Archive for AlterAction Blog

Most major business challenges require us to alter human behavior

At some point, most major business challenges require us to alter human behavior

by Mike Walker • May 16, 2016

Here’s how to put the science of behavior change to work for you

We spend much of our professional lives trying to convince people to do something different or new – even if we don’t think about it that way.   To cite a few examples, software companies have to convince prospects to change the way they’re currently getting things done.  Health care professionals want patients to exercise, eat better, and take medications as prescribed.  Manufacturing bosses need employees to wear safety gear.  Every retailer and brand wants to reduce the number of products that their customers return.  And so on.

Our clients find it enlightening to reframe business challenges as a human behavior change challenges.  Why?  It puts people (customers, colleagues, or communities) at the center of the problem—and, therefore, the solution.  It demands that we more closely observe them.   Since we understand that simply making our customers aware of something doesn’t necessarily lead to behavior change (see my last post), we are forced to question what customers need to know, what motivates them, and how they make (or avoid) the decisions that drive behavior.   Reframing a problem as a behavior change challenge encourages us to re-think the design of our processes, products, programs, and services.  In short, it delivers new insights.

Once you’re thinking about a business problem as a behavior change challenge, you can leverage the findings of social science and behavioral economics to influence individual decision making and drive people to action. Fortunately, you don’t need to review several decades’ worth of scientific research to glean the necessary insights. You don’t even need to read these engaging summaries.  We’ve done all of that for you.  Based on the scientific literature—and our 15 years of experience—the most successful behavior change efforts do these three things exceptionally well.

1) Provide unambiguous DIRECTION.  

We need to understand exactly what we want our customer to do—and we need to articulate it in a way they’ll understand.  Remember that you are not your customer: you’ve thought about your product or service far more than they ever will.  My advice?  Don’t think big-picture—instead, think in terms of highly-specific behaviors.  For example, simply reminding food handlers to wash their hands may not reduce disease transmission if people aren’t washing correctly.  (This poster really spells it out!)

Ask yourself: is your “call to action” crystal clear? Is it specific? Is it asking people to do too much? Can it be simplified?  Is it assuming people know things that they might not actually know? It also helps for people to know why they should do something new.  Does your customer understand the desired outcome and why it’s important?  Be sure to point people to the destination and explain why their effort will be worthwhile.

2) Provide adequate MOTIVATION.

Knowing what to do isn’t enough to cause change.  We must appeal to our customer’s emotions, and make them feel something compelling.  We need to help them find the feeling that moves them to action.

Ask yourself:  can you change your customer’s frame of reference so they think about and identify with the possibilities—rather than the limitations—associated with the desired behavior?   For example, adult boaters are more inclined to wear lifejackets when they’re reminded that their kids are watching.  (Now it’s about being a better parent!)

It also helps to suggest that people have already made some progress towards the new behavior.  (E.g., you’ve spent good money on lifejackets!)  And, if the change has them feeling overwhelmed or intimidated, break it down into smaller, more doable tasks.  (E.g., hang your lifejacket on the back of your boat seat, so you’re reminded to put it on whenever the boat is underway.)

3) Alter the CONTEXT.

Customer decisions do not take place in a vacuum: the environment influences behavior far more than most people realize.  “Choice architecture” refers to the deliberate design of environments in which people make choices—say, a school cafeteria—and to the reality that there’s no such thing as a neutral design. Whether the cafeteria puts apples or Fritos at the front of the line, the placement will affect which snack is more popular.

With this in mind, can you change something in the environment to tip the balance in favor of the desired behavior?  Can you make the behavior easier?  Would prompts, checklists, or triggers help?  In our experience, the most successful behavior change initiatives focus relentlessly on removing barriers to—and facilitating—desired behaviors.

These suggestions may lead you to take a second look at your product design or service offering, customer-facing or back-office business processes, incentives, and/or supporting technology.  That’s a good thing, but I’ll acknowledge it isn’t easy.  Remember, this is an iterative process.

Has thinking about a business challenge as a human behavior change challenge shed new light on your work?  I’d love to hear about it. You can reach me directly at



How do you make people care?

Man not caring.  Who Cares?

How do you make people care?


Can’t convince people to get behind your pet project? Behavioral science suggests you might be going about it the wrong way.


by Mike Walker • December 21, 2015

I received a call from a friend a few weeks ago, a green marketing expert, who relayed a brief story about a new client. A sustainability director at a large national law firm, the new client was thoroughly frustrated by her colleagues’ anemic participation in her office recycling program.

I’ve asked people to participate dozens of times and in dozens of ways. I’ve articulated the benefits, offered rewards, and recognized my (few) model participants. Nothing seems to work! I’ve concluded that they simply don’t care – and really, what can you do when people don’t care?

“So…how do you make people care?” my friend asked.

I hear this question almost daily, whether it’s about recycling, energy efficiency, global warming, water quality, flu shots, saving for retirement, a product, a brand, or the new Star Wars movie.  So it’s a darn good thing I have an answer.

