The Nonprofit Marketing Blog

How to put peer pressure to work for your cause

peer pressure
Photo credit: Jen Talks Too Much Blog

In an often-cited study by psychologist Robert Cialdini, various placard messages were tested in hotels that were seeking to be more environmental conscious by encouraging guests to reuse their towels. The messages included:

Message 1 “Reuse your towel to save the environment.”
Message 2 “A majority of guests in this hotel have reused their towels. Join them and help save the environment. ”
Message 3 “A majority of guests in this room have reused their towels. Join them and help save the environment. ”

Message 2 was 18% more effective than the first. And message 3 was 33% more effective than the first.

That’s because when people are deciding whether or not to act, they consider what other people are doing (the social norm). They pay particular attention to the actions of people to whom they relate (like those that stayed in the same hotel room). In other words, peer pressure works. And it can encourage good behavior (as described above) or not so good behavior.

Another study by Cialdini shows the latter scenario. Park officials at the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona were frustrated because tourists were taking souvenir petrified wood samples with them at an alarming rate. Signs throughout the park informed visitors of the problem and asked them not to take the samples, but to no avail.

Cialdini and his team conducted an experiment in which they altered the signs at two-hour intervals. Some signs — such as the ones that were currently displayed in the park — highlighted how bad the problem was, stating, “Many past visitors have removed the petrified wood from the park, changing the natural state of the Petrified Forest.” Other signs emphasized a different norm. “Please don’t remove the petrified wood from the park, in order to preserve the natural state of the Petrified Forest.” The first message reinforced the negative norm of taking the wood — and people did just that. “Heck,” you can just imagine those hikers thinking, “Everyone is doing it.” The latter message — which did not promote a negative norm — was significantly more effective.

So what are the takeaways for cause marketers?

1. When you launch a cause campaign, make it clear that other people are supporting you. If you use tickers or thermometers in your campaigns, don’t show progress until you HAVE progress. An empty thermometer or low number of participants will discourage action.

2. When you highlight people taking action, make them relatable for your audience. People are most influenced by people they deem like themselves.

3. Put the spotlight on positive actions, not negative ones. “Too many people text and drive,” is an example of a message that could backfire. It might make people feel like it’s normal to text and drive! A better example is a recent campaign by AT&T and that asked people to pledge not to text and drive. It generated proof that many people are against texting – and created the right kind of peer pressure.

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About This Blog
Caryn Stein hi res

Caryn Stein
Vice President, Communications and Content, Network for Good

We’re here to help you win hearts and minds—and donations.

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