Science Communication and Social Marketing

17April 2019

Applying marketing to improve communications about social issues is an important part of social marketing for me. While I do not like to see mass communication campaigns or social media projects passed off as ‘social marketing,’ I do believe that marketing can help make health communication, risk communication, or any other type of science communication more effective, efficient, sustainable and equitable. And, some times, theories and research in communication have lessons to be learned and applied by social marketers as well.

The new report from the US National Academy of Sciences, Communicating science effectively: A research agenda [pdf], is one that you should read. Chapters are devoted to using science to improve science communication; the complexities of communicating science; the nature of science-related public controversies (which some of our work also gets embroiled in); communicating science in a complex, competitive communication environment (note the use of the word ‘competitive’); and building the knowledge base for effective science. In most social marketing programs, what we are working with is how to translate science-based evidence and findings into products, services, messages, policies and, yes, behavior change programs. In one form or another, we are science marketers. So what can we learn from those who communicate about science?

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I am not going to review each section in detail. Rather, I am going to share some statements and paragraphs that resonated with this social marketer – maybe they will for you too.

“…the most widely held, and simplest, model of what audiences need from science communication—what is known as the “deficit model”—is wrong. A common assumption is that a lack of information or understanding of science fully explains why more people do not appear to accept scientific claims or engage in behaviors or support policies that are consistent with scientific evidence. The research on science communication, however, shows that audiences may already understand what scientists know but, for diverse reasons, do not agree or act consistently with that science. People rarely make decisions based only on scientific information; they typically also take into account their own goals and needs, knowledge and skills, and values and beliefs. A related widespread assumption in both the scientific and science communication communities is that if only science communication were done “better,” people would make choices consistent with scientific evidence. This assumption has not been fully tested in diverse situations. And although people may need to have more information or to have information presented more clearly, a focus on knowledge alone often is insufficient for achieving communication goals.” (p. 3)

Think about this the next time you are discussing objectives, benefits, value, barriers or challenges to behavior change or picking over the phrasing of your messages to ‘make them better’ or ‘more persuasive.’ How many social marketing programs, articles and textbooks can you think of that subscribe to this deficit model in one form or another? Communication, knowledge change, or understanding risks and benefits, are not enough, period.

“Audiences for science sometimes are blamed when science communication appears to have failed (“the public does not care”; “they were too uneducated to understand”). However, communicators themselves can introduce barriers to effective communication. For example, they may fail to identify clear and feasible goals for their communication, including what information people need to know. At the same time, communicators tend to overestimate what most people know about a subject, as well as to overrate the effectiveness of their efforts.” (p. 12)

The ‘blame-the-victim’ mentality is pretty common across public health – and science in general. The key point about how communicators (or marketers) can introduce barriers to change should be carefully considered when planning programs. In particular, assumptions about what people need to know, do know, and what to do as a result should be challenged. That’s the value of design or formative research-to test our assumptions and not simply do ‘satisfaction research.’

“The decision to communicate science always involves an ethical component. Choices about what scientific evidence to communicate and when, how, and to whom are a reflection of values. This fact becomes especially salient when the science pertains to an individual decision or policy choice that is contentious.” (p. 20)

For many social marketers, especially those who profess to be ‘science-based’ in their program’s development, should reflect on the proposition that ‘science-based’ is an ethical standard and choices about how to design and deliver programs are laden with values that have potential consequences on people we serve.

“…the deficit model assumes that if a message about scientific information is well crafted for one audience, it should meet the needs of other audiences as well. In fact, effective science communication is affected by the context and requires engagement with different audiences in different places at different times, taking account of what they want to know and already know, understand, and believe.” (p. 22)

If you need another support, or reference, for why segmentation is important when talking with people – try this one, and be sure to emphasize THE National Academy of Sciences report says…” And what are other ways to think about people rather than ‘knowledge-deprived human beings?’

“Making sense of scientific information is not easy. Consumers, for example, are faced with parsing complex and contradictory claims about the risks and benefits of fat, salt, added sugar, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food. They must decide whether to agree with science-based advice about avoiding obesity, to listen to those who say the causes of obesity are not yet well understood, or to ignore science-based debates altogether. Likewise, patients must make choices about treatments and drugs—a task that often requires judging among contradictory claims about what “science says” and wrestling with inevitable uncertainties about the aftermath of any decision they make.” (p. 24)

Too many social marketing programs revolve around explaining risks and benefits to people, but do they really do so in a way that helps people make informed decisions – or is the presentation or risks and benefits framed to ‘persuade’ or convince people to change? And what’s ethical about the latter approach? Also, and here I’ve been spending a lot of time over the past year or so, how do we talk about the uncertainties of scientific knowledge about obesity, health screenings, and all of the other evidence-based behaviors and outcomes we market? Articulating the uncertainties of science and scientific recommendations so they are understood by people, patients and policymakers is now considered an essential part of any communication activity. Even the uncertainties that surface when experts disagree on the science need to be faced. How many social marketing programs even acknowledge there is some uncertainty in their recommendations and ‘benefits’ for acting differently?

