Changing Behavior, Does Your Social Strategy Need Some Shock Value?


Today I heard a story about a top ranked hospital with some of the most highly trained doctors in the country. Coincidentally, the facility had the lowest rate of hand washing among MD’s relative to all other hospitals. Quite the paradox, don’t you think? If the most educated members of hospital staff can’t manage to consistently wash their hands, what hope do we have for fast food joints? It makes me shudder to think about, but that’s beside the point.

The interesting part of the story was the hospital’s solution to the problem. Administrators went around the hospital asking if doctors would like to get their hands swabbed.  The results were taken to a lab and put in a petri dish. After a couple weeks, some repulsive looking bacteria predictably grew rampant in almost all of the petri dishes. Rather than continuing their approach of positive reinforcement that included handing out hand-sanitizer and awarding gift cards, the hospital got creative. Administrators took a picture of the repulsive dishes and made them the screen savers for all computers in the hospital. As a result, hand washing jumped from ~65% to almost 100%.

To make sure the stats stuck, the hospital employed another tactic: public shaming. If any doctors were caught not washing their hands, their name and picture were posted on the whiteboard during weekly all-hands meetings in a passive-aggressive form of disgrace.

That may sound a little extreme, but it has been very effective.

A Lesson In Behavior Modification

There is a generally accepted paradigm that being educated about subject correlates to making the right decisions. But in cases like the one above, there seems to be a gap between knowing what you should do and actually doing it.

My question is: Can this, in some way, be applied in a brands’ social program? These days, as you might expect, social is driven by positive reinforcement. Influencers are given recognition, fans are rewarded for generating UGC, and in some instances, advocates are rewarded with goods and merchandise.

By all accounts this seems to work, but there are always those tactics that lie on the fringes of your social media tool belt and can be very effective if employed correctly. Maybe adding undertones of negative reinforcement can be the perfect complement to the more mainstream approach we see these days.

So Does That Mean We Should Start Posting Disturbing Pictures?

Yeah… I don’t think so. Using disturbing imagery probably only works for a handful of brands, most of them having to do with health. We’ve already seen anti-smoking organizations and organizations focused on eliminating drunk driving use graphic imagery to get their points across with success. In fact, research suggests that the approach has been effective in anti-smoking campaigns leading 53% of sampled adolescents to at least try to quit smoking. This Australian ad is the perfect example of how negative graphic imagery can be used to influence behavior. I’m guessing you’re not going to want a cigarette after taking a look.

A Little Public Shaming Never Hurt Anybody

Okay, I’ll admit that suggesting we add elements of public shame into social programs feels a little… unethical. But, if done delicately and with a playful approach, it can add an edginess to your program that your audience will appreciate.

Example: Ultimate Vodka’s Social Life Audit

Consider the “Social Life Audit” app from Ultimate Vodka that pulls your Facebook data to assess your social life and publishes your score on your wall. The driving emotive behind this app that makes it so intriguing is that there is a risk of not getting a good score.

It blatantly tags pictures with all guys as a “sausage fest”, pokes fun about how few people of the opposite gender you spend time with, or how “unhappy” people look when they’re in pictures with you. They then display your score, no matter how positive or negative, on your  wall for the world to see. It’s edgy, it can be embarrassing, and it’s AWESOME!

In the end, it always comes down to your audience, what values or purpose you are trying to build your social media presence and community around, and what kind of resources are at your disposal. That said, if you have what it takes to capitalize on the powerful behavioral influencers like social queues and, frankly, disgust, you should use it where appropriate.

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