Posts

Your words matter — how big organizations accidentally hinder sustainable change

The headlines of your articles are not just for snazzy clickbait. If done wrong they might work against you – and against the environment. Here are the do’s and don’ts of writing headlines.

 

 

Yesterday while scrolling through my LinkedIn feed, I came across the following article from the World Economic Forum.

Headlines for sustainable content Asian plastic

 

90% of plastic polluting our oceans comes from just 10 rivers

This is a really interesting subject and I wanted to know more, however, what really got me was the words the WEF decided should go along with it:

’Eight of them are in Asia, two in Africa’

‘Urg’ I thought to myself. ‘That’s a bad choice of words for this piece’.

The World Economic Forum, an International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation, is committed to improving the state of the world. This fact makes the above even more problematic.

Though in line with the article and truthful in it’s nature, that small sentence does way more harm than good. It’s working as a hindrance for sustainable development.

 

Why words matter

Let’s deconstruct the sentence.

By writing ’Eight of them are in Asia, two in Africa’, it’s easy to infer, that no other continent in the world is home to one of the rivers causing 90% of the pollution. This is still completely true and in line with the article but it has unfortunate side effects:

  1. You are basically saying to everyone outside these geographical areas, that this problem is confined to two specific regions, which make people outside these areas distance themselves from the problem, seeing as it’s “over there”. It becomes Somebody Else’s Problem*
  2. People who actively take steps to lower their plastic waste feel discouraged because they are let to believe that their actions have no impact at all. This will leave them less likely to want to change their habits or push for change in the future.

 

Additionally, you risk enhancing old believes that Asia and Africa do not care about the environment. This is, of course, a generalization, not to mention an outdated view of the two continents but unfortunately, the western part of the world still views Asia and Africa as lazy, indifferent or unknowledgeable to environmental issues.

 

What to do instead

Had they instead chosen a solution-orientated caption, they could have fed into the positive wave of change already taken place around the world – the focus on oceanic plastic pollution. If the World Economic Forum wanted to leave the reader more informed but also more likely to support anti-pollution initiatives in the future, they could have replaced the caption with something like this:

‘By knowing which 10 we can focus on targeted solutions, with higher success rates’ 

They could even just have copied points from the article itself, for instance:

‘The rivers all had two things in common; a generally high population living in the surrounding region – sometimes into the hundreds of millions – and a less than ideal waste management process’

 

Why it works

The first example is simply putting a positive outlook on a dire situation. Yes, the ocean is filled with plastic, but by pinpointing the 10 biggest sources, we can act.

Action is the keyword, because only presenting your audience with the (often negative) facts of global pollution issues and climate change, serves as an emotional paralyzer.

What the heart hears is: The world sucks and no one, especially you, can do anything about it. You might as well go back to facebook and kittens.

Instead, by choosing a more positive angle you are telling your audience, yes, this is a bad situation, but knowing the facts about it gives us the power to act.

In the second example, you’re getting even more specific in regards to what needs to be done, so we can turn the problem around.

It would send a signal that 90% of the world’s oceanic plastic pollution is caused by manageable problems that we already know the solutions to – waste management.

Having spent half a decade in waste management I guarantee you that less-than-ideal-waste management is not the same as impossible waste management.

 

But wasn’t it just click-bait?

Possibly. I mean, I clicked on the article. One could argue, that the caption is just right because it evokes resentfulness towards the places responsible for it. But then what? You would have to read the article to the end to get the positive news. And even this is still an issue because you just confirmed the preconceived notion that Asia doesn’t care, meaning that your audience is actually more likely to dismiss the positive news about the advances in Asia because it contradicts a strong held believe – that Asia pollutes, and don’t care. This is what’s known as the backfire effect. You can find a more colorful description of the backfire effect here.

Even if it is just a click-bait aimed at the WEF’s target audience, would you really want to risk pushing everyone who scrolls past the article even further away from taking action on the subject?

 

Small tweaks – Big outcome

I chose to write about this specific article from the World Economic Forum, for two reasons. Firstly because of their inherent role as a promoter of sustainable change, and secondly because their article was well written and had a great balance of facts and behavioral change elements.

