Public Education

Recycled Conversations: Changing Behavior in the Solid Waste Industry

There is a lot be learned and a lot to be gained by incorporating social media into our communication strategies.

Dennis Guy

Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

William Lever or John Wanamaker? I’m not sure. Sources attribute this quote to both men. Most often, it is attributed to John Wanamaker, who is considered the forefather of modern advertising. It doesn’t really matter who said it first. It was the message itself that caught my attention. The first time I read it I chuckled. It’s kind of funny. It offers up a small dose of humility for me, considering what I do with my days. Then I furrowed my brow. And finally, turning around to see that no one was looking, a slight nod of my head in agreement.

Do we really know which advertising dollar is more effective than another? Does it matter? Maybe it does. I’d like to think that if I could figure out which ones are the more effective I’d spend more of them and stop spending on the ones that aren’t. But how can we be sure we’re spending advertising dollars effectively?

Now more than ever, it’s important to take the aforementioned quote and give it thought because we’re 1) inundated with messages left, right and center, at a pace that even the best of us can barely keep up to, and 2) if we’re wasting half of our efforts (money and resources) then we need to realign our communication strategies with our recycling goals.

Let me clarify what we are selling in the solid waste industry. Traditional advertising’s purpose is to sell products but we’re not selling a product. We’re not even selling a service, really. We’re selling the invisible: behavior change. (Thanks to Harry Beckwith for Selling the Invisible.) You won’t find ‘waste diversion’ on shelves at your local supermarket. You can’t find ‘new and improved recycling potion’ at the drug store. Behavior change comes from within. In order to spend advertising dollars effectively, we have to reach beyond traditional media to get within. ‘The way it’s always been done’ no longer works effectively with communication strategies when it comes to educating the public.

One-Way Communication

Traditional and mass media provide examples of one-way communication: print advertising such as newspaper, magazines, direct mail, radio, television, billboards, bus shelters and most Web sites. These tactics are developed, released to consumers without any dialogue. Recently described as interruption marketing, mass media interrupts what you are doing in order to get your attention. You open the newspaper to read the news. You turn on the radio to hear music. You click on a channel to watch Seinfeld reruns. The target audience for interruption marketing is made up of those who don’t know our programs exist, or they do know, but aren’t paying attention to us. These are the people we’re trying to ‘get on board.’ The challenge is getting them to pay attention. So we spend more money on advertising—more advertisements, more frequency, more interruption.

However, more interruption is still interruption. If people aren’t paying attention to us to begin with, who’s to say that they will if we increase the amount? Interruption marketing tactics are common amongst municipal communication strategies; they’re visible, even tangible in most cases. On the surface, they make it look like we’re doing something. We are, of course, developing strategic advertisements, but it is not as easy as it looks. The challenge is accepting interruption marketing for what it’s worth and making use of it accordingly.

Two-Way Communication

In contrast to the mass media of one-way communication, two-way communication is like a conversation. Dialogue rather than monologue. Where traditional advertising interrupts, conversations give permission. By asking a question one person, in essence, gives another person permission to respond. This is not: “I don’t care about recycling, I’m trying to read the newspaper,” or “I don’t care about composting, I’m trying to listen to the radio,” or “I don’t have time to sort, I’m watching reruns of Seinfeld.” No, permission marketing is “I have a question about recycling. I give you permission to talk to me and tell me the answer” (Seth Godin, Permission Marketing).

Permission marketing assumes a different target audience than interruption marketing. We’re accustomed to sorting people into demographic categories, putting them into a box that expects them to be like everyone else in that box. But we’re not all the same, even within our little boxes. We have differences. What I know about recycling is less or more than what you know about recycling. If we’re both males in the 25 to 34 demographic owning a home, it can be dangerous to assume that we are the same when it comes to recycling. We’re not likely to be the same, so we shouldn’t assume to be. Conversations (permission-based) facilitate a personal, customized interaction. No matter who you are, how old you are or where you come from, you’ll get an answer that is just for you. The public is more likely to respond to this than a message in a newspaper ad that assumes what known and unknown. A newspaper ad assumes everyone is looking for the same answer to the same question.

