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Behavior Change
The Power of Peer Influence on Consumer Habits

When it comes to motivating behavior change, there’s nothing more powerful than the recommendations of your peers. This applies to everything from musical tastes of teenagers to brand selections among consumers to farmers in India.

This power of peer influence is brought home by a study, funded by Microsoft, to determine the most effective ways for transmitting life-saving information about innovative agricultural techniques to farmers in developing communities.

Information about new techniques was readily available; the problem was that farmers weren’t adopting and implementing them. So an American-born software engineer, Rikin Gandhi, working in India for Microsoft Research, spent six months in villages experimenting with communication formats — posters, TV shows, locally made videos, home screenings. His impactful discovery was that short, 8- to 10-minute videos that featured local farmers talking about their experiences was the most effective method of information dissemination. One of the most significant elements was that farmers were more likely to adopt new practices if they heard about them from someone of a similar socio-economic background, speaking the same dialect and without too much formal expertise. Among 1,470 households in 16 villages, they found that increased adoption of some agricultural practices increased by seven times using these locally made videos. So Gandhi created Digital Green — a platform and process for extending knowledge and influencing behavior, supported by the Gates Foundation.

It is reminiscent of the oft-quoted experiments by Robert Cialdini of Arizona State to determine the strongest motivational factor for getting people to save energy. Three different messages were placed on the doors of various customers about why they should save energy:

  1. You can save $54 a month.
  2. You can save the planet.
  3. You can be a good citizen.

Which message had the best result? None. The messages had zero impact. So a fourth message was introduced: Your neighbors are doing better than you. This was the one that made a difference. People who read the message that 77% of their neighbors turned down their air conditioning then also turned down theirs — a classic example of the power of peer pressure.

Extending out these studies, we look at what is most effectively persuading individuals to change their behavior. In both cases, it’s clear that people think locally; they are most interested in what is happening in their communities. It is what social media is all about — wanting to know what your peers are doing. What effects and interests people most poignantly is a true sense of connection to their neighbors and a need for authenticity in the message — personal connection.

How can national, or even international, companies be personal?

Regionally specific campaigns are key, with a goal to get as local as possible. Literally tailor and craft messages (print, video, whatever) that define the audience and consumers specific to their very neighborhood. Don’t just say “your neighbors,” identify them “living from 10th Street – 30th Street, NYC,” or use a specific neighborhood name or, better yet, a nickname.

Use extremely targeted ads. Let the audience know you are really talking about them. Include quotes from people who really do live in that neighborhood (not fictional names). Do not use actors when marketing —use real people, cite their names and the neighborhood they live in, or the street corner where the ad was made. Film quality can be rough, made with handheld video equipment and snapshots. A lack of commercially traditional practices works as the advantage here; it can and should be low-budget, low-tech — think YouTube.

A second takeaway stays with ideas of authentic community ties but shifts the focus from the bonds of the consumer to the bonds of the company. How can a company’s new message of social consciousness and environmental awareness be taken seriously by the ever-skeptical consumer? The corporation should run ads and disseminate information along with other companies doing the same good work. With a combined message, showing how an industry trend is occurring across brands, the message is stronger. Consumers will be more apt to believe the message if it is from various sources — it will not seem biased or singularly self-serving. People will then pay more attention, and thus actually absorb the message.

This collective campaigning also serves as a form of peer pressure on two very different fronts. One, the insider peer group of companies in competition with leading brands will feel forced to take similar actions. If several businesses within a given sector start doing something, then all will have to follow. Second, there is a layer of peer pressure once removed — that of the consumer. Though the general public is not in the group with the corporations, they will still see these collective campaigns as representing a group (which is very different than how we usually view companies as just self-interested bodies). The consumer will want to also be part of the social trend; as a member of the larger American group (for example) they will feel a small level of pressure to be on-board or at least stay aware of what is happening as a cultural/communal shift.

The common phrase “Think globally, act locally” has a real place within this context of impactful marketing and changing consumer behavior. The greater agenda is to promote and successfully drive socially responsible initiatives worldwide. But to do this on a sustainable business level, consumers need to be actively participating, supporting and hopefully encouraging the practices and products. Capturing and addressing the commonality of community on a local level is the strongest methodology.

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