The article clarifies how big of an effort China is making to intensify waste management, and mentions Delhi’s ban on disposable plastic. Furthermore, at the bottom of the article, you can find links to articles about how to combat plastic pollution – also known as a call to action.

I want to stress that I think weforum.org overall produces great content and I am a happy reader. Like this nice whale piece, below. It has a positive headline and caption, as well as a great photo – there’s even a sea pun!

 

But the devil is in the detail, and small tweaks like the above can push sustainable development much faster.

By empowering the audience with a positive outlook, you are allowing for much more support towards passing the necessary legislation, investing in alternative products or cleanup technologies, and willingness to change habits. Like giving your audience concrete advice on social media, complete with jokes and pictures.

This also means saving time and money for the companies and regulatory bodies working to solve the problem. But most importantly, you work towards removing more plastic out of our oceans.

 

 

*As coined by the great Douglas Adam, Somebody Else’ Problem refers to people’s ability to simply ignore things they don’t want to deal with.

Social Media and behavioral change – Saving time, money, and cutting the bullS***

In this post, you’ll get hands-on examples of how to use social media for quick and dirty behavioral change campaigns. One of them took me 10 minutes to make and saved my workplace 2-4 weeks of work, and thousands of dollars. Spoiler, 

 

In my day job, I convert recycling advice and environmental information into information that makes sense, and more importantly, that you can act on.

If I make you wiser that’s good, but I’m still only halfway there. For me to succeed, I need to give you the information you need, and the tools to act on it, while giving you that little push you need to change your actions.

An important thing to note here is, I don’t make people do things they don’t want to do. Most people want to be more environmentally friendly, they just need the tools to do it. That’s where I come in.

In the olden days of communication, you would just give your recipient a lot of information, but as I’m sure we all know, information isn’t enough.

Social Media Behavioral Change Healthy eating

 

We all know smoking is bad, and exercise and a healthy diet is good, but somehow we’re not all super healthy non-smokers.

 

I won’t get into why behavioral change is more important than information. You can read my posts about it here, and find additional resources here. Just remember that your words matter when you’re doing SoMe.

So how can social media, or SoMe as the kids call it, initiate a changed behavior?

 

Social media, when done right, can enforce a sense of purpose, of belonging, and an urgent need to act. These are all emotions strongly tied up to behavioral change.

But instead of giving you a lot of information about how to do it, I’ll show you.

The following are two examples of quick and dirty facebook updates I did, and an explanation as to why they worked.

 

1) The pink April Fools

This spring we were lucky enough to get our hands on this beautiful pink waste bin. Just look how happy I am. It’s basically a pink version the same gray bins we are distributing to the entire municipality.

I wanted to make a big event with it on April 1st, but the entire team, myself included, was swamped with work. And April 1st was on a Saturday this year, making it even more difficult to pull of a happening.

 

Enter the magic of the internet!

I did some horrible photoshopping, got creative with the text and voila! This is the facebook post I made:

 

‘YOUR NEW BIN IS PINK!

Last Thursday the municipality approved the new design plan for the waste department.

After a short budget negotiation, it was decided that the entire municipality will get a trash bin in hot pink.

The new bins will put recycling on the agenda and put this municipality on the map as a first-mover when it comes to environmental action.

If you’ve already received a grey bin, it will be swapped with a pink bin during the summer of 2017.

You can read more about the new design guide and the color pink here: http://roskilde.dk/de-3-stoerste-spoergsmaal-om-din-nye-affaldsordning

So yes, I am obviously not a creative genius. I spend 30 min making this post and then posted it on Facebook. The link takes you to a page of the top 3 questions about the new recycling scheme – a page we had difficulties directing traffic to. I boosted the facebook post with the equivalent of 22 US dollars.

The results? It had a reach of more than 14.000 people, got 400 reactions, 60 comments, 24 shares, and 1328 clicks on the link. This also made it our most visited page, as we were averaging around 500 clicks per week on ‘hot topics’, and 10 clicks per week on ‘bottomfeeder’ pages. This is by far the most clicks we’ve had on a site regarding the new recycling scheme. In a municipality of 90.000 people, getting this response to waste is pretty darn good.