The answer is, in a nutshell…

You can’t. At least, not very often, and not in the near-term. That’s the bad news.

Now for the good news: it doesn’t matter. In other words, whether or not people care is largely immaterial  if you’re in the business of behavior change. As it turns out, getting people to change their behavior is actually a good first step toward making them care.

This assertion will strike many of you as counter-intuitive, if not false. We’d all like to think that our beliefs drive our behavior.  In other words, if we care about something, we act on it, right?

Not necessarily.  In fact, the scientific literature makes a compelling case to the contrary: our beliefs tend to be shaped by reflecting on our own past behavior. In other words, our beliefs are a function of our prior actions, and not the other way around.

So what’s going on here? Faced with a discrepancy between our beliefs and our behavior, humans experience mental stress that psychologists call cognitive dissonance. It’s an uncomfortable psychological state that leads people to change their beliefs – rather than continue feeling, subconsciously, like a phony. We are completely unaware of this phenomenon when it’s happening to us.

If you want to make people care, first help them change their behavior in a way that’s consistent with caring. In one influential study, researchers concluded that the single most effective way to change negative suburban perceptions about riding public transportation did not involve educating them about the benefits of ridership. It was, instead, to provide a free bus or subway pass, thus making it easier for people to try out the behavior. It turns out that doing leads to believing.

When we think of behavior change as an exercise in making humans care, we approach people as if we are trying to win a contentious argument. We inundate them with information and logic, trying to educate, inform, coax, or compel. Faced with disappointing results, we might be tempted to double down, convinced the solution must involve more information, more messages, etc. With our focus misplaced, it’s easy to overlook pragmatic opportunities to facilitate the actual behavior we want. I’m reminded of a favorite quote: “Having lost sight of our objectives, we redoubled our efforts.”

So if you can’t make people care, what should you do to encourage behavior change?

First, be very specific about what behavior you want. And then focus like a laser on facilitating the desired behavior. How do you do that? Seek to understand why people cling to their old behaviors. Identify and then remove barriers to the new behaviors. Manipulate the context, situation, or environment in which decisions are made. Provide adequate motivation and sufficiently clear direction.

As you might imagine, there are an infinite number of ways to do these things; for a few more specific guidelines, see our website, or contact us.

How do you make people care?  Who cares!  Focus on behaviors, not attitudes.

The 10 Biggest Mistakes Behavior Change Programs Make

behavior change: 10 common mistakes to avoid

The 10 Biggest Mistakes Behavior Change Programs Make

by Mike Walker • August 5, 2015

At some point in our careers, we all find ourselves face-to-face with a behavior change challenge. For example, we might be tasked with convincing employees to use a new software application, or customers to try a re-designed product, or neighbors to embrace a new community initiative. Regardless, here are ten traps to avoid, based on our nearly 14 years of experience and a body of research by economists and scientists such as Richard Thaler and BJ Fogg.

1. Focusing on changing people’s minds instead of facilitating the desired behaviors.

One of the many counter-intuitive findings of social science research is that attitudes don’t necessarily drive people’s behavior. In fact, it’s usually the other way around: people’s values and attitudes tend to flow from their behaviors. Forget about changing minds. What matters is action, so focus your efforts on facilitating the desired action!

2. Assuming people will change behavior when presented with compelling facts.

If only! The field of behavioral economics has demonstrated that we humans are not always logical, rational, or driven by coherent internal motivations. (Example: I know the importance of getting roughly 30 minutes of vigorous exercise every day – yet here I sit!) A host of factors conspire to influence people’s actions, and facts are just one of them.

3. Believing that good communication is the most important factor in any behavior change program.

Communication always gets the blame when behavior fails to change – most of the time, unfairly. Why? Because communication is the principle focus of most change campaigns – after all, it’s what marketers and advertisers are best at doing. But good communication is just a prerequisite for behavior change. It’s necessary, but typically insufficient. (Although every challenge is unique, we’ve identified 3 factors that characterize successful behavior change solutions.)

4. Going first for big change instead of starting with small, easy successes.

James Collins and Jerry Porras famously encouraged companies to come up with “big, hairy, audacious goals” in their 1994 book, Built to Last. All well and good, but leaders need to break down big changes into bite-sized chunks for people. Start with baby steps: specific actions that people can sustain over time. Early successes lay a foundation for long-term successes.

5. Underestimating the power of environment to shape behavior.

Small changes to the context in which decisions are made can greatly influence human behavior. Redesign the environment so it’s conducive to the new behavior. Remember: when you present choices to people, there is no such thing as a neutral presentation!

6. Trying to avoid old behaviors instead of creating new ones.

It’s really hard to simply stop a negative habit, so replace it with a positive one instead. It’s far more effective than trying to go “cold turkey.”

7. Blaming failure on lack of motivation.

Willpower is a finite resource: sooner or later it will be depleted. Everyone’s motivation ebbs and flows; what people need more than willpower is easier behaviors. Make the desired behavior the “path of least resistance.”

8. Ignoring the importance of triggers.

No behavior happens without a trigger. We’re hungry? We eat. The light turns green? We step on the gas. Our smartphone chirps? We glance at the display. Established triggers cue automatic behaviors, so we must identify triggers and pair them with new behaviors. In some cases you can eliminate a trigger (e.g., turn off smartphone notifications), or find a preceding trigger and pair it with a new behavior that preempts the old.

9. Talking to people about abstract goals instead of concrete behaviors.

The problem with an abstract goal is that there is no specific call to action. For restaurant workers, “conserve water” is abstract. “Wait to run the dishwasher until it is completely full of dirty dishes” is concrete. It’s important to translate goals into simple, actionable steps.

10. Seeking to change forever, instead of for a defined period of time.

Imagine asking co-workers to recycle all of their waste paper from henceforth and in perpetuity. Now imagine asking them to recycle all of their waste paper just for this week. A fixed period works better than “forever” when it comes to building new habits. Because if it sounds doable, people might just give it a try.

Have you encountered other mistakes when it comes to behavior change initiatives? Let me know!

Stop talking about savings!

Stop Talking about Savings!

To drive consumer behaviors, we need to change how we talk about energy efficiency.  6 reasons why:

by Mike Walker • May 20, 2015

Over the past 13 years we’ve helped a lot of clients – including Energy Star, the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance, New York State, and numerous electric utilities – promote energy efficiency.   Almost without exception, their first marketing instinct is to tell consumers how much money they can save.  One of our biggest challenges as consultants is to convince them that this approach demands some scrutiny.

Here are six reasons, rooted in behavioral science, that suggest we should talk less stridently about saving money if we want to motivate consumers to reduce energy consumption:

  1. The Loss Aversion Principle. In economics and decision theory, loss aversion refers to the human tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains.   Some studies suggest that losses are twice as powerful, psychologically, as gains.  Yet most energy efficient products and programs emphasize how much money we can save.  To be more effective, we should turn this knee-jerk marketing appeal on its head.  Instead, we should stress how much money people are already losing – each and every day, month, or year — until they take action.
  2. On their own, rational appeals rarely drive new behaviors. Telling humans about dollar savings should appeal to their rational selves, and in an ideal world that would be sufficient to spark action.  But the central truth uncovered by research in behavioral economics is that humans don’t always act in their own self-interest.  That’s why marketers need to appeal to both the rational (minds) and the emotional (hearts) of our target audiences.  Talking about savings alone is generally insufficient.
  3. Ever-rising rates hide savings. Utility rates go up over time.  In fact, the average retail price of electricity in the US has risen every single year over the past ten years, despite the fact that our economy imploded and fossil fuel prices fluctuated wildly over the same time period.   Persistent rate increases mask the savings we achieve through our energy efficiency efforts.
  4. Growing demand hides savings, too. We’re plugging in more electronic devices than ever before, but because we do so gradually over time, we don’t realize that our overall “baseline” energy use is increasing. Like rising rates, growing energy consumption conceals the savings from energy efficiency measures.
  5. Negative feedback. This is a function of rising rates and rising demand: when we don’t see the savings we were promised on our utility bill, we get discouraged.  In behavioral science lingo, the feedback we receive is negative (because our actions didn’t result in the anticipated reward.)
  6. The resulting credibility crisis. The negative feedback loop has two pernicious effects.  First, it means we’re less likely to respond to future energy efficiency appeals.  Second, we question the integrity of the source of the appeal, whether that’s our utility company, a product maker, or an energy efficiency advocacy group.  And we’re less likely to trust them next time around.

A classic example:  Sally bought an energy efficient refrigerator last year, but STILL saw her utility bills go up.  Although the real culprit may have been an increase in the cost of electricity, a record-cold winter, or her recently acquired 50-inch plasma TV, she isn’t going to build a spreadsheet to figure all of that out.  Instead, the next time she faces a decision involving energy efficiency, she’ll remember that her fridge was supposed to save her money – money she never saw.

I’m not saying that we should never talk about energy savings.  The most effective behavior change initiatives appeal to both the heart and the mind.  I AM saying that efforts to promote energy efficient behavior need to reflect these realities, rather than ignore them.

5 Ways to Put an Electric Car on Every Consumers’ Short-list

nissan-leaf-lot5 Ways to put an Electric Car on Every Consumers’ Short-list

by Mike Walker and Gina Coplon-Newfield • May 7, 2015

People already driving electric cars have fallen in love, as shown by off-the-charts customer satisfaction ratings. But for the vast majority of Americans who aren’t yet driving electric, how do we get them charged up?

In our prior two blog posts in this series, we talked about the large number of people we need to switch to electric vehicles (EVs) if we’re to have a shot at averting the worst of climate change, and the types of public policies — like cash rebates — that will provide people with stronger incentives to consider EVs.

But we won’t win over the mass market if we aren’t educating and exciting the public. Here are five ways to get more Americans interested in buying EVs:

1) Find Smokey the Bear.

It’s probably not a coincidence that the BMW i3, the sporty new electric car, had one of its best-selling months following the release of a hilarious Super Bowl television ad, with more than 18 million views on YouTube — not to mention the millions who saw it during the big game. You also may have seen this Cadillac ELR EV commercial, aimed at the luxury car buyer. Another ad, which cleverly parodies the Cadillac ad, is about the Ford C-Max Energi Plug-In Hybrid and is seriously funny. But these EV ads are the exceptions to the rule. The vast majority of car commercials we see are for gas-guzzling SUVs and pick-up trucks.

By contrast, a switch to electric vehicles will lead to cleaner air and lower carbon emissions — public goods that benefit all Americans. Government agencies and nonprofits have invested in public service announcement (PSA) campaigns to promote seat belt use (i.e., “Click It or Ticket”) and prevent wildfires (i.e., Smokey the Bear), and these campaigns have changed America for the better. Public utilities fund direct-mail campaigns about energy efficiency, and we’ve made big improvements on that front too. Why not PSAs and mailings regarding EVs?

2) Bust the myths.

A number of persistent myths surround EVs: they’re too expensive, not any better for the environment, unsafe, slow, can only drive short distances, are a hassle to charge, etc. Chris Paine, the documentary filmmaker behind Who Killed the Electric Car? and Revenge of the Electric Car, busts several of these myths in this entertaining Washington Post article, and Sierra Club does it here. We need to do more to set the record straight.

3) Events that put butts in seats.

One of the many counter-intuitive findings of social science research is that people’s attitudes tend to flow from their actions. Most EV drivers will tell you that they didn’t really understand what all the fuss was about until they actually rode in an electric car and experienced first-hand how fun, cool, and fast these cars are. We need to give people more opportunities to test drive EVs. During last year’s National Drive Electric Week, upwards of 90,000 people attended events in 150 cities, and thousands of people took test drives. The fifth annual National Drive Electric Week will be September 12-20 this year, and organizers (Sierra Club, Plug In America, Electric Auto Association, and local partners) are already gearing up to make it bigger than ever.

Workplace test-drive events are another great opportunity to get people talking to their friends and co-workers about EVs — and to take them for a spin during their lunch break. Consider organizing one yourself.

4) Recruit high-profile spokespersons.

It’s terrific that actor/activist Ed Begley Jr. talks up his electric car, and we’re heartened to know that celebs like George Clooney and Cameron Diaz drive electric too. But we need more high-profile celebrities, politicians, and business leaders driving EVs and actively promoting them in traditional and social media. The readers of People, The Hill, Buzzfeed, and the Wall Street Journal probably have very different celebrity role models.

5) Understand and appeal to new groups of people.

EVs can excite a wide range of people with all sorts of interests. A recent documentary film, The Burden, makes the argument that EVs are appealing to veterans and national security hawks who want to slash our dependence on foreign oil. In March, thousands of car-racing enthusiasts took to the streets of Miami to watch Formula E, where professional race-car drivers show off their talents in blindingly fast EVs. Those of us looking to accelerate the EV market need to seek out and understand all sorts of audiences.

The Center for Sustainable Energy conducted a survey showing that California EV drivers prioritize issues like carpool-lane access, fuel-cost savings, and emissions reductions — and fit certain demographics. But we need much more information about what messages, which media outlets, and which spokespersons will excite people. If your company or group is researching this information, don’t be greedy.  Share it with other EV advocates, utility companies, government officials, and car companies looking to accelerate the EV market. Working smartly together, we can electrify the masses.

Mike Walker is the founder and CEO of AlterAction.  Gina Coplon-Newfield is the Sierra Club’s Director of Electric Vehicles Initiative.  A version of this post originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

How Many Electric Cars Do We Need to Save the Planet?

Electric Vehicles, Sierra Club, New Britain, CTHow Many Electric Cars Do We Need to Save the Planet?

 (And how will we get there?)

by Gina Coplon-Newfield and Mike Walker • February 25, 2015

Compared to conventional cars, plug-in electric vehicles (EVs) dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  This is true even after accounting for the power plant emissions from the electricity to charge them.  That’s why environmental groups have been calling on policymakers, automakers, the media, and the public to support an accelerated switch to plug-in cars, while simultaneously slashing fossil fuel emissions in other ways – like improving mass transit and expanding solar power.

In his state of the union address four years ago, President Obama said, “we can break our dependence on oil and become the first country to have 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.” Today we can more accurately estimate that we’ll have roughly 400,000 EVs on the road by the end of 2015.  We will likely hit the 1 million mark around 2018. Still, not a bad start for a new category of passenger vehicles. EV sales have grown faster out of the gates than hybrid cars first did.

But we can – and should – do much better. Indeed, late last year, EVs made up only about .85 percent of total U.S. auto sales.

Sierra Club, the major environmental group, hired AlterAction – a behavior change consultancy – to produce an in-depth analysis of the U.S. EV marketplace.  One finding really struck us: the US needs 10 million EVs on the road by 2025 to have a shot at avoiding the worst effects of climate change.

Even AlterAction’s sunniest market projection indicates that we’ll have only 4-5 million EVs on the road by 2025 if we continue at the current modest pace of growth.  But we believe an aggressive campaign promoting the most effective EV programs and policies in the right locations could bump that number to 6-8 million EVs by 2025. And with many more NGO, government, and corporate stakeholders making this a priority issue, we could actually reach that 10 million EV mark within the next decade.

How do we get there? As we wrote in our last post in this blog series, some EV programs clearly are already working and should be expanded and replicated. These include high-level EV taskforces put in place by state government leaders, consumer incentives that make EVs cheaper to buy and more convenient to operate – such as cash rebates and carpool lanes access, initiatives that encourage the installation of charging equipment at places of work, and utility programs, such as off-peak charging rates and outreach to their customers.

And where in the country do we focus our attention? Part of the answer is the eight Northeast and West Coast states whose governors have already committed to the Zero Emission Vehicle Action Plan.  That plan promises 3.3 million EVs will hit the roads by 2025. There is A LOT of work to be done in these states to meet these commitments. Recently, a coalition of businesses and NGOs provided some specific recommendations and urged the governors of all the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states to ramp up their EV programs.

We shouldn’t ignore certain other pockets of the country where we can accelerate EV adoption, too. For example, Georgia is among the most popular states for EVs because of its generous $5,000 EV consumer credit, which advocates are currently fighting to defend. A  recent report shows that EV drivers in Georgia are currently saving a combined $10 million a year in fueling costs, and last year these Peach State drivers prevented 22,000 tons of GHG emissions. Additionally, Kansas City Power & Light recently announced it plans to install 1,000 EV charging stations, which could boost EV sales in part of the Midwest.

In California, Pacific Gas & Electric just announced its plans to install 25,000 new EV charging stations, including at two of the most important types of locations for EV chargers: at workplaces and multi-unit dwellings. The air quality is so bad in parts of south and central California that policymakers have set a goal to electrify nearly all passenger vehicles on the road by 2032. Translation: even the Golden State, the EV capital of the U.S., needs to significantly ramp up its ambitious EV programs.

Getting to 10 million EVs in the US by 2025 will be a major challenge, but we know a lot already about what works and where to focus.  In our next post, we’ll lay out a vision for how to get the public charged up and demanding these cars.

Gina Coplon-Newfield is the Sierra Club’s Director of Electric Vehicles Initiative and her blog is at the Huffington Post.  Mike Walker is the founder and CEO of AlterAction.  Emily Norton and Jeff Fisher also contributed to this post.

Photo credit: Gian Metzger of New Britain, CT.

 International Energy Agency, World Energy Outlook 2012, OECD/IEA, 2012.

Important Electric Car Lessons Cruising Under the Radar

Electric cars charging; social changeImportant Electric Car Lessons Cruising Under the Radar


by Gina Coplon-Newfield and Mike Walker, photo by Aaron Choate  • January 12, 2015

Recently, we at AlterAction – a consulting firm focused on large-scale behavior change – and Sierra Club – the biggest grassroots environmental group in the U.S. – took an in-depth look at the U.S. electric vehicle (“EV”) marketplace. A widespread switch to EVs is one key way to slash emissions, so our “charge” (sorry, pun intended) was to estimate the potential impact of EV policy and program options in order to identify which ones are most likely to increase EV sales.

We reviewed available research and interviewed dozens of EV experts in a variety of arenas. AlterAction built quantitative models that estimate the impact of more than a dozen types of programs on EV sales. Some of the results won’t shock you. For example, we contend that consumer rebates (a government check in the mail for purchasing or leasing a plug-in car), tax credits, and privileges such as carpool lane access for EV drivers will have the greatest impact on EV sales over the next few years. A recent study on EV incentives by the International Council on Clean Transportation came to similar conclusions.

But still, there were some important surprises from our research. Here are three examples:

1. Public charging stations get the most attention, but home and work charging are more important.

While public charging infrastructure can help reduce “range anxiety” for potential EV buyers, and its visibility can serve to educate drivers, there is only modest correlation – if any – between increased EV sales and the number of public chargers per capita. Cars spend the vast majority of their time at home and the second largest amount of time at the workplace. Plenty of work remains to be done to reduce barriers to EV ownership in these two locations. Workplace charging not only allows for longer commutes, it can even enable people without dedicated parking at home to own an EV. And installing chargers at private workplaces usually involves less red tape than installing them in public spaces.

Also, public charging stations that initially provided free charging and then went to a fee model saw a dramatic fall-off in use. Public charging stations must be maintained once installed. The presence of unused and abandoned charging stations may actually discourage prospective EV buyers – sending a subtle message that EVs have failed to take hold. In the near-term, most EV buyers will likely be commuters who harbor no illusions about taking a cross-country trip in their EVs.

We’re not saying that public EV chargers aren’t a good idea -only that it’s likely even more important to focus on home and work chargers. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Workplace Charging Challenge, which tells us that people are 20 times more likely to drive an EV if there are chargers at work, is making a dent with over 165 employers – from large corporations to small family-owned businesses – already signed up to provide EV charging to their employees.

2. States need a High-level Taskforce to jumpstart and maintain strong EV programs.

Most states with higher per capita EV sales have at least one thing in common: the existence of an effective high-level task force dedicated to making their state EV-friendly. States with such task forces move more quickly in advancing a wide range of successful EV-friendly policies. They also provide a ready channel for EV advocates to pressure lawmakers for pro-EV programs. Characteristics of successful state task forces include: 1) members with political power such as governors, mayors, legislators, and agency heads/commissioners; 2) diverse membership, including utilities, transportation, urban planners, universities, EV enthusiast groups, and environmental groups; and 3) broad enough scope to consider holistic programs and policies rather than just infrastructure or incentive programs.

State task forces have notched some impressive victories for EVs. In Massachusetts and Illinois, $2,500-4,000 EV rebates were instituted as a direct result of the formation of the state Task Forces. In Maryland, the EV Infrastructure Council found that their existing EV servicing equipment incentive was not effective, so they adjusted it to make it more appealing to consumers. The California PEV Collaborative has succeeded in putting in place or promoting a dizzying array of EV programs, including a purchase rebate, incentives for condo dwellers, and strong EV utility programs.

More states should create these high-level EV taskforces, and ones with existing taskforces should make sure they continue adjusting and innovating.

3. An obscure California law could substantially affect EV sales nationally.

Nine states have adopted California’s “Zero Emission Vehicle” (ZEV) rule, which means automakers are required to sell a certain number of ZEVs in those states. However, automakers get credit for EVs sold in all ten states combined; it’s known as the “travel provision” because the credits can “travel” from state to state.

The upshot is that automakers can comply with all the state ZEV rules by selling EVs only in California, a state where Governor Brown recently signaled he wants a 50% oil use reduction in transportation by 2030. This is why we see “compliance cars,” or EV models sold only in California and are not available elsewhere. The travel provision suppresses EV adoption because car buyers outside of California have far fewer car models to choose from.

The travel provision was set to expire in 2014 but the California Air Resources Board (CARB) extended it to 2017. When it expires, automakers will need to sell EVs in additional states. EV advocates fear that CARB will face intense pressure from automakers to extend the travel provision again, which would continue to leave consumers with fewer EV options and make it that much harder for state policymakers to encourage EV adoption. It’s crucial that we end the travel provision in 2017.

Over the next weeks we’ll share additional findings from our EV research. Stay tuned.

Gina Coplon-Newfield is the Sierra Club’s Director of Electric Vehicles Initiative and her blog is at the Huffington Post.  Mike Walker is the founder and CEO of AlterAction.

Marketing’s Public Enemy #1

wanted poster - surveyMarketing’s Public Enemy #1

Avoid these 3 common traps

by Mike Walker • December 22, 2014

One of the few benefits of aging is that people around you come to expect a curmudgeonly rant every now and then – even during the holidays. So it’s in that spirit that I’d like to share a few thoughts about the perils of relying on written customer surveys when assessing the strengths and weaknesses of your products or services, or when trying to understand the determinants of peoples’ behavior.

First, an example…

It just so happens that the vendor providing much of our web hosting sends us a follow-up survey each time we interact with their customer service department. The surveys are always the same, asking that we rate our experience on a scale of 1-5 across a number of service dimensions – thoroughness, politeness, promptness, etc. We’ve all received these at some point or another, right?

Here’s why I hit “delete” the instant I spy one in my email inbox.

I have very specific, very actionable feedback that I’d love to share with this particular vendor. Acting on it would involve a fairly trivial modification to their software’s user interface, making it much easier and faster for small business operators like me (their core customer) to navigate. I’m pretty sure the change would also eliminate a large number of costly calls from frustrated customers each quarter. The problem is, there’s no way to share my suggestion via the survey.

Sure, I could search the company’s website for a customer service email address or call them again and wait on hold. (Another benefit of aging – I kind of like their hold music.) But like most small business owners, there are too few hours in my day. So it’s relegated to, oh, number 794 on my list of top 795 things to do. Besides, is it rational to believe that the organization behind such an inane survey would act on my suggestion, even if I went to the trouble? Probably not.

Bottom line: opportunity missed. Meanwhile, my vendor’s competitors are busy finding new ways to improve their products and services, and I have yet another reminder that it’s time to look around for alternatives.

Let’s get something straight: written surveys can be very useful for collecting demographic information about our customers and (arguably) for identifying glaring problem areas with products and services. But more often than not, they just induce a sense of complacency. In the absence of negative feedback, we assume we’re doing all right – and that’s a very dangerous assumption.

Here’s why I consider written surveys to be the enemy of smart marketing professionals:

1. The omission trap.

Surveyors rarely ask all of the right questions. And customers rarely take the time to sufficiently explain their answers or to volunteer unsolicited information. According to Richard C. Whiteley, author of The Customer Driven Company, only 4% of dissatisfied customers complain, but 65-90% of them will never buy from you again. Yikes!

2. The ambiguity trap.

It’s next to impossible to write questions that require no clarification for 100% of the survey population. We live in a diverse society, and our own unique circumstances color how we experience the world around us — including how we write survey questions.

3. The interpretation trap.

Researchers can’t accurately interpret every word a customer writes down. They’ll interpret answers based on what they meant by their questions, but customers are individuals; they mean many different things by their answers.

When you rely exclusively on written surveys, you arm yourself with – at best –incomplete information. To quote Whiteley, “you’re asking your customers to paint a picture of their experience but handing them a coloring book and telling them to stay within the lines.”

So what SHOULD you do to collect meaningful information from your customers?

Next time I’ll cover why oral surveys – especially those conducted by a third party – produce far more information. I will also discuss the importance of observing your customers “in the wild” – i.e., interacting with your product or service in the real world – and how to go about it.

The Ice Bucket Challenge: 10 Behavioral Marketing Lessons

HCC ice bucket challenge (Medium)The Ice Bucket Challenge:

10 Behavioral Marketing Lessons

by Mike Walker • September 17, 2014

For those of you who took the last six weeks off to vacation under a rock, the nation has been swept up in an enormously popular nonprofit fundraiser called the Ice Bucket Challenge.  It’s a social media-driven campaign that’s convinced millions of people to pour ice water on their heads to raise awareness for ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease).  To date, the ALS Foundation has raised an astonishing $110 million from the Ice Bucket Challenge on a marketing budget of approximately…


Here at AlterAction, we’re quite used to operating on a marketing budget of approximately nothing.  And while at first glance the Ice Bucket Challenge (let’s call it “IBC” for short) looks like a crazy fad that just happened to catch fire with the public, there’s actually a lot of behavioral science at work behind the scenes of frozen faces.  Here’s our cheat-sheet in case your boss wants a social marketing campaign plan “on my desk tomorrow!”  We can’t guarantee $110 million worth of free marketing, but you’ll definitely improve your reach if you follow these tips.

1.  Make it entertaining.

Americans like to be entertained.  Even in the internet age, we still watch an average of more than five hours of TV a day.  And what’s not entertaining about watching a brief video clip of someone having ice poured over their heads?  Especially when it’s someone we know?

2.  Appeal to people’s emotions.

Humans are social animals, and we crave (not always consciously) emotional connections with other humans.  Joining a worthy cause provides us with an opportunity to share an emotional connection and to feel good about ourselves.  It makes us feel like we are part of something important.  As Chip and Dan Heath argue in their #1 New York Times Best Seller, Switch, feeling leads us to doing.

3.  Give simple, specific instructions for the desired behavior.

The IBC is pretty straightforward: you pour a bucket of ice over your head within a 24-hour time period — or make a donation.  (The hope is that the participant does both.)  One very well-documented finding in social psychology research is that people are far more likely to do something when the directions they need to follow are simple and specific. In fact, the more options we face, the more we become overloaded, and we simply default to our routines.  So whatever you want someone to do, spell it out.

4.  Make the “ask” reasonable.

A client recently asked us to help them boost the participation of technology executives in a survey about energy efficiency.  However, the survey took approximately 30-45 minutes to complete, and let’s just say that it wasn’t particularly entertaining.  Soliciting technology executives to donate 30-45 minutes of their time for a voluntary and somewhat tedious survey is probably not a reasonable “ask”.  By contrast, asking for a $100 charitable donation isn’t a particularly onerous request, and making a short video of yourself can be pretty engaging.  For business leaders, it’s a ready-made opportunity for great publicity, which is one of the reasons why Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jeff Bezos joined the fun.

5.  Encourage your audience to personalize and spread the core message.

Part of the fun is putting your own creative stamp on the IBC.  And personalizing the message with your own style gives you a more compelling reason to share it with friends.  The IBC is inherently visual and (mercifully) brief, so it “works” in a photo or short video clip, ideal for sharing over any number of social media networks, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.  If you want a campaign to go viral, make it easy for others to share it across multiple platforms.

6.  Add a sense of immediacy.

If you’re asked to take the IBC, you have only 24 hours to do so.  By giving your audience a deadline, you add to the sense of urgency and increase the likelihood that they’ll complete the task.

7.  Leverage the power of consistency.

Most people want to think of themselves as charitable and/or generous.  When they are called upon to demonstrate that generosity, they’ll encounter personal and interpersonal pressure to behave consistently.  When you’re making a request, find a way to make the request seem consistent with your audiences’ prior public commitments.  Dr. Robert Cialdini, author of Influence, points out that asking people to make public commitments is even more powerful.

8.  Tap into social norms.

When we aren’t sure how to act in a given situation, we tend to look to others in our social group for clues.  Sociologists refer to these clues as “social norms”.  When you’re challenged by a friend to participate in the IBC, you’re inferring that because other people you know and respect are doing it, it might be a good idea for you, too.

9.  Get influencers involved.

Every audience has influencers: people that they look to for direction.  One of the great successes of the IBC was in getting a wide range of influencers on board.  When celebrities, business leaders, community leaders, and your most influential and connected friends are participating, it’s hard to resist joining the fray.

10.  Give it a simple, easy to remember name — and hashtag.

Research by social scientists Adam Alter and Daniel Oppenheimer concluded that people feel more positive about names that are easy to read, remember, and pronounce.  Although it may sound superficial, it suggests that the IBC would not have been quite as successful had it been called the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Frigid Cranium Offensive.  It also helps to have easy-to-remember hashtags for categorizing social media posts, like #IceBucketChallenge and #StrikeoutALS.  These hashtags made it simple for people to search for and learn more about the campaign, and to make others aware of their involvement.

Promoting Organ Donation: the Story Behind the Story

Promoting Organ Donation: the Story Behind the Story

(and why asking that dumb question may be the smartest thing you can do)

by Mike Walker • July 21, 2014


In their new book Think Like a Freak, Stephen Dubner and Steve Levitt pose an interesting question: what are the three hardest words to say in the English language?

“I love you,” and “I was wrong” were undoubtedly serious contenders, but the authors settle on three words that we very rarely hear, especially in our professional lives: “I don’t know.” Professor Amanda Waterman, a developmental psychologist at the University of Leeds, has documented children’s unwillingness to say “I don’t know” in numerous studies. Apparently, it’s a habit that we never outgrow as adults. And if you think about it, our educational system—from kindergarten right up through graduate school—conditions us to provide answers, even when we really have none. We’ll take a guess, make stuff up, or fake it—all to avoid saying “I don’t know.”

Here’s the good news: because we hear these three words so rarely, they’re valuable. They’re like the rare earth metals of our business vocabulary, and here’s why: by acknowledging that we may not know the answer, we give ourselves permission to ask questions. By asking questions, we open ourselves up to learning.

My firm helps clients achieve large-scale human behavior change. We spend every day trying to figure out why groups of people do what they do—and how to get them to do something else. With 25+ years of experience under our belts, it’s tempting to make predictions about what will work and what won’t. But just about every single time we’ve set aside our initial assumptions about the answers—saying, in effect, “we don’t know”–we’ve learned something powerful. Let me give you a specific example.

A number of years ago, the US Dept. of Health and Human Services (HHS) asked us to help increase organ donation. Recent advances in surgical medicine had made it possible to save many more lives, but a shortage of donors was making such lifesaving surgeries rare. The solution, according to the prevailing wisdom at the time, was to boost the number of people who checked the “Organ Donor” box on their driver’s license. In fact, several countries achieved this goal with a very simple, but clever change: they “presumed consent.” In other words, citizens are presumed to be consenting donors, but they have the opportunity to register their unwillingness to donate. Unwilling donors must, in effect, “uncheck” a box on their driver’s license. (Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein refer to this strategy as “opt-out” vs. “opt-in” in their book Nudge, which I highly recommend.)

But here’s the part of the story you probably never heard: while “opt-out” rather than “opt-in” undoubtedly helped increase the number of potential donors, it’s not what increased actual organ donation in the U.S. The team at HHS challenged the prevailing wisdom, and looked beyond driver’s licenses for answers. In other words, they had the good sense to say those 3 words: “we don’t know,” which is why they decided to interview emergency room doctors. What they learned was startling: the organ donor checkbox on a driver’s license almost never influences an organ donation decision. According to physicians, most potential donors arrive at the ER without a driver’s license. Instead, the wishes of surviving family members are the driving factor behind actual organ donations.

Armed with this insight, we adopted an entirely new strategy, and developed the first national social media campaign for enrolling organ and tissue donors online. When donors enrolled on the HHS website, they were able to quickly and easily email friends and family about their decision to become a donor.

To solve particularly challenging problems, we need to ask the seemingly obvious questions. We can only start to do so by acknowledging, “I don’t know.”

I’ll close with a great quote: “Uncertainty is a sign of humility, and humility is just the ability or the willingness to learn.” Know who said that? Say those three words, because I’m willing to bet you don’t know…

…it was Charlie Sheen. (Who knew?)