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How to create change one behavior at a time.

Lessons from the Eclipse: The Power of a Simple Message

As eclipse mania swept the nation, the Orlando office of SalterMitchell / Marketing for Change got swept up in the excitement. One of us headed to Nebraska, and watched from an empty sunflower field; another hiked four miles into the Sumter National Forest in South Carolina and perched on a rock by a lake. Through a series of fortunate events, I ended up at the top of Siler Bald in North Carolina, where hundreds of fellow eclipse chasers broke into shouts of delight when the moon turned the sun into a black hole in the sky and a 360-degree sunset appeared around us.

What struck us most about this shared national experience was not just how much it truly was the awesome and emotional experience we were led to believe it would be. As behavior change marketers, this experience also was living proof of the power of a simple message.

As millions of people flocked to locations in the path of totality and others stepped outside to watch the sun shrink into a crescent, the one message drilled into our heads from every possible information source was: Do not look directly into the sun.

How powerful was this message? Well, we saw the nation react when our president eschewed solar glasses and glanced at the sky (as an aide nearby cried out, “Don’t look!”). Sure, the reactions were predictably partisan, but whether you thought it was admirable or stupid, people on both sides knew it wasn’t a safe thing to do.

More interesting to my colleagues and me was how much the message affected our own behavior. Two of us accidentally glanced at the sun, and both immediately wondered if we’d damaged our retinas –– even after a lifetime of occasionally looking up at the sun in the sky. And we were not alone in our worries. After the eclipse ended, people began to freak out on social media about their eyes feeling “weird,” and news outlets responded with online stories like this one from USA Today about how to tell if you have damaged your eyes.

So how unsafe was it to look at the sun? Some scientists had predicted thousands of Americans would go blind during the event. They extrapolated that estimate from the number of people who reported vision problems after viewing the solar eclipse that passed over England in 1999. But USA Today reported that a study of 20 people who presented to the Leicester Royal Infirmary with eclipse-related vision complaints found that only five actually had damaged their eyes (four permanently). Each of those with burned retinas had viewed the eclipse for more than 18 seconds.

Arguably, it would have been reasonable –– and more accurate –– to explain the risks in more detail. But imagine if the pre-eclipse safety message everywhere was: If you look directly at the sun, and you do so for a period of somewhere between 2 and 18 seconds, you may incur focal burns to the retinas of your eyes, resulting in partial or complete blindness that could be permanent.

I know one thing for sure. With a message like that, I personally would have stared longer at the brilliant light known as the “diamond” that appears at the last moment before the sun re-emerges.

How is this a lesson for behavior change agents? Because one of the hardest tasks we often have when first sitting down with clients is persuading them to cut the long list of “priority” behaviors to just one or two, and then communicating them as simply as possible.

A good example is our 5-year water quality campaign for the Tampa Bay Estuary Program. There are many different things people can do to prevent nutrient pollution, from picking up after pets to using environmentally friendly household cleaners to following this 20-page guide on how to fertilize properly in Florida. Instead, the Be Floridian campaign chose one, simple, easy-to-follow message: Skip the fertilizer in the summer. And the result? One post-evaluation survey found 95% of respondents knew not to fertilize during the summer, and 52% had quit fertilizing year round.

Be Floridaian campaign messaging protect the fun skip fertilizer

One thing we routinely tell our clients is that if you ask everybody to do everything, no one will do anything. It’s our shorthand way of emphasizing the importance of segmenting your audiences and choosing a priority behavior.

Next time I have a kickoff meeting, I’m going to bring my solar glasses and pass them around for good measure.

Behavior change marketing in six steps

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