Harnessing the science of social marketing in communication materials development and behaviour change for improved water quality in the GBR: a desktop review (Project 2.1.3 – Stage 2)

Lynne Eagle
Led by: Prof Lynne Eagle, JCU


Project Summary

This project extends project 2.1.3 which contains an analysis of communications to land holders for the Reef Trust Tender – Burdekin and The Reef Programme concerning readability, message framing, message tone and visual imagery, factors that significantly impact on message acceptance, engagement and adoption of recommended behaviours. The analysis identified that: 1. Material is written in too complex language; 2. Message tone may be a barrier; and 3. Visual imagery may have unintended effects. These findings have implications across wider programs and there has been considerable interest in extending this analysis to assist in developing and revising foundational material and messages.


Project Publications
Final Report





Problem Statements


Achieving consistency in approach and message clarity across the gamut of communication materials produced for projects that support the Reef 2050 Plan would address a number of issues. Firstly, the GBR Water Science Taskforce indicated that ‘poor communication and engagement’ represents one of the barriers to effective program delivery. Secondly, beyond clarity of message, improving the way projects communicate and get buy in from producers will ensure greater project uptake, associated results and lasting behaviour change. Thirdly, there is a need to further strengthen the understanding and impact that visuals play in the agricultural-environmental context. Documentary analysis within Project 2.1.3: has provided an overview of immediately available Reef Trust and Reef Programme communication materials, however a broader analysis suggested through this project would help fill gaps and provide a more comprehensive guide for Australian, Queensland Governments and other program managers as well as extension providers. This proposed project will address these issues, providing recommendations for the refinement of existing and future communications activity.

How Research Addresses Problem

The proposed project will draw on learnings from past research which recognised that readability, message framing and message tone, primarily within the health sector, as impacting significantly on the way that messages are processed and whether the messages are ultimately influential in encouraging the desired behaviours. It is also important to ensure that communications work with rather than against prevailing social norms; if threats to autonomy and identity are perceived, resistance and even defiant behaviour may occur, particularly when, as we have noted earlier, there are some land manager groups who are unwilling or unable to accept that they are contributing directly or indirectly to water quality problems.

It is claimed that “knowledge, attitudes and behaviours underpinning sustainability are all mediated through communication”, with visual communication playing a key role in “synthesising complex information”. The use of visual aids should be considered for three reasons. First, they may help in gaining attention and interest in a message in order for time and effort to be allocated to the remainder of the material. Secondly, the use of appropriate visuals can help those who struggle to understand text-based information or abstract concepts. Finally, they can “amplify the verbal portion of a persuasive message”, or make specific elements within a specific communication stand out. Further, there is evidence that they can communicate more effectively than words alone.

Alignment with NESP Research Priorities

[From RPv2 research priorities] 1. Reducing water quality impacts: Identify and prioritise practical management actions capable of protecting and improving water quality in the Great Barrier Reef Region.

(e) New methods for encouraging behaviour/practice change/improving compliance with best management practices.

(f) Compare the ability of different communications strategies to encourage practice change in different contexts.


Project Keywords

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


Project Funding

This project is jointly funded through JCU, DEHP, GBRMPA, DSITI, DAF, Canegrowers (BMP), FBA (BMP), SRA, NRM reps and the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Programme.


Project Map

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