Social Media and Behaviour Change: Applying Theory


Understanding why people behave the way they do, and designing interventions and communications to elicit new, more positive behaviours is an established discipline - but using social media as part of the mix is relatively new.

I’m convinced it has the potential to be hugely effective, because our behaviour is often defined by our interpersonal relationships and our perception of social norms - both things that are an inherent part of the social web.

From a research perspective, the massive volume of personal and conversation data we publish to the web everyday also gives us a gold mine of information that can help us understand individual’s online behaviours and attitudes - more quickly and at a lower cost than traditional research methods.

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to talk at the Charity Comms ‘Communications and Behaviour Change’ conference in London, and talked through tools, case studies and applied theory around social media and behaviour change campaigns.

The slide deck is below and notes are published on slideshare, but I thought I’d share some of the useful bits around applying a couple of the established theories of behaviour change to social media.

Stages of change and Facebook games

The Stages of Change theory states that people go through a continuum of phases - from being completely unaware of the need for change, before eventually changing and maintaining a new behaviour (although they might wander backwards and forwards for a while).
Stages of change theory diagram

The RSPCA Think Pig Facebook game and campaign we produced is a good example of how a social game and associated Facebook page can support people through this sort of journey.

The wider campaign aimed to improve the standards of pig welfare by changing consumer behaviour - getting more people to buy higher welfare meat - and we wanted to find a way to introduce the issue to an audience who wouldn’t engage with a traditional ‘education’ piece.

RSPCA Think Pig Facebook game

A simple Facebook word game provided a highly shareable, fun and addictive way of engaging directly with the right people, and introduced the issues in a light way. Playing the game meant joining a community and initiating a relationship with the RSPCA, which gave us an opportunity to continue helping people along the journey towards change:

“I’m unaware there is a problem” (pre-contemplation)
We were able to introduce the issues, through game play, while people were getting something of value back (the fun of playing the game).

“I need to do something about this” (contemplation)
Once they’d become part of the community by liking the associated page, the campaign would drip feed information on the issues, to start them thinking about the need to change.

“I know what I’m going to change” (preparation)
Providing direction and useful tools – like recipes and other real-world assets – made buying the right products much more easy.

“I’ve recently changed my behaviour” (action)
Encourage the audience to self-report – share their new behaviours – through Facebook updates.

“I haven’t relapsed” (maintenance)
In order to maintain an individual’s new behaviour and to continue drawing new people in, the RSPCA used the long term contact through Facebook page to keep up engagement with the existing community over time.

It’s a very broad and simple framework for understanding and promoting behaviour change, which you can combine with a detailed understanding of your audience to effectively move people along a journey.

Social Cognitive theory and online communities

Broadly speaking, Social Cognitive theory states that people learn by observing others - what they will and won’t, or can and can’t, do - and this influences their willingness and ability to change.

Rather than a continuum, it’s more like a number of factors coming together - a belief in the benefits of change, a perception of the social norm and self-efficacy (an individual’s belief in their own ability to change their behaviour).

The Virgin Media Pioneers project is a great example of how these kind of social influences can be created and used to bring about real-world change, using online communities.

Pioneers was originally conceived to help young people, from disadvantaged backgrounds, to start their own businesses (its audience has become much wider over time). It was based on research that showed while around half of young people would like to start a business, they are five times more likely to be unemployed.

Virgin Media Pioneers website

Enterprise UK’s study also showed that people in this particular group were unlikely to have the support or contacts they needed to start a business, and less likely than those from better off backgrounds to know an entrepreneur. The theory was that if we could help them develop increased ‘entrepreneurial social capital’, they would be in a better position to go it alone, and generate benefits for them, their community and ultimately society as a whole.

We took this research and worked with Virgin Media and Enterprise UK to design a strategic digital approach to the problem, which centered on an online, video blogging community.

The community members (initially recruited from partner organisations like the Prince’s Trust and given video cameras and broadband connections) were able form new networks outside of their immediate geographical area and blog their personal trials and tribulations of trying to start a business.

The project has been a great success and is still going strong – and looking at how we can apply elements of social cognitive theory to it shows how, as an online community project, it’s managed to be successful in creating changes in behaviour:

“What’s telling me to change?” (Reciprocal determinism)
We targeted the right audience, through picking the right channels and used the right messages based on an understanding on their personal situation - partnering with youth organisations, using the right social networks providing incentives for the first wave to join and become active.

“Am I able to make this change?” (Behavioural capability)
The first wave of Pioneers were given broadband connections and video cameras, but everyone was provided with videos and blog posts from experts on how to market their business, and there were offline training and networking events, all with the purpose of showing them how to take that first step.

“Can I really do this?” (Self-efficacy)
The audience didn’t necessarily have the support they need or the confidence required to start a business – but building an online community created networks of geographically disparate people with similar interests and values, that supported each other (creating ‘bonding social capital’).

“If they can do it, so can I.” (Observational learning)
As the people in their networks begin to make a change (succeed in starting a business) or as the community manager promotes the stories of people like them, who they can interact with, this provides more proof and reassurance that it’s within their capability, that it’s almost a new norm.

“How can I celebrate my achievement?” (Reinforcements)
Building your social network allows you to share your story (not just the successes but the failures too) and get feedback from the community through comments, video responses, likes etc. Celebrating success also helps to influence others in their network, perpetuating the cycle of change.

Hopefully this is a useful look at how you might apply behavioural theory to something that’s still, by some, considered to be a relatively new area. The full slide deck is below, and if you have any thoughts on any of the issues, or have your own experience of using social media for behaviour change, let me know.

Source: Max St John / Nixon McInnes

Slide (Header) (c) Max St John