Episode Transcript – Influencing Behaviors Through Social Marketing

Stories and Strategies Podcast

Episode 93

Guest: Julie Colehour, Partner C+C

Published July 9, 2023

Listen to this episode

Doug Downs (00:04):

In the mid 1980s, Rob Hirst of the Australian Rock Band, midnight Oil, visited an art exhibition in Italy. One display that really stood out to him was about the partisans who fought Mussolini in Italy, and a phrase that burned into his memory was in Italian, but loosely translated goes, how can you sleep while our beds are burning? In 1986, when Midnight Oil toured through the Australian Outback, they saw firsthand how aboriginal communities were being treated by progress people forcibly removed from their homes. Land rights were becoming an issue, not just in Australia, but in other countries too, like New Zealand, the United States and Canada. They expressed their protest in song. It belongs to them.

Peter Garrett, Midnight Oil (00:57):

Let’s give it back

Doug Downs (00:59):

Today on Stories and Strategies, social marketing, communication strategies for the greater good. My name is Doug Downs. Music. Off the Top, Midnight Oil Beds are Burning, written by Rob Hirst, Jim Moi, and Peter Garrett on the Columbia label. That’s an example of social marketing right there. Their audience, of course, listening to their music, they wanted a message of protest, and that’s how they use that channel to express that protest very effectively to a song that lives on. My guest this week is Julie Colehour, joining today from Seattle, Washington. Hi, Julie.

Julie Colehour (02:06):

Hi. Good morning.

Doug Downs (02:07):

Good morning. How’s Seattle today? The classic rainy stuff. Same up in Vancouver, but is it raining or is it not? It is

Julie Colehour (02:13):

Not going to rain today. It’s going to be beautiful. 80 degrees. We’re hitting our wonderful springtime, so great time to come to Seattle if you choose to.

Doug Downs (02:20):

I love Seattle, just in the Pike Place market. It’s just such a beautiful, beautiful area and catch a ballgame if you’re there. Julie, you’re a partner with C + C, a social issues communications agency with offices in Seattle, Portland, and Boston with staff across 16 states. C + C has won hundreds of awards from silver anvils to Sabres to PR week, Addys, even Emmys. You won an Emmy, that’s amazing.

Julie Colehour (02:46):

Oh yeah. Very, very recently. Had an Emmy. It was great.

Doug Downs (02:49):

You were the agency lead that handled covid communications for the Washington State Department of Health and used this social marketing framework to close the vaccination gap with the Latino Hispanic community, black African-American and youth audiences. You are the 2021 Puget Sound, P R S A chapter PR Professional of the year, and you serve on the boards of the PR council and the Pacific Northwest Social Marketing Association. Whew. Julie, let’s start with the most basic question. When someone hears the term social marketing these days, because social media has hijacked our frame of thinking, we think, oh, that’s social media marketing. Definitely not. Social media might fit in there somewhere maybe, but social marketing is bigger and broader. Those of us who have a level of understanding and mine’s pretty low of social marketing, they might think behavioral economics, behavioral sciences, yes, you’re closer, but how would you describe social marketing?

Julie Colehour (03:49):

Yeah, that’s a great question, and there has been a lot of confusion between social marketing and social media in recent years, but what I’ll say is social marketing predates social media by a lot. The term was really coined by Philip Coler and Gerald Zaltman in an article that they published in the Journal of Marketing in 1971. And so that was really the beginning of social marketing as a discipline. But what the discipline is, is the idea of using market marketing principles to change behaviors for the good of society. So rather than selling a product, there are different things and different strategies that you use when you’re trying to get an audience to change its behavior. The overall emphasis with social marketing and a lot of the research that has been done came from the fact that looking at trying to change people’s behaviors, what we know is that just raising awareness about an issue or educating about an issue does not correlate to any behavior change. So people often think, oh, well, if people are aware about environmental impacts, they’re just going to run out and change their behavior and do something differently as an example, that doesn’t correlate. Instead, what you have to do is figure out what are the barriers that are stopping that each person, those individual audiences from changing their behavior, and what are those motivators and benefits you can offer to overcome the barriers that will lead to behavior change? So simply put, that’s really what the discipline tries to do.

Doug Downs (05:19):

We’re such creatures of habit. You can change my habit for a short period of, oh yeah, I need to do that, and then I’ll forget, right? Because I’m all about my personal drivers. So social marketing would have to take into account, I need to maintain and make people feel like champions for this change.

Julie Colehour (05:35):

You’ve got to remind them, and if you can remind them and you can form that habit, then those audiences will influence their peers. And then you get peers influencing peers, which leads to greater change, but you have to get to that point in the process where you can get that. We call that social norming. That social norming occurring to have success.

Doug Downs (05:54):

So in 2023, we might see social marketing campaigns for distracted driving, certainly have seen them for drinking and driving, dog poop, pickup, recycling. You’ve developed a 10 step process that you outline in your book, understanding social marketing behavior change for good, and we won’t have time to go through alt 10. They follow good marketing and communications principles, but with some nuances that are specific to social marketing. So let’s go through a few of these. Step one, identify the project purpose, your goals and your objectives. Good comms and marketing 1 0 1.

Julie Colehour (06:31):

Yeah, absolutely. Super important. And it’s amazing. Many, so many people skip this stuff. Yes. And then down the fact someone, someone asked them in their leadership, well, why didn’t you achieve X? And they’re like, well, I never articulated that you wanted me to achieve X, so that’s a problem. Yeah, there’s a quote in Alice in Wonderland that I like that says, if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there. So super important to be very clear with all members of your decision making process about your purpose, goals and objectives. So your purpose is your why are you even here? What are you doing? What is your program or your organization trying to achieve? Your goal is what you’re trying to achieve from a programmatic level, and then your objectives are how you’re going to measure and know if you get there, and your objectives are normally tied to your behavior change.


So I’ll give you an example of this. Food waste in the United States is a huge problem. Americans throw out like 30% of the food they buy. It’s a gigantic waste, and there’s a lot of climate impacts associated with that food waste. So you think about all the energy it takes to produce food, transport food, cell food. If we’re throwing 30% in the garbage, it’s just like a gigantic waste that’s causing a lot of climate emissions. So I just finished a project where we designed a program to address food waste behaviors with consumers, and the purpose of that program is to reduce climate emissions, which for a lot of people might not really be obvious in terms of the linkage. We’re not going to necessarily talk about climate emission emissions in the program, but that is the purpose that the program was created for. The goal in this case is to reduce the amount of food that consumers waste in their homes, and the objectives are tied to specific behaviors that lead to food waste or that can help prevent food waste. So for example, it’s shown if you make a shopping list before you go to the store, you’re going to waste less food. If you properly store your fruits and veggies, you’re going to waste less food. So the objectives of the program are specific to each of those behaviors that we’re going to help consumers learn how to adopt. So that’s an example of how you would apply a purpose, goals and objectives to a campaign.

Doug Downs (08:39):

Excellent. Step two is research, looking at best practices, just like in law where they look at case studies, look at examples where people have tried different things. Usually the more recent the better because the channels and the strategies might align to what you’re trying to do, but definitely do your research. Then step three is to identify those desired behavioral changes, which should fit perfectly up into your project purpose and goals. These all align. Step four is to define priority audiences. So if I want more people, I want all people maybe to get vaccinated. Does that mean my audience is general public?

Julie Colehour (09:19):

Your audience is never, ever, ever, everyone just remember that. Put that in your brain. And that really has to do because each audience segment that you might have for your specific behavior change is going to have different barriers to doing that behavior and different motivators and benefits. There is not a situation I can think of where everyone has the same barriers, benefits, and motivators. So if you try to be that broad, you’re not going to have an impact on anybody. So you really, really need to use your research that you’ve done in the previous step to segment your audiences and figure out what’s going on with your audiences. What do you need to intervene to make a difference? And I can give a quick example here related to the COVID 19 vaccine. So as you mentioned, we worked with the Washington State Department health on Covid 19 vaccination, and when we started seeing lower uptick in vaccination amongst certain populations, we really dug in to figure out what was going on.


