Written by Craig Lefebvre
R. Craig Lefebvre, PhD

Follow on Twitter @chiefmaven

The Executive Order urging Federal departments and agencies to apply behavioral insights to improve their programs’ outcomes, cost effectiveness and positive impact on public welfare is long overdue. Wrestling control of many of these program decisions from people more attuned to meting out regulations, penalties and incentives will not be an easy journey. But it is one that must be taken as the evidence accumulates that many of our wicked social and health puzzles have at their core a requirement to help people learn new behaviors (or ‘change them’ in the command-and-control vernacular).

Coping with the many challenges confronting our country and world requires, just like with individuals under stress, the development of new ways of coping with them. Economic and policy initiatives are only partial solutions to issues as diverse as safer neighborhoods, childhood obesity and poverty. Education and information campaigns only go so far in reducing the use of tobacco products, increasing the use of preventive health services and engaging parents in their children’s education. Laws and regulations improve the safety of our food supply, reduce environmental pollutants and protect against unintentional injuries involving all types of consumer products – yet they too are only partial solutions. These challenges also need more than the now weary ‘nudges’ that the Executive Order references numerous times.

The use of behavioral insights generated through marketing principles and practices have been demonstrated to be among the most important sources of success in the analysis, planning, implementation and sustainability of programs aimed at social problems. Social marketing, the application of the marketing discipline to social issues and causes, provides a complimentary framework for developing innovative solutions to social problems that have long perplexed and frustrated us. It has emerged from business marketing practice as a social change tool uniquely suited to achieve social profits by designing integrated programs that meet individual needs for moving out of poverty, enabling health, improving social conditions and having a safe and clean environment. There are three key insights of this approach that government agencies, and indeed nonprofit and corporate sponsors of social good programs, should also be encouraged to adopt.

(1) There must be a set of integrated activities that analyze, design for, implement and evaluate programs that specifically address (1) products, services and behaviors that will improve individual and social well-being; (2) realign incentives and costs to facilitate behaviors for the individual and social good; (3) create opportunities and improve access to beneficial products, services and places that encourage and support behavior change; and (4) employ state-of-the-science communication strategies and tools to promote and support positive change at all levels of society – individuals, families and other social networks, organizations and communities.

(2) Programs should be audience-centric; that is, based on understanding the people to be served by the program, having insights into how they perceive the problem and possible solutions in the context of their everyday lives, and engaging them to be co-creators and eventual owners of relevant solutions.

(3) Audience engagement, from who is sitting at the policy table to who is sitting across from a teacher, is both a core value and outcome for success. It becomes part of a common framework for understanding and implementing programs with population-wide benefits.

I know that in some quarters marketing as practiced in the commercial sector is sharply criticized. Yet marketing as it can be thought about and practiced for social change is a step beyond insights and nudges to achieve the goals of a healthier, more productive and fulfilling life for all Americans.


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