How to communicate effectively for sustainable behaviour change

Debbie Griffiths is a business writer who specialises in CSR and sustainability communications. In this 5-minute blog she shares some hints and tips on communication for behaviour change.

How to communicate effectively for sustainable behaviour change

Sustainability communications do pretty well when it comes to sustainability conferences. Some are devoted entirely to sustainability communications or reporting. Others integrate communications into broader-themed events aimed at a wider corporate responsibility (CR) and sustainability audience.

The latter includes the upcoming Sustainability Leaders Forum in January in London. I’m especially looking forward to the interactive workshop on Communication for behaviour change. Can’t wait to find out what they mean by ‘interactive’!

In the meantime, I thought I’d jot down some thoughts about the topic. Apologies that it’s in the rather static format of a blog, but please feel free to interact with comments.

Sustainability vs regular communications

There’s no mystery when it comes to communicating for sustainability – simply follow the same rules as you would communicating anything else. Know your subject and your audience; understand where they are now and where you’d like them to be after you’ve communicated with them.

And, above all, remember that communication is a journey: from awareness and understanding through to emotion and action. If you aim straight for final base – behaviour change and action – without paying attention to the other steps, you run the risk of failure.

4-step communications journey

You may have heard of the 3-step THINK-FEEL-DO model for communications, but I recommend the 4-step model: KNOW-THINK-FEEL-DO. It takes a bit more effort for the communicator, but it makes things easier for your audience, which is the whole point – to make life easier for our customer.

If you talk to sales and marketing, they’ll be able to relate it to their AIDA funnel: Awareness – Interest – Desire – Action.  Marketing know that you have to put stacks of effort into the top of the funnel (awareness, interest and desire) before sales can convert it into action.

The same’s true for sustainability comms – you can’t expect behaviour change from people who don’t know about you, your what and your why.  Or don’t care, even if they know.

Compliance and regulation may oblige companies to act but that won’t translate into genuinely sustainable behaviour and long-lasting change if people feel forced to go against what they personally believe. Look at Trump. His opposition to climate change is so ingrained and emotionally charged, the rational thinking and impassive language of scientists doesn’t stand a chance. While the majority of us shake our heads in dismay or get angry at his inaction, his adoring fans find his words far more exciting than anything we have to say. Either way, the Marmite president fuels strong feelings.

And that’s the problem with most sustainability communications – we pay too little attention to the initial ‘know’ and the essential ‘feel’, relying too much on the ‘think’ and ‘do’ parts of the comms journey. Not everyone. Let’s learn from those doing a good job.

Step 1: Hello!

The first step on the journey towards behaviour change is awareness. We teach kids not to talk to strangers or do anything with someone they don’t know. We know not to give our credit card details to a company or charity we’ve never heard of before. We don’t get on a train without knowing where it’s going.

What’s different about sustainability comms? Nothing. We shouldn’t expect people to do something they know nothing about. It takes time to build awareness. Lots of touch points. Bitesize nuggets. Attention grabbing stats, facts and images. A short and memorable phrase. A tweet. A video. An infographic. A headline. An advert. An email with a link. Nothing too heavy to start with.

For example, I recently became aware of the KPMG Survey of CR Reportingvia a short and simple Linked In post. From a connection. Someone I trust.  It linked through to a video, with a quick summary of the main findings. Short and sweet. I took the next step and downloaded the full report to read later.

Conversely, when someone I’d never met emailed me and asked me to share an animated video about their academic research into the ‘chain liability effect’, the first thing I did was check them out online. That’s the beauty of social media – we can find out in an instant who’s credible and what others think of them. Awareness is no longer one way, it’s collective. People talk. And share.

A little knowledge goes a long way, as they say. If people like what they see, they’ll be receptive to more communication.

Step 2: Mind games

Influencing what people think about you, your organisation or your call to action is the next step on the comms journey. At this stage, your audience is open to more information, more analysis and interaction. They’re ready to listen, learn and think about what you have to say. To understand, reflect and make sense of it all, cognitively. To discern what’s in it for them.

This is the appropriate time for thought-provoking blogs, in-depth reporting, informative webinars, workshops and conferences. This is where anyone with a deep interest in CR and sustainability will look for your hard facts, science based targets, measurable KPIs, transparency and data about risks and opportunities. Simply spouting the right words won’t cut it with the experts.

What we mustn’t forget, however, is that everyone isn’t a CR and sustainability boffin. So, don’t expect your CR report to meet the needs of all your stakeholders. You need to take the same information but adapt it for each audience – colleagues, B2B customers, consumers, NGOs.

There are plenty of good examples and award winners out there. There’s also plenty of room for improvement in meeting different stakeholder needs.

Step 3: People never forget how you make them feel

This is the area where sustainability communications definitely has more work to do. Making CR and sustainability emotional, personal, human, real. Charities have always been masters of pulling on heartstrings. NGOs are brilliant at stirring people’s frustration, indignation, anger, outrage, raw passion. But there’s a huge range of emotions between those two extremes, which all sustainability communicators need to tap into more.

Where’s the laughter? Where’s the joy? Where’s humility? Where’s the defiance? Where’s the cheeky dare devil, the mischief maker? Where’s the fear? Where’s the curiosity? The adventure, the excitement? Where’s the self-doubt and regret? The jealously? The grief? The bravery? It’s certainly not in corporate sustainability communications.

These are the things that bring sustainability to life, make it real, make it personal. These are the things that move us. The tipping point between knowing and doing.

This is where we need more storytelling across all genres – a real-life smorgasbord of happy endings, tragedies, fresh starts, voyages into the unknown, discoveries and disappointments. They must also be genuine: real people, places, problems, impacts, outcomes, differences. Real change. 

Step 4: Be the change you want to see  

Telling someone to do something isn’t as powerful as role modelling it and having others follow your lead. It comes back to the old story of how to create a movement. The visionary leader gets up and does something new, something different. They stand out from the crowd and a few people start to take notice (awareness). What the leader’s doing is easy and fun, so one or two join in and copy their behaviour. They are followed by a few more early adopters (interest).

As more people get involved, others want to get in on the act, the early majority don’t want to be left behind (desire). This builds to a tipping point and before you know it, everyone’s doing it (action). Well, not everyone. There’ll always be some who won’t join in. You’re not going to convince them otherwise, so don’t fret – just keep the majority on side and you’ll get the change you desire.

So, that brings us back to the beginning and the Sustainability Leaders Forum on 24-25 January 2018. The leaders in sustainability are all lined up and ready to share their ideas and best practices. The superfans have already booked their place and got the best deal, but there’s still time to get on board and enjoy a discount. Enjoy the warm glow of satisfaction by quoting IDEAL15 at the checkout and getting 15% off the price. Book before November 3 for a double discount. 

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