A Systematic Approach to Behavior Change


The field of social marketing examines effective ways to get people to change their behaviors (Lee and Kotler, 2016). Like related fields, such as public health and sustainability, social marketing in pro-diversity initiatives is based on the idea that a successful behavior change campaign requires a systematic approach during which the creators of the initiative identify four elements: the target behavior, the target audience, the barriers, and the benefits. We will discuss each of these elements in turn.

Target behavior:

When crafting a pro-diversity initiative, it is advised to select a specific behavior to target, or sometimes a small number of closely related behaviors (Lee & Kotler, 2015). The first question that one should ask is, in its simplest form, “What exactly do we want people to do as a result of our initiative?” The desirable, to-be-adopted behavior is called the “target behavior.”

For a list of potential target behaviors see here. It is advised to evaluate these behaviors on three key dimensions in order to help decide on the best target behavior:

  • Impact: The extent to which changing the behavior will produce a large effect.
  • Probability: The likelihood that people will adopt the desirable behavior.
  • Market opportunity: The number of people who currently do not engage in the desirable behavior.

It may be necessary to conduct background research to find out how each of the potential target behaviors scores on each of the three dimensions. Such background research may involve focus groups and a climate survey.

Target audience:

Although all individuals in a specific setting (e.g. company, school district) are usually exposed to a given pro-diversity initiative, the initiative is more likely to be effective if it is designed with a specific subset of the population in mind. The question is “Whose behaviors do we want to change?” The subset of the population for whom the intervention is primarily designed is called the “target audience.” One-size-fits-all approaches, sometimes referred as “undifferentiated marketing,” tend to be rather ineffective, which may be a reason why most diversity training workshops don’t work.

The first step is to segment the population – let’s say all employees in a company – in terms of relevant criteria (Kotler & Armstrong, 2001). Depending on the specific diversity-related issues to be addressed, these criteria may be based on demographic (e.g., age, race), geographic (e.g., neighborhood, urban v. rural), occupational (e.g., managers v. blue collar workers), and/or psychological characteristics (e.g., personality, current attitudes).

Once the population has been divided into relevant segments, it is advised to evaluate these segments on three key dimensions in order to help decide on the best target audience:

  • Size: The size of the segment and the percentage of individuals in the segment who do not engage in the desirable behavior.
  • Readiness: The extent to which the individuals in this segment are able, willing, and ready to change their behavior.
  • Reachability: The extent to which members of this segment are easy to identify and there are known distribution channels for persuasive messages.

Like with the target behavior, it may be necessary to conduct background research to find out how each of the potential target audiences scores on each of the three dimensions. Focus groups and a climate survey often provide the relevant information.


In order to change people’s behaviors, it is necessary to know the obstacles that have to be overcome. The question is: “What currently prevents members of the target audience from adopting the target behavior(s)?” The goal is to find out what the incentives for the current, undesirable behavior are and what the disincentives for the desirable target behavior are.

Barriers can be concrete (e.g., not knowing how to perform a certain behavior) or abstract (e.g., fearing social isolation). They can be internal (e.g., intergroup anxiety) or external (e.g., lack of organized opportunities to meet people from other social groups). They can be real (e.g., individuals from different cultures have a different way of talking) or perceived (e.g., the belief that one’s peers rarely engage in inclusive behaviors).

Focus groups and surveys are a great way to find out about barriers. Once the barriers that prevent members of the target audience from adopting the target behavior have been identified, the goal is to remove them in the pro-diversity initiative. This can be achieved through structural changes (e.g., providing opportunities for contact, making it more difficult to do the current, undesirable behavior) or through communication (e.g., posters, videos, and workshops that highlight how easy it is to perform the desired target behavior).


Behavior change not only implies removing obstacles but also making desirable outcomes salient. The question is: “What would make members of the target audience more likely to engage in the target behavior(s)?” Said simply, the goal is to find out what will motivate members of the target audience to engage in the desired target behavior. Benefits refer to positive outcomes in the eyes of the members of the target audience, not necessarily for the individuals who design the pro-diversity initiative.

Like barriers, benefits can be concrete (e.g., receiving an incentive for engaging in the desirable behavior) or abstract (e.g., social recognition). They can be internal (e.g., acting according to one’s egalitarian values) or external (e.g., complying with directives regarding diversity). They can be real (e.g., making more friends from different cultures) or perceived (e.g., the belief that one’s peers enjoy the diversity in the organization).

A benefit is something that the target audience wants and that the desired target behavior has the potential to provide. In focus groups and surveys, one can ask members of the target audience questions like “What could someone say to you [show to you/do for you] that would make it more likely that you would consider adopting this behavior?” A complementary approach is to ask individuals who have recently adopted the desirable behavior what benefits they derive from doing so and what caused them to change their behavior.

Once the benefits have been identified, the goal is to make them salient in the to-be-implemented pro-diversity initiative. If you cannot explain, in simple and straightforward terms, to the members of the target audience what positive consequences they will derive from doing the desirable target behavior, the pro-diversity initiative is unlikely to be effective.

A systematic approach:

Social marketers go further than just identifying the target audience, the target behavior, the barriers, and the benefits. They adopt an equally systematic approach for the implementation of the behavior change initiative. A complete presentation of the implementation procedures would go beyond the scope of this website. Nevertheless, let’s briefly mention some key concepts.

It is advised to think long and hard about the “Four P’s:” The Product (e.g., diversity lunch and learn, team building activities, a list of offensive statements), the Price (e.g., reducing the psychological costs of performing the desired target behavior), the Place (e.g., stickers near the coffee machine, reminders at the beginning of team meetings), and the Promotion (e.g., choosing the right messengers and messages to make salient the benefits of the desired target behavior). Excellent texts on the “Four P’s” are available (e.g., Lee & Kotler, 2016).


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