Community-based social marketing (CBSM) encourages individuals to make life changes that are good for them and their community. Rather than trying to get people to buy cereal or a car, social marketers encourage them to do things like share more, reduce food waste, or stop smoking.

Recently, the West Coast Climate and Materials Management Forum hosted a webinar on social marketing featuring Amanda Godwin from Colehour + Cohen who explained how to implement CBSM techniques to achieve lasting behavior change within communities. Her advice is highly relevant to citizens and city officials who want to encourage more sharing where they live. Below are Godwin’s 10 steps for building a successful social marketing campaign.

STEP 1: Identify Goals & Objectives

Start with what you want to accomplish and how you will measure it. Goals are long-term and broad while objectives are measurable ways to reach goals. Be as specific as possible with your objectives, but the process is not rigid. You may need to revise your objectives as you move through the steps.

STEP 2: Let Research Guide Program Development

Don’t assume you know how your audience thinks and feels. Use research to determine current behaviors, identify your target audience, identify barriers and motivations, test concepts and messages, and set baselines for evaluation.

You can mine existing resources to collect stats and data. Look to aligned businesses, government programs, community organizations, nonprofits, local universities, environmental organizations and the media.

While researching, keep in mind that the world is diverse—what works in one neighborhood might not work in another. Your research may include phone calls or online interaction where you can gather statistically significant data. The best case is to measure actual behavior changes through in-person interviews, behavioral data, observation and diaries.

In-person, quantifiable research is important because people tend to overstate what they’re doing to affect positive change. For instance, in King County, Washington, officials knew recycling was ending up in the garbage and they knew where it was coming from. What they didn’t know was why people weren’t recycling. Through recycling home audits, they discovered that most people think they’re doing a good job recycling. They also found that barriers to recycling were related to convenience and the “ick factor,” such as cleaning out a peanut butter jar, and that households that had a “recycling champion” did better with recycling. With all this new information, they were able to refine their approach to encourage better recycling practices.

STEP 3: Identify the Desired Behavior Change

This step looks at the potential impact of the behavior change. If your audience adopts a desired behavior, will it make a big enough difference? How will it affect other behaviors? What is the probability of change? How willing are they to do it? Are many people doing it now? How many are not doing it now?

Godwin’s advice for encouraging behavior change is to work on one behavior at a time then add others on. For reducing food waste, she suggests looking at what food is currently being wasted the most, and go with behavior change suggestions with the highest probability of change.

“Look for the lowest hanging fruit,” she says. “Go after those who already subscribe to food scrap pickup service but aren't really using it. Don’t start with those who you’ll have to convince to subscribe.”

Social marketing encourages people to move from awareness of an issue, all the way through behavior change. Image: Colehour + Cohen.

STEP 4: Choose Your Target Audience

You choose and prioritize target audiences by brainstorming all audiences; categorizing them as primary, influencer, or gatekeeper; identifying influencers to inspire people to change their behavior—for instance, children in households can influence parents; and finding out who the gatekeepers are—those who can prevent access to your primary audience.

The above graphic shows the transition from awareness through understanding, relevance, and differentiation, on to the desired stages of satisfaction and loyalty to the desired behavior change.

STEP 5: Map Barriers and Motivators

A barrier is anything that reduces the probability of a person engaging in a desired behavior. Barriers can be internal, such as lack of knowledge or motivation, preconceived perceptions, or assumptions; they can also be external, such as a lack of access, physical difficulty, or cost.

A benefit is anything that increases the probability of a person engaging in the desired behavior. Like barriers, benefits can be intrinsic: What’s in it for me? Or they can be external: How does this benefit others and the world?

To create change, the benefits of making a behavior change have to be greater than the barriers. If the benefits aren't greater than the barriers, you need a new audience or to modify your program.

STEP 6: Plan Your CBSM Intervention

We are most likely to change our behaviors in response to direct appeal or social support. Start with broad approach, then get more personal with one-on-one outreach. With one-on-one outreach, engagement and retention are higher. This can be done in small groups as long as everyone is engaged.

Here are social marketing tools that have proven successful

  • Address Cognitive Dissonance: Most people think they're doing good job. Point out what they may not be thinking about. For instance, one city put signs on garbage trucks reminding people that the truck was carrying things to the landfill that could be recycled. Another example is how providing people with tools to measure their food waste led to decreased waste.
  • Establish Positive Norms: Norms are the internalized behaviors of our local community members that we perceive as normal. It’s like peer pressure but without the pressure. This can be done with things like yard signs and neighborhood challenges.
  • Incentives and Rewards: Present incentives at the time the waste will occur. Charging a fee for a plastic bag, or charging fees on large containers of garbage at curbside leads to large reduction; lower cost on LEDs outweighs the barrier of higher cost light bulbs; providing kitchen composting bins and compostable bags encourages more composting; businesses are motivated to become food recovery certified because then they’ll be recognized in the community.
  • Commitment or Pledge: People who make a public commitment, preferably written down, have a higher chance of sticking with that behavior. Keep the pledge as simple as possible and tie it to your behavior change. When one group asked residents to take a pledge to be foodcyclers, they were given a food scrap bin and encouraged to take a photo to help spread the word. This also creates a social norm.
  • Prompts: Prompts are visual or auditory aids that reinforce the desired behavior change and provide reminders to do them. They work best in close proximity to the desired action. For example, a “turn light off” sticker on a light switch, or grocery store parking lot signs to remember your bag.
  • Feedback: provide feedback on how people are doing. This taps into our desire to perform and do better than our neighbors. You can report back to residents about how they did compared to other participants. For instance, if a household uses less power than their neighbors, they get a smiley face—if they use more, they get a sad face.
  • Social Diffusion: the adoption of new behaviors often occurs when friends and family introduce us to them. Look for ways to do this, such as publicizing the list of pledge people.