And I’ll give you two examples of audiences that had very different barriers, benefits, and motivators. Right around spring of 2021, young adults were not getting vaccinated, and it wasn’t because they were hesitant or it wasn’t because they had any concerns over the safety of the vaccine. They just hadn’t gotten around to it, right? There was no urgency. They weren’t worried about getting that sick because they felt like the people really getting sick from covid were tended to be older people. They just had no oomph behind going out and getting that vaccine. However, if you told them that by getting vaccinated, they could more quickly get back to doing all the things they would love to do. That summer, seeing people gathering concerts, all those things, that was a huge motivator. So for them, just saying, get vaccinated so we can all get back to doing all the things we love to do, was a great way to reach that audience.


On the flip side, the black African-American community also was not getting vaccinated, but for very different reasons. Their reasons were really lack of trust in government, concerns about safety, all of the history of experimentation within that community. They just didn’t believe that it was going to be safe to get the vaccine. So with those barriers in place, what we really needed to do was work from within the community to get community members influencing other community members in the black African-American community, and talking about why it was important to save lives in the black community, to get a higher vaccination rate in that community.

Doug Downs (11:40):

Excellent is, I mean, you’ve moved right onto step five there, and that’s to identify the barriers and the benefits, the motivators for the desired behavioral changes. Obviously that’s a key step in all of this, and I have to think from an elections standpoint, getting young people out to vote has always been one of the challenge, and this is worldwide. One of the challenges in every country and probably in every municipal election is to get young people out to vote. That’s remains one of the key challenges, identifying those barriers.

Julie Colehour (12:14):

And it has to go with, I think with voting, it often has to do with relevance. So the barriers to voting is just not understanding the impact or the personal impact that voting or not voting might have on your life. So with young folks and voting, I think what we really need to do is paint the dots between what the impacts are if collectively that population, population decides to vote would be a huge issue.

Doug Downs (12:43):

So step six is to create your messaging, and you have some great stats in the book that I loved that were exposed to 2000 to 3000 messages per day. I would argue that I think it’s higher, but I’ll go with the flow of what you’re saying and I know you have resources to back that up. With generative AI content coming, I would suggest we can put another zero behind that. I genuinely think it’s 20,000 to 30,000 in the next five years. We’re going to be bombarded by messaging of all kinds. The research that you referenced shows that we have about three to five seconds to catch someone’s attention. Perfect. Could even be shorter with some people. We want their attention just to draw them in so that they will give that precursory read or that quick watch, or in the case of a podcast, a quick listen to see if they want to spend the next 14 seconds for the average millennial. To catch their attention. Then you’re pulling them in and you’ve only got ’em for 14 seconds. And with Gen Z or Zed outside of the US with Gen Z, you’ve got about eight seconds in that next category. My goodness, this is getting short.

Julie Colehour (13:58):

It really is. And what it does is it means your messaging needs to be really simple, really relevant, and really focused on the benefits that that audience is going to receive. So if you’ve done all your step earlier steps, you have a very specific behavior, what barrier you’re trying to overcome, what motivator or benefit’s going to overcome that barrier, and your job is to first figure out what am I going to use to draw, draw that audience in so they pay attention. But as you mentioned, you don’t really have a ton of time that they’re going to pay attention. So you need something simple to draw them in. And then you need a very succinct ask around the behavior change that’s motivational to get that person to ask. So really important on your message strategy, if you try to tell people too many things, if you list five behaviors in your lead, if you do all these different things, people just aren’t going to pay attention, and then you’re going to be part of clutter out there and you’re basically wasting your money and your resources.

Doug Downs (14:54):

Absolutely. Step seven then is to choose your social marketing intervention. I take what you mean by that is what are we going to do?

Julie Colehour (15:03):


Doug Downs (15:03):


Julie Colehour (15:04):

This is when you get with strategies, and so many people start with strategies. Like they’ll come to us as an agency and say, I want to do a billboard. And we’re like, well, why? Let’s back way up. We need to really get back to the beginning of the process before you do that. So it’s really important, you know, get to step seven. Then you start thinking about what to do. And there are some social marketing intervention strategies that have been research proven to change behaviors. And so a couple examples, asking people to commit to a behavior increases the likelihood that they’ll follow through. So by simply getting someone to pledge or commit, either verbally or by writing it down and publicly sharing that commitment dramatically increases their follow through on the behavior. So in some campaigns, I think to a certain extent, we’ve gotten a little commitment crazy in this business, but there are definitely campaigns where making that commitment really does help people follow through on the behavior.


