What a quick and dirty nudge study told us about behaviour change

Moments before lockdown, Alex Mills, and the rest of the communications team at South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue, did a small study to test out behavioural science techniques on their campaign messaging.

We’ve long been inspired by the work of Daniel Kahneman and David Halpern and the Behavioural Insights Team.

‘Nudge theory’ has even gained renewed national exposure lately in light of the debate around the Government’s new ‘Stay Alert’ campaign branding.

But nudging people into desired behaviours or, to put it another way, finding out what works, doesn’t have to mean huge trials, months of painstaking work and a degree in psychology.

We reckon even a quick and dirty analysis of the messages you’re sharing and how you’re sharing them is something any communication team could and should be doing to inform their work.

Our study was simple. We posted out leaflets to 4,000 people asking them to check for some common fire safety hazards in the kitchen. We then asked them to complete a tear off response slip and post it back to us, confirming that they’d carried out the checks.

We split the addresses into four study groups of 1,000 so that we could test the impact of two variables on response rates- the image we used, and the message which went with it.

We discovered that:

  • Using an image of a firefighter was most effective at prompting people to check their safety, compared to that of a child. This might sound like an obvious conclusion. Fire services have spent decades putting dramatic images of fire crews fighting blazes on their campaign materials. But we theorised that an image of a child might prompt people to think differently about the consequences of a fire. We were wrong. We’ve inferred from this that shocking imagery which ties closely to the core message still has a role to play in prompting behaviour change. This conclusion is backed up by other, focus group based research we carried out recently.
  • Emphasising the financial cost of suffering a kitchen fire was most effective at prompting people to check their safety, compared to emphasising the risk to life. This result was more surprising. Our inference, supported by other research, is that people are less likely to identify with the relatively rare occurrence of a loss of life from fire, compared with the reasonably foreseeable risk of losing money or possessions. It’s something we’re going to adopt in our future campaigns from now on.
  • Combining the right image with the right message has the biggest impact on response rates. The leaflet with the image of a firefighter and which emphasised the financial impact of a fire, outperformed the worst performing communication (which had neither) by two percentage points. If you scaled that result up from 1,000 people to 1.3 million people (the population of South Yorkshire), the difference in response rates could be as many as 30,000 people.

This was a tiny study, with a relatively small sample size and a pretty average response rate. Yet we’ve still been able to draw some useful insight from it.

Pandemic, lockdown, home working. It’s given us plenty of problems, but some opportunities too- like the time and space to think about our work and how we do it.

Hopefully this piece will inspire some of you to have a go at something similar too. 

Alex Mills is Corporate Communications Manager at South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue


LGcomms response to changes in coronavirus restrictions

Not baking banana bread


Leave a Comment