Real time advertising could play a role in sustainable behaviour change

Originally published in Guardian Sustainable Business in 2014 following on from two features I wrote for the Drum on the rise of programmatic media trading and its disruption of the advertising industry. They’re quite technical, but read them here and here (I recommend Digiday’s WTF series if you want help decoding all the jargon).

If you read the marketing press at all, you will have heard of a new trend in “real time advertising”. If not, you’ll be aware of sites asking you to opt into cookies, or being followed around the internet by shoes you almost bought a week ago.

Gone are the days when advertisers had to buy large amounts of space in a magazine they hoped the target demographic would read. Now, individuals can be targeted, based on information harvested from your desktop and mobile phone. Ad space is bought and sold in real time, based on what data predicts you might do next.

The most prevalent way of using this technology is re-targeting, where advertisements appear for sites you have recently visited. However, data collecting and pattern spotting are now getting more sophisticated. Analytics agencies claim to be able to predict where you might go next and place ads for corresponding sites. If you have searched for flights to Amsterdam, you might start to see adverts for Amsterdam hotels, car hire and money changing services.

A recent campaign, designed to increase sales of Vodafone roaming packages in the Netherlands over the summer reportedly improved conversion rates by 198%. If buying behaviour can be changed in this way, could other behaviours? Could real time advertising be used to act as nudges towards more sustainable behaviour? Given the industry is advancing at such a rate, the question may not be “what could we do with this technology?”, but rather “what should we do with it?”

Personal data collected in this way is already being used, with consent, in smoking cessation studies. Human behaviour is strongly influenced by situation. Data collected through mobile phones is used to pinpoint situations where the user is most likely to want to smoke and time the delivery of text messages or other nudges. UCL recently analysed the StopAdvisor website, which demonstrated a 36% higher quit rate among smokers with lower incomes who used the interactive site over a static information website.

Dr Jamie Brown, research associate at UCL, who was heavily involved in the StopAdvisor study sums up the advantages of digitally placed nudges: “Previously, there would have been a disconnect between the messaging and the call to action. You may have seen a hard-hitting smoking campaign on television and thought about quitting, but not been able to get a doctor’s appointment that week. Here you have the opportunity to connect the two.”

Personalisation: a mixed bag

However, changing a health-based behaviour through a series of structured interventions in an environment where they’ve opted in is very different to changing a more abstract one in the advertising space. While there is much hype surrounding real time advertising, not everyone is convinced the technology is advanced enough to be truly effective. One issue is the ability for the ads to be truly personalised.

We know that the more personalised something is, the more likely we are to react well to it (think of the success of Coca-Cola’s named cans), yet, if something is not personalised enough, it can actually cause negative reactants. Dr Felix Naughton, senior research associate at the University of Cambridge, explains how we find crudely personalised spam insulting. Those of us sharing devices who have received untimely clues to our partner’s Christmas present searches, or been chased around Facebook by weight loss products merely because we are in our 30s and female will know this well.

Both academics and agency people are sceptical that changing complex or habitual behaviours could be achieved through real time advertising alone, but seemed to think it could be used as a part of a framework of interventions. However, it seems that the technology is not currently being used by behaviour change agencies and according to Oliver Payne, founder of behaviour change agency, The Hunting Dynasty, the need for better targeting is not the reason.

He talks of an agency knowledge gap around behaviour change and calls for more psychologists and anthropologists to be recruited into communications. He also warns of the mistake of overvaluing “creativity” when designing strategies for behavioural change; starting with the sometimes repetitive or unglamorous methods that are proven to work is often better. Indeed, much of the current conversation around real time advertising is about the way it is bought and sold “programmatically” (much like the stock market) and not about how it can be effectively integrated into the creative process.

