Public sector organisations often employ the techniques of social marketing in their messages, but what additional barriers do they face?

This article is an attempt to ask questions about the effectiveness of digital communications in effecting behavioural change. The points are concerned mainly with email, whether individual messages or part of a wider email campaign, but can also apply to social media messages (tweets, Facebook status updates), blog posts or web pages.

Charities and nonprofits regularly campaign for social change, often by attempting to change destructive behavioural patterns. These changes could include reducing childhood obesity by encouraging kids to eat more fruit or to take up more exercise, or to spot the early signs of cancer by promoting regular self-examination. This technique is called social marketing, and is defined as:

“The systematic application of marketing, along with other concepts and techniques, to achieve specific behavioural goals for a social good”
Wikipedia and the National Social Marketing Centre

What are we trying to change?

Changing behaviour

The goals of a public sector social marketing campaign are often similar to those of most charities and may be concerned with changing an individual’s behaviour (reducing dependency on alcohol or drugs) or promoting community cohesion by chaging the behaviour of an entire community.

Your marketing messages can also have distinct goals which can benefit the organisation. For example, we might want the recipient of our message to:

  • Give up personal information by subscribing to a newsletter or completing a survey
  • Complete transactions such as paying for Council ax online
  • Engage more with the organisation by agreeing to receive emails, attending events or sharing content on social media.

Changing attitudes

An additional barrier faced by some public sector organisations when trying to promote behavioural change is a sense of suspicion or mistrust of the message and the motives behind it. This is particularly true at a time when MPs are embroiled in expenses scandals and allegations of corruption, or when local authority cost efficiencies are interpreted (either rightly or wrongly) as cuts to services.

If we expect our message to get across, we want the recipient of our messages to:

  • think positively about the council or government department sending out the message
  • feel comfortable interacting with the message and the organisation, its related websites & social media presence
  • embrace the sender’s point of view

Why use email to change behaviour?

Email is often considered a rather archaic form of communication in the age of social media and mobile phones, but it still has a place in your digital communications toolkit. It’s still one of the most effective methods of communicating. It’s more cost-effective and environmentally sustainable than producing printed materials, more direct, more likely to be read than a leaflet stuffed into a letterbox (assuming the message is right) and can be measured. It also directly addresses a common perception of council wastefulness.

When used effectively, you can use email to inform and educate. You can conduct market research by asking opinions and encouraiging feedback – many local authorities used email as a means to take feedback and suggestions from citizens regarding priorities for forthcoming budgets and published the results.

Email offers a potentially powerful one-to-one-relationship when used in conjunction with segmentation and personalisation, masking its rather impersonal one-to-many, automated broadcast nature. Once you’ve established a relationship, it’s possible to deliver direct interventions by email. How many library fines have been saved by the automated process of sending out reminders of due dates on library books? Encourage your users to visit your website or other digital domains so that they can engage in richer experiences and benefit further from your message.

Another advantage of email is that it’s less intrusive than a phone call or a text message and can offer gentler prompts to the recipient when they’re ready to interact with your message. Beware of information overload though – if you email too often you can annoy and irritate, then you have to work harder to regain trust.

Remember that email is just a part of your overall digital communications strategy. In fact, email is experiencing a bit of a renaissance, with Facebook’s recent improvements to its Inbox and with the proliferation of smartphones, meaning that email is available in more places than ever before.

Next: How to run a social media campaign.

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