A real person—even one without direct experience—brings more credibility to the conversation than a perfect marketing message does.” (balter)

People who want to have, or are already having, a conversation about recycling are the target audience for permission marketing. They are already engaged and therefore more likely to seek out answers to their questions. Permission marketing proposes a different way of thinking about target audiences. For example, we normally focus on the non-recyclers by trying to ‘get them on board’ but if they’re not listening, how are we going to do that? The new way of thinking about target audiences has more to do with letting other people market for us. Robert Cialdini discusses six universal principles in this book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. One of the principles, liking, concludes that we are more likely influenced by people who are like us than those who aren’t. If we are to take advantage of this then we need to be reaching out to those who want to know more about our programs, who give us permission to tell them more, rather than those who don’t want to know. Because the ones who don’t want to know will hear it from the ones who do want to know.

People are the message when people say ‘word of mouth’ is the most influential form of media on their decision making.” (McConnell, Huba)

Non-recyclers are more likely to listen to their friends/ family/neighbors than they are to us. They are more likely to listen to their big brother than they are the ‘BIG BROTHER.’ This isn’t a new concept. Word-of-mouth has been an effective marketing technique for longer than I’ve been around. Keep this in mind: permission marketing isn’t enough on its own. Even those of us who want to join a conversation need to know the conversation exists. That’s the role of effective interruption marketing.

Social Marketing

Social marketing is designed to enable behavior change. Further, community-based social marketing is designed to change behavior for a sustainable future. Doug McKenzie-Mohr, author of Fostering Sustainable Behavior: A Guide to Community-Based Social Marketing says, “The emergence of community-based social marketing (CBSM) over the last several years can be traced to a growing understanding that programs which rely heavily or exclusively on media advertising can be effective in creating public awareness and understanding of issues related to sustainability, but are limited in their ability to foster behavior change.”

Tools of CBSM are built on a solid understanding of the influence other people have on us, especially those we can relate to. CBSM also stresses the importance of being strategic about communicating—getting to the essences of a behavior and the barriers affecting it in order to choose tools/tactics that are most likely to influence that behavior.

Social Media

This is where social media is playing an increasingly important, and effective role. It allows us to provide specific answers to specific questions of specific individuals. Individuals, in turn, spread the answers amongst themselves. It’s online word-of-mouth. That information can spread so far and wide in such short amount of time—it is like social media is word-of-mouth on steroids.

We cannot ignore it. We are witnessing the birth of social media—a bold, new frontier for solid waste communication professionals. People say it’s for the younger generation but it’s for those of all ages and for people who recycle and for those who don’t.

Think about this: “By 2010 Gen Y will outnumber Baby Boomers….96 percent of them have joined a social network” (Qualman). 2010 is now. Right here, everywhere and now. Even if the perception about social media is true—that it is for young people—they won’t be young forever. We constantly hear that we need to focus on younger audiences. Where should we go to find those audiences? Facebook and Twitter and MySpace. We need to go online to connect with these audiences. Think about this: “The median age of a Twitter user is 31, which has remained stable over the past year. The median age for MySpace is now 26, down from 27 in May 2008, and the median age for LinkedIn is now 39, down from 40. Facebook, however, is graying a bit: the median age for this social network site is now 33, up from 26 in May 2008” (Pew Internet and Amercian Life Project).

There is a lot be learned and a lot to be gained by incorporating social media into our communication strategies. We can turn my monologue into dialogue. We can use this article to start a conversation. We can start a conversation in a place where all of us can meet, anytime, anywhere. We should start a conversation online; I already have.

  • Give examples of each type of effective marketing – you discuss what they do and how they are effective, but what sources are best used – fairs, trade shows, community outreach, billboards, etc.
  • Please include a reference section at the end for all of your sources in the article you note.

Dennis Guy is Project Manager of Community Outreach for the Waste Management Division Public Works Department for the City of Hamilton (ON). He can be reached at (905) 546-2424, ext. 2159, via e-mail at [email protected] or his blog spot can be found at