The other thing I’ll say is prompts, and you mentioned this earlier, that reminder, putting a reminder as close as you can to the place where the behavior is occurring, labeling on recycling bins or reminding people not to put garbage in their recycling bins. All those six feet apart stickers we have all been used to in the floors and places. Prompts that remind the behavior are super important. And then lastly, as I mentioned earlier, social norms is another example of a social marketing intervention. If you’ve got a situation where you’ve got more than 50% of people doing a behavior in an audience group, if you just tell people that others are doing the behavior, then there’s that peer pressure where they jump on board and start doing it anyway. The simple act of informing people, Hey, 60% of your neighbors are doing this thing makes other people do the thing.

Doug Downs (16:37):

What you’re playing into there is the social idea that socially we need to fit in with the group, with the tribe, right? And that’s a driver force us. To what extent do we need to make people feel like champions for them to carry this out? And what runs through my mind is climate change and how a lot of the communication I see from those advocating for more steps to address the importance of climate change, a lot of the messaging is shaming. And I sit back and I go, wow, that’s sure that will work with some people. But that whole shaming thing, I got to think a lot of people just entrench and say, no, the sky is the sky. We’ve always had fires, we’ve always had rain, we’ve always had heavy snow, we’ve always had heat waves. Nothing is changing. And sure enough, I mean those opposed are deeply entrenched in this.

Julie Colehour (17:30):

Yeah, absolutely. You are a hundred percent right. The research shows that negative sha shaming messaging doesn’t work, and actually shaming messaging can have the opposite effect. So really want to be careful about tonality and what you’re doing. And if you’re focusing on someone’s benefits, shame is never going to be a benefit, right? So that’s going to take you quickly away from that. And the other piece that I’ll pick up that on what you just said is that peer-to-peer communications, which in social marketing speak we call social diffusion, is one of the most effective ways for change. So think about it, seeing an ad, yeah, it may impact you, it may draw you in, et cetera. But if your neighbor tells you about something or asks you to do something, or if you go to a class and you learn about something, that is way more impactful in changing behavior. So if you can have campaigns and programs that incorporate both broad-based messaging with those peer-to-peer sort of contact based strategies, that’s a really good mix for success in changing behaviors.

Doug Downs (18:30):

Absolutely. Someone just like me, that’s what we want. Cross the fence. So step eight, identifying partners, and that could be leading to that organic growth, but it’s people are organizations with complementary missions. Step nine to then develop the marketing plan. And I love what you wrote. Too many start. Good, good, well-intentioned people. Start with, let’s write a plan. And I’ve been guilty of that so many times instead of just thinking it through before sitting down to write the plan. And then for goodness sakes, work the plan. Step 10 to evaluate just your thoughts on those three last parts of the puzzle.

Julie Colehour (19:08):

Yeah, absolutely. With social issues, we typically don’t have the budgets. We want to do programs. So bring partners in that are well aligned with you that are going to be helpful, that where you can deliver something and they can deliver something back to you. So super, super important to look for identify partners and how they can play a role in terms of the plan. It kind of goes back to the step seven as well, but this is where you really figure out exactly how and when you’re going to do things. And it is almost the last step in the process evaluation. You sort of have to do some of this in step one when you determine your objectives. Cause you have to make sure you have measurable objectives assigned to your program. But you do want to figure out then when are you evaluating, how are you evaluating, how are you going to use that data? And best practice is to continually evaluate, iterate, improve as you go through the process. Don’t do a whole year long campaign. And then at the end, start looking at did it work? You want to find touch points in the middle so you can iterate and course correct as you go.

Doug Downs (20:06):

Perfect. Julie, I really enjoyed this. Again, thank you for your time today.

Julie Colehour (20:09):

Thank you.

Doug Downs (20:10):

If you’d like to send a message to my guest, Julie Colehour, we’ve got a few links in the show notes her LinkedIn link or her Twitter link and her website so you can get ahold of her that way. Stories and Strategies is a co-production of JG R Communications and Stories and Strategies podcasts. If you like this episode, here’s my social marketing message Julie, if you like this episode, do us a favor and share it with one friend. Thanks for listening.