Social marketing in transport – why and how

This Latest Thinking article is a summary of Tim Steiner’s Social Marketing Masterclass session at the 2018 Cycle City, Active City conference.

Nudging; influencing; persuading; informing; social marketing is all these things and more – it is the process of using marketing techniques to achieve a social good.

Social marketing works in transport. That seatbelt use is almost ubiquitous and drink-driving social unacceptable in most environments are testament to the fact that on-going campaign work, alongside legislative changes and enforcement, can change behaviours and social norms.  And as social marketing techniques become ever more widely used to encourage the use of active and sustainable travel modes, it’s timely to seek to ensure that what’s being done is likely to be effective.

People’s behaviours change when their perceived cost of the new option falls in comparison with their previous choice.  But ‘cost’ in the context of how we all make our travel decisions can be a complex but vague combination of factors including:

  • The hassle of finding out about new journey choices, especially if we’re content with our current ones;
  • Needing to acquire new skills or confidence (such as to learning to ride a bike or, especially for children, convincing others they have the capability to keep themselves safe);
  • Overcoming long-held prejudices, such as aspirations to own a car, or that all buses are unreliable;
  • The actual financial cost of trying something new.

Each of these factors can be highly personal to the individual concerned, and moreover will change over time as their life stages, their income, health, attitudes, beliefs and a broad range of other factors change. Hence a message that may be attractive to one person may not be to others.

Good social marketing programmes carefully define their target audiences, then work to understand the needs and aspirations of members of these audiences. Only then will the programmes define what messages and support they will offer to facilitate change.

But the goal of selling active and sustainable travel choices is a good one. As transport planners, we’re not just selling walking, cycling, public transport and car share as greener, healthier modes: we’re selling people the things they really value: time, fitness and happiness.

Time to do what they want while they travel: to catch up on social media; to sleep. The opportunity to get some activity into their daily lives, without the need to take time out for the gym.  The chance for a more satisfying journey experience.

Social marketing helps deliver these outcomes. Design and deliver good programmes and many people can and will change their travel choices, to the benefit of them as individuals and all around them.

More information about how to design and implement effective transport social marketing projects is given in Behaviour Change: A Manual for Practitioners, developed jointly by SYSTRA and the Social Marketing Gateway.