An Ode to Earth Month and Behavior Change Research

April is Earth Month and we’re thanking our lucky stars we live in a state like Colorado. Hiking, skiing, camping and a chance to breathe fresh mountain air are part of our daily lives. However, our beloved landscape is changing. Record-breaking wildfires, population growth and pollution are catalyzing this transformation of this place we love. As communicators, we recognize our work can change the way people interact with the environment and wanted to explore how we can be better advocates for the outdoors.

Dr. Katie Abrams studies strategic, behavior change and science communication at Colorado State University.

We spoke with Dr. Katie Abrams, an Associate Professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Communication at Colorado State University. Her research focuses on the intersection of strategic communication and natural resources. Most recently, she completed research about safe wildlife distances and mitigation of animal feeding behaviors for both the National Parks Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

One important aspect of Dr. Abram’s research is her focus on behavior change, something that can be difficult to achieve with communications alone. “Nudging” is a behavioral concept that promotes positive reinforcement for people who make decisions. For example, in a study from Penn Medicine, researchers found people who received communications about a flu shot that was “waiting” or “reserved” for them boosted vaccination rates by 11 percent. Abrams used nudging and other elements of social marketing theory as the backbone of her research. 

For the safe wildlife distance campaign, she found people generally have an affinity for animals and want to show they care by getting close to them. When developing materials for the campaign, she highlighted this desire with the tagline the tagline “Sometimes the best relationship is a long-distance relationship.” Abrams used school busses as a visual marker for how far people should stay away from animals like elk and bears. After implementing the campaign, she found safe distances from wildlife increased by 16 percent. You can read Abrams’s paper in Environmental Communication or visit her website to learn more.

Collateral created for a campaign recommending safe distances from wildlife in Rocky Mountain National Park for the National Parks Service.

Here’s how Dr. Abram’s suggests we translate her findings to our work as communicators:  

  1. “Our audiences are much more nuanced than we think, learn more about them.”

Instead of making assumptions about our audiences, we need to talk to them about what their behaviors are and create better representations of who we are trying to target. Explore the barriers that prevent more accurate depictions of who these people are, and find out what influences their behavior.

2. “Use social marketing research to inform your work.”

Social media shifts every day. Staying up to date on the latest trends and insights can greatly benefit our roles as communicators. Reading up on new studies on sites like the Behavior Change for Good Initiative can offer new perspectives about communication we can apply to the causes we work for.

3. “We need to dig deeper into understanding end state behavior.” (the actions people can take)

What can we dissect and understand about behavior when we run a campaign with a desired outcome? Did people actually perform the action we wanted them to take? Diving deep to understand people’s barriers can influence our strategies and tactics. 

4. “See what behaviors give people the most bang for their buck.”

Doing the research on the back end can better inform what behaviors we know will work for people. For example, Dr. Abrams knew that people wanted to get close to sea turtles in Hawaii and take pictures with them. She implemented a “replacement behavior” for people to keep a safe distance from turtles by using heart hands in photos and offering tips for wildlife photography – all from an appropriate distance. She found people copied this behavior when they saw it.

We can learn a lot from research like Dr. Abrams’. Even communicators can turn to science for trusted information to back up messaging, social media and campaigns. 

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