Of course, all of this use of data to manipulate behaviour strays dangerously into debatable ethical territory. As recent scandals involving Facebook and OKCupid have shown, people don’t take kindly to being manipulated without their consent. Jez Groom, group chief strategy officer of Ogilvy & Mather and co-founder of #ogilvychange identifies some of the ethical issues with combining personal data with psychology to nudge them to make certain choices: “You’re looking at personal, subconscious signals and you’re using this to direct people to things that are not necessarily in their best interests in the long term… I think we’re quite close to the line of acceptability already, and that’s a narrative I wouldn’t want to happen.”

However, others, such as Todd Tran, Nexage’s Europe managing director, believe the evidence suggests we are happy for advertisers to send us relevant advertisements and currently have limited privacy fears with respect to it. He believes we are seeing an emerging conversation where consumers will be “building, providing and selling their profiles to take control of the process and increase the percentage of relevant ads”. This, in itself could represent a behaviour change opportunity. Could users start to opt into advertising that nudges them towards a sustainable lifestyle?

Real time advertising could have a future as a behaviour change tool as part of a wider strategy, but it still needs to overcome current technological barriers and an agency skills gap before it will do. In the interim, it will continue be used to make it easier for us to buy ever more things.


Brazil’s sustainability tipping point – three lessons for success from the west

Published in Guardian Sustainable Business when I returned from Brazil in May 2014.

Image source: Alamy

In terms of mainstreaming sustainability, Brazil looks great on paper. GlobeScan report a high level of advocacy, social change has mainstream appeal and Brazilian businesses are spending more than countries such as the UK, Germany and Australia on sustainability. You’d be forgiven for thinking the outlook was rosy.

However, overpromising, greenwash and lack of leadership or accountability are creating a tipping point. And while Brazil’s extreme income inequality substantially differentiates it from other countries, learnings from elsewhere can be used to explore trends in attitude change. As traditional optimism levels plummet, there’s a risk that the current path could take Brazil to the apathy and cynicism seen in the UK and US. Whereas looking at Sweden and Germany, for example, the next stage could be consumer advocacy and normalisation of sustainable behaviours.

How the conversation develops depends on government and business leadership, truthful marketing and creation of tangible change. There are three key ingredients for success.

1. Tell better stories:

In Brazil, sustainability often exists in the world of philanthropy, showmanship and “feelgood” exercises, yet the story sustainability departments, change-makers and their supporting agencies should be building is around sustainability delivering as business driver, creating new market opportunities and strengthening investor confidence. Opportunities should be pitched as “my world” rather than “the world”, something sustainability jargon and visuals of the earth will never do.

This also extends to external communications. Advertising and PR have a powerful role in creating social norms. Brazil has the Conar advertising code, but the social norms and the glorification of consumption need a rethink. One Brazilian told me they learned how to consume from the US. While evidence suggests that millenials in the US are now entering post-consumerism, a look at the Funk movement (a music style, which heavily endorses materiality) shows that this attitude has been exported.

Projects such as The International Exchange, which imports people from international communications agencies to work on NGO projects, and, a video production agency which creates mainstream stories around sustainability, are helping, but a better advertising code and thought leadership by mainstream agencies are needed, to prevent the kind of backlash we’ve seen in the UK.

2. Flip the conversation from problem to solution:

Ongoing protests and bad sentiment about the political situation and World Cup mean that conversations around change often focus on what is wrong rather than how to fix it. People and brands need to think of themselves as problem solvers to circumvent lack of leadership from the government. Apps such as Colab are trying to do this, by encouraging users to submit relevant issues and problems to their Prefeitura (local council), but if their reports are ignored, the problem is compounded. Businesses should use this kind of data to identify behaviour change opportunities or fix issues that are important to their brand and the people of Brazil.

This is starting to happen. NBS’s Rio+Rio, connects favela communities with brands, identifying mutually beneficial opportunities, while Imagina na Copa campaigns to use the World Cup to create a positive shift in attitude by asking members to submit one thing they will do until then to make Brazil a better place. These are great examples, but need to be scaled up to create mainstream change.

