Clues to Behaviour Change

Many years ago, I was in a very different business. One that didn’t consider itself a business at all. Bear with me as I tell you this story, as I’ll circle back on the world of business and marketing eventually.

As a young man fresh out of university, I ran an inner-city youth program in New York City – basically a collective of filmmakers, theatre artists, and writers who used arts programs to promote social and emotional skills with “high risk” youth. We were funded by corporate sponsors and private foundations, who gave us great latitude in coming up with programs that most conventional educators found a bit outlandish. Such as doing Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and Romeo & Juliet with inner-city teenagers, without changing a word of the language, just cutting it down to a more manageable length. To our amazement, our teens deeply understood the situations the characters found themselves in and wrapped their minds and mouths around the difficult language with great finesse. After all, communities such as Harlem and East New York were the birthplace of hip hop, and the skillful use of language to depict high drama and comedy is an inherent part of hip hop culture.

We were blessed to be working with a team of experienced and progressive social workers and child development experts, who educated us on recent research that conclusively found the key factors that would change the behaviours of “high-risk” youth from negative (such as teen pregnancy, drug use, gang involvement) to positive (delaying pregnancy, finishing school, becoming gainfully employed). What they taught us was that the following “resiliency factors” needed to be embedded in any successful youth program, if it was to successfully change behaviours. Among these factors are:

Continuity of engagement:  It’s important for youth to know that there is a reliable program with people who care, a place that will be there for them, day after day, year after year. Especially with many single parent homes and a chaotic environment, this kind of continuity is essential, like the eye of the storm.

Frequency of dosage: To change behaviours effectively, one must provide regular and frequent “dosages” of the intervention. This allows for the creation of new habits and behaviours. As we all know, the old ones are hard to break unless there is sufficient focus on new behaviours that will take their place.

Opportunity to make a contribution:  Youth need to feel that they matter and can have a positive, palpable effect on their surroundings. This is the best way to instill a sense of “self-efficacy”, the belief that one can achieve one’s objectives and have an impact.

Opportunity for self-expression:  Youth also need regular opportunities for creative expression through multiple media. As one expresses one’s true feelings and thoughts, self-awareness and mastery tend to increase as well.

The reason I’m sharing this with you is that these principles apply to far more than just youth; they give us important clues as to how any kind of behaviour change and even successful engagement can occur. Take the above factors and transpose them, for example, into brand engagement, marketing, or social media – and the factors are just as relevant, and essential. When managing a Facebook page, or designing a marketing campaign, we want our audiences to feel a sense of continuity with the brand representatives, get frequent and regular doses of our messaging. We want them to have frequent opportunities to contribute to the dialogue around a brand, and to be able to self-express, even to create, using our platforms.

And there was one more factor, which I’ll reserve for a future post, as it merits special consideration:  Mentorship. At the centre of the above “resiliency factors” is the need for mentors who establish a long-term, productive relationship with youth. Likewise, it can be argued that today, especially with the rise of branded content and entertainment, brands act as mentors and role models for generations of people, modelling behaviours, values and interests. But more on that later…