“…public engagement offers opportunities to facilitate transparency and informed consent among stakeholders and for each stakeholder to both learn from and teach others involved in the debate. An essential component of mutual teaching and learning is the opportunity to clarify one’s beliefs and understanding, revise one’s opinions, gain insight into the thinking of others, and articulate values amid uncertainty about the societal implications of a decision. A key benefit of such processes is building and maintaining trust through a fair, open, and transparent process.” (p. 25)

There has been a shift among some social marketers to talk about, and practice, civic engagement and activation, or co-creation, as part of their approach. There is a lot to be learned from risk communication science and practice, especially in the field of environmental protection, about what works and what doesn’t in this regard.

“One form of mental shortcut is motivated reasoning, defined as the ‘systematic biasing of judgments in favor of one’s immediately accessible beliefs and feelings [that is] built into the basic architecture of information processing mechanisms of the brain.’ Most, and perhaps all, people possess this natural reluctance to accept facts, evidence, and arguments that contradict the positions they hold.” (p 34)

How does motivated reasoning, as opposed to nudges and ‘barriers,’ get in the way of your social marketing programs (maybe better, have you even considered this idea before)? How do we identify and address motivated reasoning in our research and program designs? “Because individuals tend to engage in motivated reasoning, the source of communication about a science-related topic and how that information is presented are likely to trigger specific associative pathways and patterns of thinking that will influence their attention to and interpretation of all subsequent information.” (p. 34)

“Research has shown that the use of science in policy making is not a straightforward process involving a simple, traceable relationship between the provision of information and a specific decision. Even when policy makers have access to and understand all the relevant sources of information, they will not necessarily weigh science heavily or use it to identify and select among policy options. There is a paucity of evidence, however, on effective practices and structures for affecting policy makers’ understanding, perception, and use of science.” (p. 39)

This quote is for the ones who believe that, or act as-if, policy-makers make more rational decisions than other people. Working at the policy level requires a marketing approach with as much attention, if not more, to the formative research process.

Then there are a few points they make in the section “applying the lessons of large scale science communication efforts, including health communication campaigns and social marketing programs:”

“Too little attention often is paid to providing sufficient exposure to information to reach enough of the target audiences to effect change. An exposure strategy involves defining how often, through what methods, and over what period of time a message should be disseminated and who the intended audiences are.” (p. 48)

“Research suggests that communication intended to educate may have more impact if provided before people form strong opinions about the topic… Observed ‘inoculation effects’ in other areas of communication suggest that early communication about science, including equipping people with counterarguments that expose flaws in misinformation, also may ‘inoculate’ the public from the spread of misinformation by those with a stake in misrepresenting the science.” (p. 48)

“Long-term and comprehensive approaches may be needed to achieve certain communication goals…a strategy of repeated exposure to a message delivered in multiple formats by diverse actors via various platforms is effective for conveying a message of consensus to many segments of the public.” (p. 49)

All equally applicable to social marketing efforts as well.

“Tailoring scientific messages for different audiences is one approach to avoiding a direct challenge to strongly held beliefs while still offering accurate information. People tend to be more open-minded about information presented in a way that appears to be consistent with their values.” (p. 56)

I’ll just note here that the authors go on to say how tailoring strategies have drawn from research in social marketing and audience segmentation. However, the authors also call for more research on audience segmentation models to understand how much of an effect can be expected, among which kinds of people, and in what contexts. So…let’s move from describing segments to discovering how they shift our approach and the effects we observe.

“When individuals are asked to describe the issues that are of most concern to them or are the most important facing the country, or to reflect on how worried they are about a risk, their responses are most likely to reflect the extent of their media exposure to the issues, as well as whether the issues affect them directly.” (p. 71)

The simplest answer to why every social marketers trying to achieve ‘social change’ needs to understand and apply mass communication research, especially agenda-setting effects. Yes, social marketing is more than a mass media campaign. But though I have done population-level change without mass media, it’s much better to have it in the marketing mix. And thinking about mass media as an agenda-setting tool, not a behavior change one, is an idea I find that few social marketers understand.

Their last chapter sets out the beginnings of a research agenda that provides many ideas about the types of research social marketers could also be undertaking. For example, How do the various elements involved in communicating science at the individual, group, community, and societal levels interact to affect how people understand, perceive, and use science? Social marketers also need to think about the total marketing system and not focus on the ‘level du jour’ (the so-called downstream, mid-stream and upstream approaches; or micro, meso and macro-levels). Thinking about how social marketing can help address, and learn from, the challenges in science communication will provide us with not just better ways to communicate science and market evidence-based practices and policies, but how to reach the shared objective of improving the health and well-being of all people and our planet.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2017). Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23674.

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