A sense of momentum also needs to be created through knowledge sharing networks. Creative workspaces like Rio’s Goma are doing this on a local scale and online platforms like Como Podemos link people and initiatives with others who have similar aims. However, Brazil lacks less formal forums that empower the lower classes, make use of its love of social media, highly relationship-based culture and mainstream interest in social change.

3. Create tangible change:
Businesses and the government lack credibility due to making promises that they struggle to, or have no intention of, delivering. For a country that spends so much on reporting, this seems counterintuitive. Companies should be learning from the likes of Itau Bank, which is embedding sustainability into its corporate strategy. Companies that have the Sistema B certification also have sustainable practices as part of their make up, helping to guide those that want to start the journey.

However, corporate level improvements won’t convince people that change is actually happening. We know from the UK and US that people don’t believe their small actions amount to anything and feel that brands and the government are not changing their behaviour. Businesses can capitalise on their reporting spend by creating consumer-facing stories and initiatives that solve a real brand and consumer issue (rather than exploiting favela communities with short term projects that look good on the international stage), and celebrate the aggregated impact of the effort.

Brazil presents great opportunities. The desire for social and, to some extent environmental, change is mainstream. The chance to build brand value through problem solving is there. Yet, so is the danger of repeating the mistakes of the west, creating apathy through overpriced products, sustainability ghettoisation and false promises. Like it or not, business has a chance to lead government and consumers into a new era, but this opportunity won’t last forever.

Engaging employees is about more than financial incentives

Originally published in Guardian Sustainable Business in 2011 when I was working for Futerra, this article forms the basis of my interest in motivation and the soft skills revolution. I’d recommend building an ‘Intrapreneur network’ rather than talking about ‘Champions’ these days, but it’s still a good read for people considering employee engagement issues. Enjoy!

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Did you get up for work this morning, rub your sleepy eyes and tick off your mental checklist of things to do today. Did you hit ‘snooze’ a few times in an attempt to stave off the inevitable? Drag yourself out of bed and stand in the shower for too long, feeling slightly sick at the prospect of having to go to work? Is Ferris Bueller your favourite movie? Do you feel nostalgic for a spirit of freedom gradually being eroded by schedules, meaningless tasks and boredom?

OK, so I exaggerate slightly, but working in employee engagement does give me an interesting insight in the way that different companies operate. The idea of active, engaged, happy people. People working on their own projects in an environment that fosters autonomy and innovation seems a sensible vision. Yet studies indicate that a frighteningly low number of people are actively engaged at work, and many are actively disengaged. Why is it that so many get it wrong? Psychologists have been studying motivation for years. So why does business lag so woefully behind when it comes to putting it into practice?

This was brought home to me this week at a university reunion. An engagement, returns from overseas and career changes provided fodder for lively conversation. Not least, our working lives.

One of the key themes, discussed with worrying regularity was the recession, or rather, our first hand experience of it. Despite the wide range of professions (estate agent, to physiotherapist and everything in-between), the mood was dour and the stories depressingly similar. A focus on monetary cuts and redundancies, more work for fewer people, de-motivation and a feeling of being undervalued prevailed.

The strange thing about this focus on cash is that money is a ‘hygiene factor’. It is a great cause of dissatisfaction if you don’t have enough (particularly when it means we can’t satisfy our basic needs), but doesn’t lead to sustained high levels of satisfaction when present in decent amounts. Don’t believe me? Think about it, not having enough cash is a constant pain. Things must be rationed, excuses made when expensive invitations crop up and constant mental mathematics a pastime.

But on the flip side, an excess of cash does not bring about comparable levels of joy. There will be the initial rush (the joy of the first pay cheque), followed by joy as one discovers new things to spend money on (dinners out, shoes, holidays). However, after a while, these things become the norm. You don’t wake up every day exultant about your cash and quickly move on to other things.

