission. I hated the noise of grinding gears when I missed shifting from first to second. Or, even more embarrassing, when the car stalled out and I had to restart it in the middle of an intersection.

The dominant story playing in my head was: You’re terrible at driving a stick shift. Things weren’t going to get better unless I found something better to replace that story. One day, looking around from the passenger seat, it hit me. There are thousands of people on the road. They may be different ages, different backgrounds, but they have one thing in common. They all successfully learned to drive. If they can do it, certainly I can, too!

In the earliest stages, when people are still considering a behavior change, a story needs to inspire. (You can do this!) Later, once they have made a decision to act, your story needs to reassure. (Everything is going to be okay.)

Great stories encourage us to think and act differently – to create a different reality or future. Creativity is not the ability to write or draw. Creativity is the ability to see – to bring a novel perspective to bear on a problem or issue.

Measure progress
Design and marketing should be focused on outcomes as much as aesthetics. How will we know if we are successful? This should be established at the outset, then tracked and reported on as your efforts unfold and evolve.

Successful behavior change requires a more systemic focus. It requires that design and marketing have access to and influence on other facets of the organization. The bigger the problem, the more difficult it becomes to unlock the results. Breaking your efforts down into smaller parts makes it possible to celebrate short-term victories as you pursue long-term changes. It also encourages adjustments to shore up areas that are lagging.

Project post-mortem meetings are a great way to share knowledge across an organization. What worked? What surprised us? Paraphrasing Albert Einstein: “If you want different results, you have to do something different.”

Time well spent
It is surprising how much time is spent on window dressing and how little time is spent on solving the real problems of real people.

I have warned clients that good design – good marketing – is no silver bullet. It can’t overcome poor products or service. It can’t fix myopic organizational decisions or misplaced priorities. What it can do – what it must do – is spend more time working toward meaningful behavior change. If not, like Sisyphus, we’ll be pushing that same rock up that same hill for eternity.

Time is short. Let’s start being more effective.

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