Who should you target for change?

Written by Karen Spehr & Rob Curnow, Community Change, 2011


Successful behaviour change programs speak directly to the needs of the people they are meant for. The more carefully you can target a program to a specific audience, the more effective it is likely to be, particularly when it has to compete with other demands on people’s attention.


Recently a colleague sent me a YouTube video of a climate change ad trying to illustrate the links between climate change and future health impacts like infectious disease and food availability. It had lots of scary imagery and looked quite well produced. I can’t prove this but I strongly suspect that its primary audience ended up being environmental converts like myself and the person who sent it to me. I’m sure the producers would have been hoping for a wider audience or least a different one – perhaps one that needed conversion. You could argue that the ad just needed more exposure and that had it been televised to a broad audience, more people would have been affected by it. But affected how exactly? And for what purpose?


For many people the ad would simply create anxiety and the feeling that the problem was too big and there was nothing they could do. It might even make them more likely to switch off to other environmental messages to avoid feeling this way in the future. Others may have felt there might be something to it but not feel able to assess for themselves whether the information was correct or not. Many simply wouldn’t care. Future problems do not weigh heavily, particularly if you’re struggling to make a living, worried about your family or going through a bad patch and trying to emotionally stay afloat. Besides which the neighbourhood and the day outside looks much like it did yesterday. There will surely be time to address the problem later if things are really bad and if it was that bad the government would do something about it. Even if it does have some emotional impact, it probably won’t result in a change in behaviour. Worse, people may even switch off because they are overwhelmed or anxious.


Of course the ad might include an appeal to go to a website for more information on the problem and its solutions, but even if this happens there are so many barriers to an eventual change in behaviour that it makes it extremely unlikely. Advertising companies are expert at focusing their attention on identifying a specific target group, which works extremely well to get people to buy a particular brand of deodorant, but is less effective for explaining a complex idea like climate change which requires many behavioural changes both simple and hard, like replacing your old fridge with an energy efficient one, switching off power points at the wall or god forbid, buying less stuff.


Most people that we work with initially want to target all households because everyone needs to use less energy, less water or produce less waste. Or all car owners because everyone needs to cut their emissions. While this may be true, the things that stop some households from reducing energy use are quite different from the things that stop others. The positive reasons that motivate them to change are also likely to be different. This means that the more effectively you can identify specific target groups, the more likely you are to find out what makes them tick and what you need to do facilitate change.


How to decide who to target for change is sometimes straightforward but many times not. In health programs, the target group is often those most at risk of developing the condition – for heart disease it might be men who smoke, do little or no exercise or who are overweight. A screening program might then identify even more specific risk factors like high cholesterol. In environmental programs though, the ‘condition’ – a water shortage for example – applies to an entire community and those most ‘at risk’ of using too much water may in fact be those least motivated to change because they can afford to pay for it or because they feel entitled to use as much as they want.


Unlike health problems many environmental behaviours also need to be targeted at the household rather than the individual level. Although we tend to regard the household as a unit for conceptual purposes, in reality they are made up of people with different relationships to each other, different habits and beliefs, and different levels of control over household decision making.


So how should you identify a target group? For some programs it might depend strongly on place. For example, if I’m trying to reduce littering in a nature reserve then it would be users of the reserve. For other programs it might depend on an event like the breakdown of a fridge which can then be replaced with a new energy efficient one, or the first time purchase of a home when new appliances are likely to be bought. Other programs might want to focus on those using too much of a resource, like households who are high water users. Since high water use is associated with household characteristics like having a swimming pool, a large block size, a well maintained garden or a more sophisticated automatic watering system (1), programs might then be more effectively targeted to household with these characteristics.


Whatever the target group, the more clearly you can identify or describe your participants, the more likely you are to be able to tailor a program to meet their needs and work out what’s going right or wrong when you are testing or implementing your program.



1) Syme, G.J., Shao, Q., Po, M. and Campbell, E. (2004). Predicting and understanding home garden water use. Landscape and Urban Planning, 68, 121-128.