How Agencies Can Change Behavior in Today’s Digital World

How government leaders can activate a social network in a cluttered digital environment.

Let’s face it: We’re a nation of bad habits. We‘re too fat, too sedentary and don’t save enough.  But fear not, there are success stories. Recently, the National Center for Health Statistics, for example, reported that 18 percent of American adults smoked cigarettes in 2012, the lowest number on record.

Anti-smoking campaigns show that government agencies can help change behavior. What’s the mysterious alchemy of messages and motivation that drive behavior change?  And how has that formula changed in today’s digital world?

Changing Behavior Is a Team Sport 

Let’s look at the evidence-based best practices for changing behavior. The gold standard of medical research—the Framingham Heart Study—provides a key insight. The study began in 1948 by enrolling more than 5,000 residents in Framingham, Mass., who agreed to physical exams and lifestyle interviews for their entire life.

The lesson from Framingham is that changing behavior is a team sport. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, Siddhartha Mukherjee describes research that explores how Framingham residents quit smoking from 1971 to 2003.  Mukherjee writes:   

“Entire networks stopped smoking concordantly, like whole circuits flickering off. A family that dined together was also a family that quit together. When highly connected “socializers” stopped smoking, the dense social circle circumscribed around them also slowly stopped as a group.”

Does the power of social networks still resonate today when some people seem to spend more time with their smart phone than their family? In a word, yes. Digital has expanded how we get information and interact within a social network.  Consider the findings from Nielsen's 2013 Trust in Advertising report: Not surprisingly, 84 percent said word-of-mouth recommendations were the most trustworthy source of information, but 68 percent identified consumer opinions posted online. 

Give Them a Reason to Believe

The challenge for government leaders is activating a social network in a cluttered digital environment. In the past, carefully researched messaging was sufficient. Today, activating a social network requires an “incite idea”—a platform that packs an emotional wallop and triggers action. Developing an incite idea entails consideration of the audience, barriers and motivations as well as the surrounding environment. Among the questions to ask:

  • Is it compelling? Will it make someone laugh or cry?
  • Is it meaningful?  Will people share it and champion it?
  • Does it bounce?  Can it be propelled across the entire spectrum of traditional and digital media?

Powerful incite ideas can be seen in past campaigns. As described in the The Emperor of All Maladies, the first anti-smoking commercial in 1968 featured actor William Talman from the Perry Mason TV series.  A longtime smoker, Talman would soon die of lung cancer. His message came through loud and clear: “If you do smoke—quit.  Don’t be a loser.” The ad helped establish the connection between smoking and cancer—in a direct and emotional way.  Social norms began to evolve. By 1974, smoking began to decline—reversing a 60-year trend.  

Activate the Digital Influencers

With the right platform in place, campaigns need to get the word out to social networks.  One essential step is reaching key influencers. Previously, the roster of influencers included the usual suspects such as the media and celebrities. Today, the list has expanded to a diverse array empowered by the Internet, ranging from mommy bloggers to employees.  

Activating these influencers requires a steady stream of content. Like paparazzi need celebrities, influencers need information. And they often find it from digital sources. According to the global management consulting firm McKinsey and Co., for example, half of all smart phone users use their devices to conduct retail research.  Campaigns need to think like a publisher by creating digital content and marketing it through “paid amplification” tools.  The options include YouTube ads, Facebook promoted posts and content discovery tools such as Outbrain.  While government agencies need to be cautious in following all applicable rules, there are appropriate ways to activate influencers.

Create a Surround-Sound Environment

Even as social media transforms the way we communicate, government leaders need to remember the value of a surround-sound approach combining traditional and digital tactics.  Why does this work?  Social psychology research tells us that multiple sources are more persuasive than a single one. The multiple-source effect is magnified when we are physically exposed to the sources, indicating that high-touch grass-roots tactics still provide a high return.

Does the multiple-source effect apply in a digital world? A study by Clifford Nass and Kwan Min revealed the approach worked even when people heard synthetic voices.  In the experiment, people who heard five positive reviews on a book read by five different synthesized voices liked a book more than people who heard the same five reviews read by one synthesized voice. 

The Treasury Department's Go Direct campaign illustrates the power of multiple sources combined with traditional and digital tactics. The campaign convinced Americans who received federal benefits via paper checks to move to direct deposit. More than 4,000 influential partners, such as banks, nonprofits, city agencies and local police departments, helped convince more than 22 million Americans to move to direct deposit.

How to Incite Action 

What’s the mysterious alchemy of messages and motivation that drive behavior change? A government leader planning a social marketing or public education campaign should remember: 

  • No man is an island—the social network  surrounding each of us is still key to making lasting change
  • Where you start determines where you finish—you need a strong “incite idea” from the very beginning
  • Your next-door neighbor may be an influencer—Activating the diverse array of influencers is essential 
  • Once is not enough—messages from multiple sources are not nice to have;  they are necessary

Jim Holland, a senior vice president at the public relations agency Weber Shandwick, has 30 years of experience working with government agencies such as the Treasury Department, the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Mint. 

(Image via Lightspring/