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Shoreline armoring reduction project at Hidden Beach, Whidbey Island. Photo: Department of Ecology Coastal Atlas

Social marketing basics for Puget Sound recovery

The following article was commissioned by the Habitat Strategic Initiative Lead (HSIL), a cross-agency team co-led by the Washington Departments of Fish and Wildlife and Natural Resources.

Are you interested in responding to a Request for Proposals from the Puget Sound Strategic Initiative Leads with a project that involves behavior change? Curious about why or how to incorporate “social marketing” into your proposal? This overview explains social marketing and describes a few key concepts using examples from three local social marketing campaigns. Included at the end are some resources to help you get started with your own project.

What is social marketing?

Traditional education and outreach programs aim to increase awareness of a problem. Behavioral science tells us that a small percentage of people will change their behavior once they learn about an issue, but most do not act when simply provided with information. Most people need to receive some type of benefit that outweighs any obstacles to a preferred action or practice. Social marketing is a structured approach to identify barriers and motivators for a specific behavior from the perspective of the intended audience. This information is then used to design a suite of incentives that promotes the target behavior. Social marketing—often wrongly conflated with social media—is a discipline that has delivered lasting social change for decades.

Here, we illustrate a few steps in the social marketing campaign development process using examples from three local efforts supported by Habitat Strategic Initiative Lead funding: Start Here!, Shore Friendly, and the Regional Forestry Stewardship Program.

Selecting a target behavior

When identifying the actions that individuals can take to help achieve your program’s goals, experts recommend being as specific as possible and focusing on one behavior at a time. Also consider which behaviors have the highest impact and are most likely to change.

A white car with a blue vinyl wrap image of trees and an excavator behind one logo mark that includes an illustration of a house with trees and test that reads “StartHere!”, and another logo mark with text that reads Land Use& Building Development Basics,
Kitsap County’s Start Here! social marketing campaign encourages property owners to protect critical areas. Photo: Alicia Adler/Kitsap County

Kitsap County observed that the building permit applications it was receiving didn’t reflect land cover, stormwater, and other protections that impact development projects. The County developed the Start Here! campaign to protect critical areas like streams and wetlands from damaging clearing and building practices, and to reduce conflict during the building permit process. Online surveys and focus groups with single-family residential permit applicants found that most received development information from septic companies, building contractors, and realtors. This audience research led the County to focus on one behavior: getting landowners and those considering the purchase of an undeveloped property to check in with the Department of Community Development for information about their property and critical area protections before they begin site planning or buy a property. This relatively simple action is a first step towards the desired end behavior—submission of building site plans that are more protective of critical areas.

Identifying barriers and motivators for distinct audience segments

Audience segmentation is a marketing concept at the core of campaign development. Segments are subgroups within the target audience identified by common characteristics. Individual segments may have different target behaviors, and social marketing interventions should be designed accordingly. Social marketing experts stress the importance of not making assumptions about your target audience and recommend creating custom strategies for different segments based on their unique barriers and the motivators you can offer them to act.

The regional Shore Friendly campaign has two goals: (1) keep properties without bulkheads or seawalls unarmored and (2) remove shoreline armor where feasible. During campaign development, Puget Sound waterfront property owners were segmented based on parcel features. Nine audience segments were identified based on whether a property was unarmored or armored, had a home present or not, and its erosion potential. Target behaviors were assigned to the different audience segments since not all behaviors were applicable to all segments. For example, armor removal is not a target behavior for unarmored properties.

Hierarchical chart showing audience segmentation starting from Puget Sound residential shoreline parcels at the top, then divided by armored and unarmored, then by no home or home, and then by erosion potential resulting in nine audience segments on the bottom level.
Shore Friendly audience segmentation from the 2014 Puget Sound Parcel Segmentation Report by Colehour + Cohen, Applied Research Northwest, Social Marketing Services, Futurewise, and Coastal Geologic Services

Once the nine segments were developed and prioritized, online surveys and focus groups helped the Shore Friendly team to understand priority audiences’ current actions and what they know about shoreline erosion. This audience research identified barriers to the desired behaviors (e.g., complexity, cost) and different motivators (e.g., education, one-on-one help, mini-grants) that could help overcome those barriers. Suites of incentives were then tailored to meet the specific needs of each segment.

Developing simple messages

Another key ingredient of a successful social marketing campaign is a simple but compelling messaging strategy.

The Puget Sound Conservation Districts’ Regional Forestry Pilot Program aims to prevent loss of forests in areas of high development pressure and to improve habitat. Messaging is concise and focuses on what the program can do for its primary audiences: “Conservation Districts are here to help you” and “Our services are free, voluntary, trusted, and non-regulatory” and “Conservation Districts are a ‘one-stop-shop’ for your land use needs and goals.”

Four graphics with text in the foreground and images of forests in the background.
The Regional Forestry Pilot Program social media campaign, “Tree Talk,” includes testimonials from participants. Graphics: Emma Kilgore, Snohomish Conservation District

Snohomish Conservation District developed a marketing toolkit with print and digital format materials to ensure branding was regionally cohesive but allowed local programs to adapt for its community. Key vehicles for message delivery included a “Tree Talk” social media series, postcards mailed to prioritized audience segments, and a calendar that provides information about seasonal forest care.

Plenty of case studies to help inspire your own project and resources to help design a campaign are available. Below are a few to get you started, including training videos and a step-by-step guide.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Learn How to Create a Social Marketing Program website has four recorded training modules and two written guides:

The Pacific Northwest Social Marketing Association is a local organization that offers in-depth trainings and hosts conferences. Their website provides links to many more helpful resources.

Washington State University’s Water Behavior Change website features case studies and tools to develop campaigns focusing on stormwater and water quality.

Puget Sound Partnership’s Considerations for social strategies in planning, Strategic Initiatives, Implementation Strategies and Near-Term Actions provides information about social marketing and other types of social strategies relevant for Puget Sound grant programs.

The 2012-2013 Action Agenda for Puget Sound developed by the Puget Sound Partnership established three initiatives to tackle multiple issues critical to Puget Sound recovery:

  • habitat protection and restoration
  • shellfish bed protection and recovery
  • stormwater pollution prevention

To manage this effort, agency and institutional partners assembled into three Strategic Initiative Lead (SIL) teams, charged with bringing people and ideas together to improve the water, habitat, and communities. Read more about the Puget Sound Recovery Program.

The role of HSIL is to implement plans that improve the health of the rivers, forests, shorelines, and estuaries that make up Puget Sound.

This article has been funded wholly or in part by the United States Environmental Protection Agency under assistance agreement PC-01J22301 through the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The contents of this document do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Environmental Protection Agency or the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, nor does mention of trade names or commercial products constitute endorsement or recommendation for use.