Imagine, as you scroll down your newsfeed, your favourite influencer’s new message: ‘Did you know that if food waste was a nation, it would be the world’s third biggest emitter? Reducing food waste is sth I care about a lot and see many people trying to do sth about. Let me show you a couple of quick tips on how to re-use your leftover bread, to avoid wasting it.’ Having previously looked at the role of TV for sustainability, we wondered, what can social media bring to the table?
Working with Unilever, and its brands Dove and Hellmans, BIT designed and ran, to our knowledge, the largest online randomised-controlled trial with over 6,013 TikTok or Instagram users from across 3 countries (the UK, USA and Canada) to test the effect of different types of social media messaging. This involved working with 9 creators who developed bespoke content following BIT’s guidance and building a simulated social media platform, with much of the functionality of the likes of TikTok and Instagram, to test themon. So what did we find?
Huge potential of social media for sustainability
Social media was the top source of information for our participants. You heard well. The top source. They were also cited as having the biggest influence on their behaviours, over multi-million documentaries. When it comes to information on sustainability, social media ranked as one of the most trusted sources, trumping the government, politicians or traditional media like TV or newspapers. 8 in 10 told us TikTok and Instagram is a good place for advice on how to live sustainably and over 8 in 10 support influencers doing more in this space, such as showing how they’re reducing their carbon footprint, providing tips or even directing customers to products and services that are environmentally sustainable. This goes to show that social media could play a big role in helping some people to take up more sustainable behaviours.
Figure 1. The role of social media for sustainability
What difference can influencers make?
In our trial, we asked creators to produce videos covering two areas: reducing food waste and plastic use. Alongside neutral content (on an entirely different topic), we looked at the effect of using climate pragmatism (problem-focused) and climate optimistic (solution-focused) framing. We found that both had a modest but robust effect on changing participants’ intentions to take sustainable action. For instance, we saw a 5 percentage point increase in people’s intention to avoid food packaged in plastic, cut open a plastic tube to make sure they use every last bit of a product or to use all parts of produce.
Figure 2. Testing the effectiveness of climate pragmatism vs climate optimism vs neutral content
Looking at actual behaviours, the picture was more mixed. In a follow-up survey 2 weeks later, 10% more participants who saw the climate pragmatism content said they took up a new sustainable action, compared to those exposed to the neutral content. However, when asked to choose from a specific list of 14 behaviours, no statistically significant differences were found. This discrepancy is likely due to different method of asking the (on the face of it) same question. The open ended vague question likely gave participants more freedom, than a narrow list of 14 options that they may have struggled to find themselves in. The jury on this is out. But the mere fact that we do find some indication of behaviour change after exposure to a couple of minutes worth of social media content – whose real strength lies in repeat exposure over time – suggests further work in this area is promising.
Which type of content is more likely to work?
There is a vast literature suggesting that positive non-threatening messaging about climate change is likely to be more successful than negative fear-inducing messages. Ideally, combining both of these approaches, should be most effective. So what has happened here?
We think that the climate pragmatism frame resonated more due to the type of behaviours and target audience. When your audience is on board and familiar with what to do – as our group of environmentally-friendly social media users – it may be that all they need is that additional nudge, reminding them of why immediate action is needed. Hence the good performance of climate pragmatism framing, we speculate.
On the other hand, say we were targeting an audience less familar with what to do and focusing on harder behaviours. There, we suspect, the climate optimismt focus on concrete actions that people can take, might be more successful. When asked, 1 in 2 told us they’d prefer easy to follow content with actionable tips that 2 in 5 thought would be more effective. Taken together, this goes to show the importance of rigorous evaluation.
Needless to say, communication is far from a silver bullet, but can be quite effective, especially when coupled with easy opportunities for action. If you are wondering how to craft and evaluate your message to encourage more sustainable behaviours, please get in touch.
This research was commissioned by Unilever.