Harnessing the science of social marketing and behaviour change for improved water quality in the GBR: an action research project

Lynne Eagle
Led by: Prof Lynne Eagle, JCU


Project Summary

Working in partnership with staff from the Australian Government’s Department of the Environment (DotE), and the Queensland Government’s Departments of Science Information Technology and Innovation (DSITI) and Environment Heritage and Protection (DEHP), this project will use data collected from land managers and elsewhere to critically evaluate the way water quality (WQ) improvement programmes are ‘marketed’. It will use insights from those evaluations to inform the reconfiguration of marketing and engagement strategies associated with programmes scheduled for roll-out during 2017, demonstrating methods for monitoring and assessing the extent to which these different Programmes and changed strategies improve adoption and alter behaviours.

Problem Statements


Adoption of best practice land management (BMP) strategies to improve WQ has been low in some regions and previous programmes may have encouraged BMP only amongst those who were already pre-disposed1. This project seeks to encourage BMP uptake amongst land managers who have not previously engaged.

BMP reef-related programmes often assume that land managers are motivated by profit – offering financial (dis)incentives or seeking to ‘prove’ that BMP will raise profits. Finances are not the sole driver of on-farm conservation activities2: socio-cultural and environmental values are crucially important to land managers3 and residents4. Even those who focus on money may not focus on profit; they may instead wish to minimise cost, risk5 and/or maintain flexibility6. This may explain why financial payments for on-farm conservation initiatives do not always generate ‘additionality’7, and suggests that the incentives used to encourage BMP are unlikely to appeal to all land managers8.

Importantly, encouraging behaviour change is not simply about getting incentives ‘right’. A vast body of literature focuses on behaviour9, the ‘power of persuasion’10 and the social acceptance of new knowledge11 establishing that to change behaviour one must win a ‘battle of ideas’12. Programmes have an implicit or explicit persuasive message embedded within. Messages can be ‘framed’ positively or negatively and communicated to target audiences through different mediums (e.g. pamphlets, extension officers). No single mode of framing or communication works in all situations13 due to a host of interacting factors, including: the intrinsic and extrinsic motivators/incentives14, value orientations15, descriptive and injunctive social norms, social networks and preferred communication channels of targeted groups16; perceptions of intervening barriers/enablers17; whether new or existing behaviours are targeted18; whether personal freedoms are perceived to be threatened19 and those involved are ‘trusted; and the functional literacy of targets20. Different factors may drive the behaviour of different population segments21 and in different social contexts, hence the need to develop context-specific intervention strategies22.

How Research Addresses Problem

Consistent with a plea to determine “what works, for whom, in what circumstances and for how long’23, this project uses insights from the science of social marketing and behaviour change to implement (and test the efficacy of) changes to the marketing and engagement strategy associated with programmes designed to be rolled out under the Reef 2050 Plan. It aims to change key behaviours, particularly amongst those who have not previously engaged, to improve WQ.

Alignment with NESP Research Priorities

1. Reducing water quality impacts: Identify and prioritize practical management actions capable of protecting and improving water quality in the Great Barrier Reef Region.

(e) New methods for encouraging behavior/practice change/improving compliance with BMP.

(f) Compare the ability of different social and/or economic levers to encourage practice change in different contexts.

1Manifested with low uptake of programmes (e.g. when the Wet Tropics Reverse Tender was announced, organisers initially received requests for more information from more than 200 land managers; just 19 eligible applications were submitted; 14 of which were contracted) or with good uptake – as for Reef Programme and Reef Rescue – but low delivery with respect to water quality targets. 2Knowler and Bradshaw, 2007; Greiner et al, 2009; Greiner and Gregg, 2011; Marshall et al 2011. 3Stoeckl et al 2015. 4Larson et al, 2014. 5Asseng et al, 2012; Monjardino et al, 2013. 6Greiner, 2015. 7Wunder, 2007. 8Burton et al, 2008, Greiner & Gregg, 2011. 9Eagle et al, 2013. 10Blackstock et al, 2010. 11Colvin et al, 2015. 12Peattie & Peattie, 2003, p.376; Emtage & Herbohn, 2012a; Meadows et al, 2014. 13Rothman & Salovey, 1997; Block & Keller, 1995. 14Arias, 2015; Eagle et al, 2015a; Gneezy et al, 2011. 15Schwartz, 1994; Hicks et al, 2015. 16Cialdini & Goldstein, 2004; Smith et al, 2012. 17Cocklin et al, 2006; Eagle et al, 2015a; Rolf & Greff, 2015; Green & Dzidic, 2014; Colvin et al, 2015; Compton & Beeton, 2012. 18Snyder et al, 2004. 19Ringold, 2002; Brehm & Brehm, 1981. 20Blackstock, 2010. 21Fishbein, 2008. 22Fishbein and Yzer, 2003; Fishbein and Cappella, 2006; Blackstock et al, 2010; Emtage & Herbohn, 2012b; McGuire et al, 2015. 23Marteau et al, 2011: 264; Taylor et al, 2012.

Project Keywords

Social marketing; Behaviour change; Evaluation; Adaptive design; WQ improvement programmes.

Project Funding

This project is jointly funded through JCU, DSITI, DEHP, DotE – Reef Trust and the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Programme.

Project Publications
Interim Report 1
Interim Report 2




Project Map

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