The issue is that so much of the way that business seeks to ‘motivate’ people is through money. Strangely enough, the recession has helped, with McKinsey suggesting that 27% businesses explored non fiscal ways of motivating staff. However, as we move out of the recession, many companies are returning to motivating staff with bonuses, targets and competition. Motivation theory shows this can lead to unscrupulous behaviour, narrow mindedness and can crush creativity.

Motivation theory has advanced enormously in the last 10 years. Psychologists such as Edward Deci and Richard Flaste have detailed the factors that foster intrinsic motivation, whilst Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi details how we are happiest when in a state of ‘flow’. The problem is that we haven’t worked out to apply this knowledge to the real world on a mass scale yet. We still rely on cash, competition and targets to motivate. We forget that humans are not rational beings. Sweeter carrots or sharper sticks don’t always get us where we need to be.

The factors that need to be present to create the most intrinsically motivated people are the opportunity for autonomy, to achieve mastery and to align their work to a purpose. Google worked this out years ago. Their 20% time has spawned some of the most successful innovations in their company history (Gmail, Google maps etc). Mozilla Firefox, Wikipedia, Rep-Rap and others have all been spawned by ‘open sourcing’. A business model now being exploited by crowdsourcers that looks to revolutionise design. There are financial benefits too, those companies with employees registering a high level of engagement with their jobs had, on average, a 10% higher rate of productivity than those whose employees were actively disengaged.

Of the six people in the room, only two of us were able to say we loved our jobs. T, the former consultant was greatly enjoying the challenge of learning to be a teacher. Frustrated by increasingly long hours, lower pay and the abandonment of projects in late stages her intrinsic motivation and appetite for consultancy was quashed. Teaching allowed her a certain level of autonomy, provided a variety of new challenges and now she feels like she is benefiting the community in which she grew up. In fact, since the recession bit, the number of applicants for teaching jobs has soared. It is widely reported that job security was the defining factor, although with a similar trend in volunteering, one has to wonder whether the drivers are deeper. Fed up in working environments where gains are based on extrinsic motivators (which have been eroded during the recession), human beings search for something more meaningful, that challenges them and makes them feel good about what they are doing.

I also work for a company that recognises the value of fostering intrinsic motivation. Profit, impact and joy are Futerra’s KPIs. They not only provide a mental checklist, they also guide us as a company. It is perfectly acceptable for any member of the team to question whether a project, aspect of our working environment or kitchen mess contravene them, and act accordingly. It’s not perfect, but all are given equal weight.

So, how can we use motivation theory to make better businesses?

Here is my 5 point plan:

Consult your staff

Involvement in special projects help people feel like a part of the solution. If you have a problem, why not ask your staff to help you overcome it? Collective solutions increase the chance that your employees buy into what you are planning and help you create something that fits your brand and people.

Pay people enough

Pay people what they think they’re worth and you remove money from the equation. And never use bonuses to motivate people as a carrot. Use them as a ‘surprise’ after the event (‘now that you’ve done this…’).

Praise them

Use praise, recognition and empowerment as motivators. They are more powerful motivators than money if your workforce is paid enough (see 2). Read ‘Drive’ by Dan Pink or ‘Predicatably Irrational’ by Dan Ariely if you don’t believe me.

Create a champions network

Create strong, high status networks of people. The power of social networks to create change has been well documented, so why is involvement with initiatives such as Champions often viewed with trepidation, seen as add on and low status? Word of mouth is most trusted form of communications and being labelled the ‘police’ won’t make your Champions the motivated change agents you need them to be. Underlining the importance of their work to middle management and recruiting the right people is key here.

Think sustainability

Link your special projects to sustainability. In many sectors, sustainability can save money, become a differentiator and increase trust in your brand. You could achieve transformational change if you set challenges linked to sustainability and asked your employees to help you solve them. Sustainability encompasses the financial, environmental and social impacts of your business, making your company a better place to work.

I’ll be watching the comments page, so please do ask if you have any questions, or just drop us a line to let me know what you think. Challenge me.