 

Why it worked

This was an openly bad joke. It was not trying to be anything special. It was not trying to educate. It tabbed into a tradition, loved and hated by the Danish public – the horribly obvious April fools pranks.

It took a boring trashcan, and gave it some pesaz!
In other words, the message I am sending is, don’t worry you won’t get a big pink waste bin. You will still get a waste bin, but in a less intrusive color – and no, we’re not gonna lecture you.


What’s the takeaway?

Tab into what already exists. Christmas, traditions, old jokes. I once accidentally planed a recycling event on valentines day! So, when I promoted it I added a bunch of hearts and romance, and made the header: WE LOVE TRASH! It was a close save, but it worked.

Maybe April fools isn’t your thing. That’s cool. Here another example of SoMe working its magic.

 

2) Cardboard or carton? The money saver

 

I work with waste management, and getting people to recycle more. That also means explaining the rules of recycling.

In our recycling scheme, you can put your carton with your paper, but you can’t put cardboard with your paper.

This is confusing and we’ve gotten a lot of questions about how to tell the difference between carton and cardboard. The long answer has to do with the wood fibers in the two materials, but it tends to make the listener even more confused.

Instead of a wall of text, I tore off some cardboard from the office supply room and stole the carton roll inside a toilet paper roll. I grabbed my phone and went to work. 10 minutes later, with the aid of an Instagram filter and a layout app, I had this picture.

I shared it with a text explaining the difference in this way:

‘Are you down with carton?

We’ve received some question about the new recycling scheme. One of them is, what’s the difference between cardboard and carton?

Well, cardboard and carton are tricky areas, but this is our rule of thumb:


Cardboard usually comes in big quantities, like furniture packaging. When you tear it, you can see a middle layer inside the cardboard, which is wavy.

Carton, on the other hand, is “just” thick paper. When you tear it, it still looks like thick paper.

From may 1st, carton can go in your paper bin. Cardboard should be taken to the recycling station.

Share this information with your neighbors 🙂

Thank you for recycling!’

The results blew me away!

I didn’t even boost this update, meaning I spend no money on it, but it got 26 shares, 116 reactions, 857 clicks, and had a range of 6774 people. Again, in a municipality of 90.000, that’s a big deal considering the photo is basically a picture of trash. Even the mayor shared it!

So for 10 minutes work, and no money at all, I did what a communication campaign would have done in weeks or months of planning, and thousands of dollars worth of graphics, printing, and distribution. Let’s just recap:

I saved my workplace weeks of work, and thousands of dollars, in 10 minutes

This is the power of social media

 

Why it worked
It visually explained the difference between the two materials, making it easy for the citizen to test his or her own waste. It eliminated a lot of energy and frustration that would have been spent contemplating the difference.

It took away the am-I-doing-it-right doubt, that many people face when sorting their waste. It gave them a tool for solving this issue in years to come and thanked them for making an effort.

 

What’s the takeaway?

If you’re a good communicator, and you know the underlying motives and frustrations of your audience, you can work around the old ways of designing behavioral change campaigns.

If you can deliver your message in a to-the-point fashion, you can get away with taking photos of your waste, and just add an Instagram filter.

 

Summing-up

 

Social media is an easy, cheap, and fast way of narrowing the gap between you and your target audience. It’s a platform, where you can get away with fast updates, camera phones, and cheap editing apps.


If on the other hand, you want to make a super high-end folder, your audience will not tolerate sloppy graphics, faulty grammar, or bad jokes. But it works for Social Media.

 

SoMe is a place to meet your equal

 

This is especially important if you work in government. You are usually the authority, telling the citizen what to do, and how to comply with the rules. This automatically creates a gap between you and a (skewed?) power balance.

On social media, it’s ok to make bad jokes, with horribly photoshopped pictures. If you are fun and can look your audience in the eyes, that’s what matters.

Don’t be afraid to be human and don’t be afraid of snarky comments on Facebook. It’s a part of how the platform works, and the rest of your audience knows that the trolls are just trolling.

So go get your share on, and make the difference you need to make 😉