Fostering Behavior Change Minute: Using Email to Change Behavior

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From Doug McKenzie-Mohr, Ph.D.,

Nancy Artz and Peter Cooke have utilized the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) email system to foster the adoption of sustainable behaviors by DEP staff.* Emails were sent to 420 employees encouraging their engagement in four household behaviors: 1) checking tire pressure, 2) installing high-efficiency light bulbs, 3) checking the efficiency of their refrigerator, and 4) purchasing green power.

For each of these four behaviors, a series of emails were sent. The first email requested that the employees make a commitment to carry out a specific action. The second email was sent only to those employees who made a commitment to engage in the action and asked if they had undertaken the activity. The third email was sent to all DEP employees and showcased the number of staff who had committed to engaging in the behavior. This email served both as a way of making their commitments public and as a way of developing descriptive norms (see earlier Minutes on these two behavior change tools).

In the case of tire inflation, for example, the first email informed DEP staff of the benefits of properly inflated tires (i.e., reduced emissions, enhanced fuel efficiency, and extended tire life). It then asked, “Will you commit to checking your tire pressure by the end of the weekend?” Recipients could respond by using Microsoft Outlook’s designated reply buttons. In the case of tire inflation, the following predesignated replies were provided: 1) I already checked it within the last two weeks; 2) I will commit to checking it by the end of the weekend, thanks; 3) I’m not interested, but good luck to everyone else; and 4) oh . . . tire pressure needs to be checked? A week later, those who had made a commitment to check their tires were sent a follow-up email in which they were asked to indicate if they had checked their tires. Finally, five days later, a message was sent out to all employees noting that many people had committed to checking their tires and that the number of people who acted on that commitment was “pretty good.”

How effective was this campaign? The percentage of DEP employees who responded to the initial email announcing each behavior was as follows: 41% for tires; 34% for high-efficiency light bulbs; 32% for fridges; and 18% for green power. Of the individuals who responded, commitments to engage in the behaviors were as follows: 59% for tires, 38% for light bulbs, 63% for fridges, and 8% for green power.

Definitive information on what people did is challenging in a project such as this. However, in the case of the high-efficiency light bulbs, the number of bulbs reported to have been installed (38) was substantially lower than the actual number of bulbs that had been purchased at the front kiosk where they had been made available for sale. The authors also note that purchases at the kiosk would not reflect purchases at hardware stores. It appears that while not all employees responded to the email campaign, many were influenced by it.

The fact that many agencies utilize standardized email clients, such as Microsoft Outlook, provides a largely untapped opportunity to inform staff of behaviors that they might engage in, seek commitments regarding these behaviors, and provide feedback on the percentage of staff that report doing a behavior. These email-based interventions could be developed as turnkey initiatives and easily delivered at scale for a wide array of health, safety and environmental behaviors.

In the next several Minutes, I’ll continue to describe how to communicate effectively in further detail.


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Thanks for reading this week. Take care and stay safe.

Best, Doug

Doug McKenzie-Mohr, Ph.D.

Founder, Community-Based Social Marketing
Author, Fostering Sustainable Behavior

*Artz, N. & Cooke, P. (2007). “Using E-Mail Listservs to Promote Environmentally Sustainable Behaviors,” Journal of Marketing Communications, 13(4), 257-276.

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