Guest post: Nudging the unnudgeables. Behaviour change in campaign design

Behaviour change and nudge theory have become a trend in the communications industry in recent years, despite the fact that its principles have been part of the mix for several decades. There are many communications professionals and agencies who even base their business on this approach, but what has changed? Why has the nudge theory approach become the ‘thing’ to do when it comes to creating campaigns, and does it mean that we are able to show more tangible outcomes over a more traditional approach?

However, it’s also worth considering that our audiences are becoming wiser to our ‘spin’ and that will have an impact on how we use behaviour change / nudge in the long term to see meaningful outcomes to our campaigns.

I’ve been using behaviour change for the last five years in campaign design, embedding the technique within my previous senior communications role within South Wales Fire and Rescue Service to deliver safety campaigns and nudge positive behaviour change among our target audiences. In 2016, our deliberate grass fires campaign won two Gold CIPR Cymru Pride awards and we followed that win, with another Silver in 2017 for our accidental house fires (cooking) campaign. Both saw significant reductions in incidents relating to those areas, but it took time to create the right strategy and delivery approach to understand what success would like and also, making sure that it was a meaningful change.

So, you’re looking at using nudge as part of your campaign design. Where do you start? Well, firstly what are you looking to achieve? What are your strategic communications objectives seek to gain behaviour change? Do they link to your organisation’s business plan?nudge theory pr

You need to be able to demonstrate how this type of approach will deliver tangible outcomes that you can take back to your senior management team, as nudge can be a bit of a dark comms art. Done properly, you will be able to demonstrate the value of your function.

The Government Communication Service (GCS) has created the OASIS model which is a great starting point for campaign strategy and planning, but it’s how you blend these with using the COM-B model and also the EAST framework (but I’ll talk about these a little too). I would definitely recommend looking at their resources, especially their ‘Strategic Communication: A Behavioural Approach’ as it gives some amazing insight that will help.

For me, when I’m looking to create a campaign around nudge and behaviour change, is that you must always remember that your audience(s) want to be spoken to as individuals, and depending on the behaviour you want to see, you will be trying to influence them to:

  • Adopt a new behaviour
  • Stop a harmful behaviour
  • Continue an existing positive behaviour
  • Change an existing negative behaviour
  • Refrain from taking up a harmful behaviour

Thankfully, nudge theory has shown that by making the recipient feel like they are part of things, means that you have taken the first step towards the ‘regret-aversion’ technique. As consumers, we don’t want to miss out on an opportunity and by showing people what they’ll be missing out on, and how easy it is to get involved, you can dramatically improve engagement with your campaign.

One campaign that I really like, and has seen a positive change in behaviours, by using nudge successfully, is from NHS Wales and their organ donation campaign. In countries where people have to opt-in to donate organs, they generally see a maximum of 30% of people register, but in Wales people are automatically enrolled and people have to choose to opt-out, which only approximately 15% of adults have done so, providing a larger pool of organ donors. By opting-out, you are choosing to be different from the norm, so Welsh adults chose to be part of the majority.

So, how do you know which barriers are going to affect your nudge campaign? This is where the COM-B model can be used, it means that you can identify the barriers that prevent your target audience from engaging in those behaviours and also know which communications activities will be able to help overcome those barriers.

COM-B stands for Capability, Opportunity, Motivation. To be able to work through this stage of the planning, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Capability: Do they have the resources and knowledge to make a lasting change successfully?
  • Opportunity: Do they have the resources to undertake the behaviour and are there people around them who will help or hind them?
  • Motivation: Do they want to carry out the behaviour and believe that they should?

What I think is important for us, as professionals to remember is that behaviour change is not part of campaign design, but as the basis of it. So, this is why by using frameworks such as EAST (easy, attractive, social and timely) means that we can disrupt how people perceive a topic and hopefully generate a positive, as well as genuine change in behaviour.

“By knowing how people think, we can make it easier for them to choose what is best for them, their families and society…” wrote Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their book Nudge, which was published in 2008.

Therefore, if nudge is based on the design of choices, we need to think about how you approach that:

  1. Empathy and emotive persuasion wins over a cold, pragmatic application of logic
  2. Positive behaviour is a process. It must be gradually embedded into employee understanding and in turn, your audiences
  3. Baby steps and bite-sized calls to action are hard to say no to and this is where your messaging framework comes into its own; consistency, authenticity and human
  4. A harsh or over-zealous reproach may have quite the opposite of the intended effect, so make sure you test out your campaign on trusted colleagues before launching your campaign

A recent article in Influence Online looked at PR and the use of nudge interventions and as the article points out, the list of nudges is ever expanding as our understanding of human psychology and choice architecture improves. These interventions include:

  • Framing – presenting information in a way that accentuates the positives and gives a realistic impression of the meaning and implications of a choice. For example, use relevant positive statistics
  • Mindlessness – remember that people do not always pay full attention to every message. It’s about looking at how you cut through the distractions by simplifying complex messages
  • Positioning – taking care of the physical location/position of an intervention, message or experience
  • Mood – people are more receptive when they feel enthused, inspired, intrigued or generally positive. Consider how you can invoke a positive emotion to try and get people to engage with it, as this can increase attention to even the most mundane choice

I can’t write a blog about campaign design, without mentioning the importance of evaluation and measurement. You should be evaluating how your communications activity is received from launch day, it means that you can provide real-time stats to your senior management team, as well as adjust your activity, if your approach isn’t landing as hoped. It can also then be incorporated into your overall evaluation report, so that you are able to demonstrate learning and recommendations. The GCS include an evaluation framework in their behavioural approach guide, but covers inputs, outputs, outtakes and outcomes. It’s certainly a framework to follow if you’re looking to do your first evaluation or looking for a more in-depth approach.

So, to conclude, as our audiences become wiser to the personalisation techniques, and start to become unnudgeable, we must avoid creating dull, uninspiring and overly complex User Experience (UX) campaigns. Instead, it’s about making your content visually rich, easy to navigate, and unthreatening in its approach. In the future, PR professionals could be running communications campaigns that take into account the more individual interests, personality traits, the most receptive time for delivery, and mood of the audience; one step beyond personalisation. It means that you have several new touchpoints to work with, social media and other personal/professional platforms can be effectively leveraged, and the intended nudge is always on, albeit in a soft, unobtrusive way.


Francesca Carpanini

Campaigns Director, Scruffy Dog PR

@FrankieC85 @ScruffyDogPR