Turning Awareness into Action

In order to design an effective intervention, involving and understanding the people you’re trying to help is critical.

We know what we should be doing to stay healthy. We should exercise regularly, avoid too much sugar, eat more fruits and vegetables, drink water. We should get a flu shot, a pap smear, enough sleep. We know all these things and more. And yet, awareness of these facts is often not enough to get us to take action.

So, why do health and social issue advocates continue to push raising awareness as the answer when just providing information is clearly not working? Whenever I hear about yet another “awareness campaign” for an issue that nobody would dispute, I want to scream. How many more pink ribbons do we need to make sure everyone knows breast cancer is a bad disease?
There is a better way. Taking a cue from the undisputed experts on convincing people to take action, the 40-year-old field of social marketing (using marketing for positive health and social behavior change) offers a systematic process that works. It’s been proven effective for issues ranging from family planning and HIV/AIDS prevention to traffic safety, environmental protection, and civic engagement.
How is social marketing different from the usual “Let’s raise awareness” approach? First of all, a focus on behavior change as the ultimate bottom line ensures that we’re not just raising awareness for its own sake. If people don’t actually do something as a result of the information, what’s the point of all that time and effort? Be very specific about what it is you want people to do (e.g., not just “prevent skin cancer,” but “get an annual skin check,” “wear sunscreen” or “go to our website to download the warning signs checklist”).
In order to design an effective intervention, involving and understanding the people you’re trying to help is critical. Without knowing the key values that motivate them, and what they see as the main benefits of adopting the behavior and the potential barriers that will keep them from succeeding, you’re just flailing around in the dark. Helping people to achieve what they already want to be doing in their lives is much more useful than making them adjust their lives to fit your product. And finding the right time and place to reach them—when they’re already thinking about your issue or ready to make a change—makes a lot more sense than hoping they’ll come looking for your program.
Finally, keep in mind that it’s much easier to make the healthier choice the “no-brainer” option than having to persuade people of something. Think about avoiding messaging altogether and designing an environment that makes it easy to take action, whether it’s building stairs that are fun to climb, creating traffic patterns that make people intuitively slow down or making the healthier foods more easily accessible and attractive in a lunchroom line.
Awareness may be necessary before people take action, but it is usually not sufficient. My wish for the future is that programs intended to bring about health or social change will use proven tools like social marketing that really work.



This is part of a series of posts examining the idea time and imagining our collective future. Tell us your wish for the future here and we'll bury it in a time capsule.

Illustration by Tyler Hoehne

Julian Meehan

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