Community-based social marketing attempts to uncover barriers to action and behavior change, produce “social norming”

Cross-posted from The Mobility Lab, 5 Dec 2016

One of the fundamental concepts of behavior change, also known as community-based social marketing, or CBSM, is to acknowledge an individual’s self-perception and to uncover the barrier that causes someone to take a certain course of action, like driving alone. CBSM requires strategies to be built, piloted and implemented. However, most short-term challenges don’t incorporate these essential steps of social marketing and therefore struggle to maintain a true change in behavior from participants.

D.C. region commuter challenges

In the D.C. metro region alone we see the effects of single day challenges that have the best of intentions but fall short. While the events support local and regional TDM goals and offer incentives, they don’t necessarily set participants up for long-term success. Long-term success would mean a program introduces an element of social norming, which would produce herd mentality and critical mass over time, allowing evaluations to be formed and elements adjusted to changed perception. While short-term events may portray social norming, it’s not realistic to assume a true change in behavior in 24 hours, since most events don’t follow the logic of social norms: identifying an underlying problem, defining an intervention strategy and goal, and even measuring the desired impact post-event.

For example, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ Commuter Connections program sponsors the region wide international Car-Free Day event; however, the challenge this year only amassed 4,517 participants to take the pledge. At the end of the day, a pledge only counts those who fill out an online form and can’t really be tied to traffic fluctuation in the region, since the total isn’t a majority of drivers in the region. In fact, if all pledges were honored, of the 140,000 workers who commute to Arlington, it would only be 3 percent. Not 3 percent of the entire region, 3 percent of commuters to Arlington.

Even the Arlington Transportation Partners-hosted event, National Walking Day, engages less than 1 percent of the at-place employees in Arlington County. This event is marketed more as a wellness and team-building event and less about transportation options and has been effective to engage prospective clients or re-energize existing customers. Similar to other one-day events, this event on its own does not transform thousands into avid walkers.

Perhaps the most well-known single day event in the region, Bike to Work Day, which accumulated over 17,500 participants in May 2016 across D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, only technically impacts 1.3 percent of at-place employees in Arlington. Bike to Work Day effectively spreads the notion of biking due to the overall visibility of the event for both riders and non-participants who may see bike trains, pit stops and more throughout the day.

In terms of sheer participant volume, Bike to Work Day comes closest to accumulating critical mass – but how can we ensure that it translates to new bikers or a sustained number of people using biking as a mode of transportation? In fact, without a definitive plan in place to follow-up and survey participants to see if their new behaviors really stuck, it’s hard to tell long-term impact around these events.

Critical mass & potential reach

Truthfully, that answer is hard. Transportation demand management as a whole can be difficult to measure if hard facts aren’t measured up against the goals, which is why Arlington Transportation Partners changed its measurement of success in 2013 after facing market saturation and constant business turnover. Using CBSM techniques that had proven successful in the utility industry, ATP launched Champions. The Champions program works with employers, multi-family residential communities, schools, and commercial properties to help Arlington-based organizations improve overall benefits and amenities for employees and tenants. The program incorporates the idea that employers were mostly unaware of how their involvement with implementing transportation programs benefited their employees, their organizations, and the greater Arlington County community.

In 2013, ATP recognized 31 Champions, and since the inaugural year, the program has grown to recognize 241 businesses, multi-family residential communities, public schools and commercial properties. In terms of reach to potential Arlington at-place employees, that’s a 12.2 percent population reach. So how did the program build critical mass, and why is this an answer for cities struggling with fleeting interest after an event has expired?

Incorporating short-term programs

The success of Champions wasn’t built overnight, but did incorporate the same single-day efforts outlined above. However, ATP and Champions took what was already working in Arlington County and amplified it with a strategic plan to give employers bite-sized achievable actions that would turn into large accomplishments over a nine-month period. That’s 270 days instead of just one, but single day events like Bike to Work Day and National Walking Day are always great ways to open doors and start the conversation to get employers involved who otherwise aren’t typically interested in transportation. The trick was to then turn that single-day engagement into a year-long commitment.

Social norming and a customer journey of success, paired with national and local recognition, fuels Champions and has been a strong platform to discuss challenging topics like decreasing parking subsidies or setting mode shift goals. Champions doesn’t ask participants to jump major barriers out of the gate, but instead works as a personalized approach to each company’s unique needs and concerns. While Arlington’s overall goal may be the same, Champions allows business and properties to get there in their own way.

With time, similar programs to Champions could help employers increase a transit subsidy for employees, spend less on parking subsidies, form vanpools for commuters outside of the core business district, achieve national recognition for bicycle infrastructure, and more. Of course, the greatest achievement will be for the county, city or jurisdiction through company/employee retention as business communities grow, resulting in improved economic development.

Photo: The intersection of N. Glebe Road and Wilson Boulevard in Arlington’s Ballston neighborhood. (Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab,