I’m happy to share a new paper, again led by my lab mate Lindall Kidd (who remains steadfast in her disinterest in setting up a social media profile, much to my admiration and awe).
In this review, we aimed to explore the state of conservation messaging research, including the extent to which studies are drawing from other disciplines.
We considered papers through the lens of strategic communication. Strategic communication is an umbrella term that can be used to describe any kind of purposeful communication, and draws from fields such as advertising, public relations, and mass communications.
For this reason, strategic communication can be a useful lens for interdisciplinary work, as it allows for flexibility when considering the benefits of different theoretical approaches (e.g. marketing, behaviour change etc.).
Figure 1: A schematic representation of strategic communication design steps using theory as a conceptual framework. Campaign design steps are shown above the arrow, and the relevant application of theory with examples at each stage is described below. Adapted from Noar (2006).
To investigate conservation messaging research, we systematically reviewed the literature, using Web of Science, by searching for articles using the search terms: (“framing” OR “marketing” OR “messaging”) AND (“conservation” OR “environment”) AND “biodiversity” OR “species”).
We excluded papers that did not include at least one of the following research purposes: 1) to document a case study that describes an existing message; 2) to develop theory relating to conservation messaging; or 3) to conduct an experiment to test a theory or contribute to the design aspect of a message. After this, we were left with 89 papers for analysis.
Results show that conservation messaging is an emerging research area, with the oldest study published in 1995, and 69% of studies being published in the last five years.
The most common messaging aims in the papers were to increase awareness, educate people, and/or encourage behaviour change (see Figure 2). While eliminating knowledge gaps can be a useful first step, a ‘knowledge-deficit’ approach can be limited in encouraging behaviour change. Therefore researchers would perhaps benefit from focusing more on messaging aims that go beyond increasing awareness.
Figure 2. The aim of messaging studies in the peer reviewed academic literature, based on a systematic search of Web of Science. Other aims of reviewed papers included assessment of the terms used in policy discourse.
Framing and marketing were the most commonly used theoretical approaches. Overall, the theories used spanned disciplines such as psychology, marketing and communication, however, some studies did not appear to be grounded in established theories relevant to their research aim. For example, almost one third of reviewed studies stated that their research aim was to encourage behavioural change, yet few studies used behaviour change theories such as the Theory of Planned Behaviour (Ajzen 1991). Fourteen papers did not indicate that their research was guided by theory.
Similarly, while citations in the reviewed papers spanned many disciplines, the majority were within the environmental sciences and biodiversity conservation (see Figure 3). Therefore, the opportunity remains to draw more thoroughly from other disciplines, particularly when taking an explicit theoretical or disciplinary approach, such as psychology or marketing.
Figure 3. The top ten Web of Science research disciplines of 4811 papers cited within a set of reviewed conservation messaging papers (n= 89).
One third of reviewed studies did not state a target audience for their message. Of the fifty-eight that did, 27 targeted a mass audience and 33 targeted a defined audience segment.
In addition, only one third of studies targeted a segmented audience, despite many employing a marketing approach. Audience segmentation is a key element of any marketing campaign and is crucial for effective strategic targeting and message design. Therefore, a major research gap highlighted by this review is the lack of audience segmentation.
A lack of audience targeting also makes it difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of a messaging campaign. Adopting a strategic approach from the outset – through clear grounding in theory, and specific identification of aims and audiences – should assist in ensuring evaluation of a messaging strategy can occur effectively.
The review showed that all experimental studies evaluated the effectiveness of message design using pre- and post-measures of a dependent variable, and a control group. Most relied on self-reported measures (e.g., behavioural intention). Only five studies evaluated specific behavioural change. Over one third of case studies undertook no evaluation.
- Consider messaging aims that go beyond increasing awareness (e.g., consider other mechanisms that motivate behaviour change, such as social norms or self-efficacy)
- Ground studies in established theories and approaches relevant to the research aim
- Draw from literature in disciplines relevant to the research aim and approach
- Target relevant audiences using audience segmentation techniques
- Adopt a strategic approach from the outset to allow for effective evaluation
Kidd, LR., Garrard, GE., Bekessy, SA., Mills, M., Camilleri, A., Fidler, F., Fielding, K., Gordon, A., Gregg, EA., Kusmanoff, A., Louis, W., Moon, K., Robinson, JA., Selinske, M., Shanahan, D., Adams, V. (2019) Messaging matters: a systematic review of the conservation messaging literature. Biological Conservation. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2019.05.020