Community-Based Social Marketing: What it is and what it means to me and you

Community-Based Social Marketing (CBSM) is an approach to achieving broad sustainable behavior in our communities. It combines the knoweldge from psychology and social marketing to leverage community members’ action to change behavior. CBSM is more than education, it’s spurring action by a community and for a community.

The textbook definition (literally):

Community-based social marketing is composed of four steps: uncovering barriers to behaviors and then, based upon this information, selecting which behavior to promote; designing a program to overcome the barriers to the selected behavior; piloting the program; and then evaluating it once it is broadly implemented (McKenzie-Mohr & Smith, 1999). Community-based social marketing merges knowledge from psychology with expertise from social marketing (see also Geller, 1989). Social marketing emphasizes that effective program design begins with understanding the barriers people perceive to engaging in an activity (see, for example, Andreasen, 1995). Social marketing also underscores the importance of strategically delivering programs so that they target specific segments of the public and overcome the barriers to this segment’s engaging in the behavior.

All around people working to improve the lives of others and their communities. Tables and booths about composting and recycling, workshops about energy efficiency, organizations handing out brochures about renewable energy. Collectively, these efforts are daily raising awareness around important issues and encouraging people to look at their lives differently and make a change.

But beyond awareness, we want action. One of the places in which I’ve seen this is in energy efficiency. At CERTs, we work to help communities identify and implement clean energy projects. We’re interested in helping communities feel empowered through action—energy-efficient action. This is often harder said than done.

Some of the challenges we’ve encountered include educating people about energy efficiency upgrades that are low-cost and high-return. I mean, really low-cost and very high-return: An easy plug-and-play VendingMiser that costs $175 retail and saves about the same each year on vending machine energy costs. Twist-on spray valves for commercial kitchens, program price of $28 and saves $400 or more per year. And we’ve found some success. But “some success” seems awfully odd considering a 1400% annual return on investment in some cases.

Economics and information are simply not sufficient to achieve the broad and lasting sustainable change we strive to see.

This is where community-based social marketing is very informative. CBSM informs:

You’re missing some of the barriers. Maybe people don’t have time, no matter the payback. The time and effort is more than the benefit of changing. Maybe people don’t believe in the energy savings. Maybe people don’t know who they need to talk to at their workplace in order to purchase these devices.

You need to find out what’s getting in the way and making it hard. And you need to address that upfront. Help make the right choice the easy one (like all the bike infrastructure in Copenhagen).

Door knockers remind people to vote and even offer rides to polling places The first thing I like about CBSM is that it’s results-oriented. A lot of initiatives are information-intensive. Think of your local political campaigns (the postcards, brochures, letters, doorknocking, etc.) They provide lots of information, but it doesn’t necessarily spur action. CBSM says, If you want to get people to vote, you need to help them vote…not just tell them to. Get Out the Vote (GOTV) efforts door knock on election days, and organizers offer people rides to and from the polls. Results-oriented approaches are especially important for organizations that don’t have a lot of resources. It’s costly to print and send out hundreds of brochures, just hoping someone will take action. But helping people actually get to the action, such as showing up to install efficient light bulbs, demonstrating composting in the workplace, or accompanying a colleague on a first bike commute, means that’s one more person is starting a new sustainable behavior. CBSM helps groups achieve measurable change.

The second thing I like about CBSM is that it differentiates between “selling a product” and “changing behavior”. The two are different causes, but too often we strategies for the first to used to achieve the second. The act of buying (not to be confused with the ability to buy) is pretty straightforward. As a consumer, you go to a store to find a product to meet your objective. But where do you go to “get” a habit of turning off your lights, or to take shorter showers? Conservation behavior isn’t something you can buy at a cash register. So, why should it be advertised like it can? CBSM understands that behavior is overwhelmingly based on social norms and habits, versus rational real-time thinking. Dr. Christie Manning at Macalester College emphasizes this in her report to the MN Pollution Control Agency: Psychology of Sustainable Behavior.

One of the most important observations from psychological research is that many decisions are made by automatic, unconscious processes on the basis of information that our conscious, rational brains are hardly aware of.

When we shop, we compare prices and negotiate deals and branding. But when we leave the room, we need to rely on our habits and energy-consciousness to remember to turn off the lights. CBSM recognizes that this challenge is different.

The third thing I like about CBSM is that it recognizes that we, as individuals, act within our context and within our community. It’s hard to go it alone, to be the lone recycler, to be the only one with the garden, to be the only one biking into work. You are different and you stand out. Our human nature generally wants us to fit in with those around us and “go with the flow” based on social and physical infrastructure. Most people don’t want to wear the pink tuxedo at the event where everyone is likely to wear black. We also don’t want to bike down a busy road that has never seen a bike before. And we also don’t want to be the only business on main street without the We Buy Green Power sign in the window.

UK's efforts to recycle succeed

It’s this third aspect of CBSM that intrigues me the most. And it’s the part that I want to really try to understand through this fellowship. CBSM isn’t as clear about how to help activate existing community connections and relationships around actions. It provides a great method for understanding a problem and countering the psychological barriers to changing behavior, but says less about who is the best to lead and manage a CBSM initiative.

I think that CBSM has the potential to flip the ownership of sustianable action from program managers to community members, not all that different from Participatory Action Research. Instead of direction coming from the outside, CBSM’s use of social norming indicates that communities can enact sustainable behavior from within and outward. CBSM recognizes that we take cues from strong social and civic leaders about what books to read, movies to see, restaurants to try…and maybe where we get our food and how we get to work every day.

Finally, I think that community-based social marketing is more than an approach to achieving desired changes, but also a way to strengthen the way communities work and address issues. I will be exploring this further in my fellowship. Through pilots and talking with others about CBSM in their own communities, I hope to see the extent to which this approach can help communities identify their goals, leverage and recognize local social and civic leaders, and organize low-cost and effective initiatives to achieve action.

Check out the original post on my blog to see comments and join the conversation, and visit *my blog Common Spark**.

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