Tapping into emotions is an effective messaging technique. Image: Colehour + Cohen.

STEP 7: Create an Effective Message Strategy

The average person is exposed to 3,000 marketing messages per day. You have three to five seconds to catch someone's attention. Here are tips for effective messages:

  • Keep It Simple and Relatable: For a water awareness campaign, signage read, “Throwing out half a hamburger is the same as taking a 60 minute shower.”
  • Tap Into Emotions: For a food waste campaign, signage read, “Food belongs here (a photo of a baby), not here (a photo of garbage).”
  • Communicate the Benefits, Rather Than the Features: Find ways to focus on the benefit to participants. For instance, rather than talking about why throwing out food is bad, focus on the fact that people can save money by throwing out less.
  • Relevant and Timely: Where and when is your audience is doing the targeted behavior? Catch them there. For instance, place “How to store bread” signs on the store shelf; draw attention to imperfect produce with signs in the produce department; place a sign in school lunchroom that reads, “Take what you want, but eat what you take.”
  • Have Fun: Use humor where you can. If you have fun, people will connect with that, you’ll be memorable, and people will recall your campaign.

STEP 8: Identify and Enlist Partners

Look for partners with complementary goals, audience overlap, and a history of collaboration and community involvement. Partners bring new communications channels, money and in-kind resources or incentives, data and/or data analysis, and credibility with your target audience.

When looking for partners, consider those in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors and make sure you have something to offer them. Also look for local media partners. For food waste reduction campaigns, good partners are local coops, natural food stores, food banks, local chefs, and restaurants.

STEP 9: Develop a Communications Plan

For your social marketing communications, you’ll need both broad strategies and specific tactics. Look for ways to integrate tactics, where the audience is exposed to the message in multiple ways at multiple times. You can use the Internet, partners, media relations, advertising, direct engagement such as workshops and cooking demonstrations, and one-on-one meetings. Start with small pilot strategies, determine what is effective, and modify your approach.

Outreach tactics include:

  • One-on-One Outreach and Personal Contact. We’re more likely to change when we get a direct appeal or social support.
  • Tools and Incentives: To help people achieve the behavior changes you’re looking for, supply them with tools. The Food Too Good to Waste campaign provided a toolkit, food storage guides and tips, and a shopping list template.
  • Media Relations: the media loves talking about food waste and food in general. If you have news, you can have the media talk about food waste. If you don’t have news, you can still engage media: In one campaign, people measured food waste and brought that waste on air. Local chefs shared what they could have done with that food. Look at what the reporters and bloggers in your area are talking about and whether the food waste issue is a good fit for them. Think about a good hook to get them interested in your campaign.
  • Social Media: Facebook’s organic reach is declining so you may want to incorporate advertising dollars into your Facebook campaign. Also use Pinterest, Twitter and Instagram.
  • Advertising: This can be done with bike signs, billboards, local television ads, or with online advertising such as YouTube, Pandora, and Google ads.
  • Community Events: Engaging people at community events can be a great way to help drive behavior change in your community and get people to make a pledge to change their behavior.

STEP 10: Create an Evaluation Plan

Create a plan before starting implementation of the campaign. You should start thinking about this at step one. The ideal here is to measure actual behavior change. Decide how you will measure against each objective, set an evaluation timeline, and look for trends in data such as where there was reduced waste, how attitudes and behaviors changed around the issue, and how many schools or businesses are involved. This data can help convince funders and stakeholders of the value of your effort and will help you course correct if necessary.

Key Takeaways

  • Focus on one specific behavior at at time
  • Remove barriers and emphasize benefits
  • Prioritize audience and understand where they are in the behavior change continuum
  • Emphasize personal contact
  • Find ways to encourage social diffusion
  • Measurement matters

To learn more about community based social marketing and food waste reduction campaigns, watch the Community‐Based Social Marketing: Achieving Sustained Behavior Change webinar in its entirety.


Top photo: US Department of Agriculture (CC BY 20). Follow @CatJohnson on Twitter

Cat Johnson


Cat Johnson | |

Cat Johnson is a content strategist and teacher helping community builders create strong brands. A longtime writer, marketing pro and coworking leader, Cat is the founder of Coworking Convos and