Be clear on what you want your audience to do

In projects addressing social change issues, there are often layers upon layers of complexity. Although we select a behavior to focus efforts on, we typically discover several things we need the target audience or stakeholders to do before we get to the final goal of behavior change.

In these situations, I always like to ask the question:

Is it a behavior or is it an action?

Both, at the core, ask your audience to do something. But the difference lies in the frequency in which they need to do it.

A behavior for an individual is a new habit and, among a group, is a new social norm. For individuals and groups, it represents a new way of doing things that should always be done in this manner moving forward (or until a new norm comes along). For example,

  • Recycling: separating trash every time you throw something out (happens several times a day).
  • Reusing: bringing reusable grocery bags with you every time you go shopping (happens at least once a week).
  • Merging: moving out of the closing lane at the last minute (happens nearly every time you do highway driving).

An action is exactly that – a thing done; a one-time act that someone or a group does when it’s time to do so. Such as,

  • Vaccinations: getting a flu shot once a year during flu season.
  • Inspections: getting your car inspected once a year.
  • Policy changes: changing laws and policies, which happens less frequently (ideally).

To make things trickier, you can also consider a third category of medium frequency actions – these do not occur at the high frequency of behaviors, but do need to happen monthly or quarterly, like reviewing and updating your finances. The reason these still live under the action umbrella is because people will, more than likely, still need external prompts and reminders to do these actions – as opposed to them becoming natural, internal habits.

Why do these differences matter?

There are three big reasons why it’s important to know if you’re asking an audience to take an action or to adopt a new behavior.

  • It impacts your communication approach: Getting people to take an action typically requires less lengthy and less intense communication efforts, and can often be achieved through short bursts of reminders (like flu shot reminders). However, new behaviors and norms take a longer time to form and require multiple communication approaches over an extended period of time (like remembering to bring your own grocery bags).
  • It impacts your choice of messages: Getting people to change their behaviors typically requires messages that reinforce the benefits, demonstrate that it’s a good norm to adopt, and includes personal motivators for change. Whereas actions often don’t require as much heavy lifting to convince people, and can focus more on serving as a reminder with only a few reasons for why it’s important.
  • It affects your project’s sequencing: Knowing if you’re asking your audience to take a series of actions only, or actions that lead to a larger change, will impact how you design your project timeline. It will clarify what needs to happen first, what can happen simultaneously, and if you need other stakeholders to take an action before your audience can adopt a new behavior.

If this all seems overwhelming, then think of it as being similar to your own personal goal-setting process. You set an end-goal (like a behavior change) and determine all the activities you need to do before being able to achieve that end-goal (like actions).

If you’re working on a project like this and are running into some challenges identifying actions and behaviors, then just give me a shout! I’d love to help.


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