Digital Communication: Can It Help Municipalities Change Resident Set out Behaviours?

Using digital media to get a message out is a relatively new practice for municipalities

Over the last few years, groups have tested their hand at communicating through social media and other digital media platforms. What we’ve learned is that digital media, while allowing for faster circulation of our ‘calls to action’, still requires just as much planning and forethought, perhaps more so than traditional media.

The audiences we’re speaking to have so many options when it comes to where to get their information. Even within the digital media realm, there are many communication channels – twitter, Facebook, and so on. Matching the right channel with each different demographic is more complex than ever before.

Peel Region has a newly available CIF report in which it shares some of the learnings staff developed as they implemented and analysed their most recent digital marketing campaign.

Problem(s) familiar to all residential Blue Box service providers

Recycling set out in tied off plastic bags, and significant amounts of food residue in containers or loose organic material in the mix: both cause problems for processors because they add to the amount of time and effort needed to sort. They can also degrade the value of the commodities targeted for sale.

In a time when end markets are looking for bales that meet higher quality standards, and in some cases aren’t offering as much for the material, Blue Box service providers can’t afford any missed opportunities to get the word out to residents to improve their set out practices.

Peel’s experience with digital media

Peel Region invested in the production of short videos that were developed in house by the Region’s Digital Media team. The videos were brought to residents’ attention by posting them to a variety of digital media platforms. Video links were also profiled in a substantial number of paid placements ads on the home page feeds of these platforms.

The ‘tied off’ bags campaign was in market for 15 months with time to test and tweak the campaign in concert with findings from the MRF; the organics food residue campaign was significantly shorter.


The campaigns were different in terms of timing, complexity of messaging and opportunities to tweak and fine-tune it, and budget. Thus, it’s difficult to compare them. The tied off grocery bags issue campaign evolved over longer period of time and enjoyed great success. The food residue and loose organics campaign rolled out over a shorter time period with a more difficult message and less resources and it didn’t show a pronounced gain – all factors to weigh when considering whether to continuing to promote the food residue reduction videos.

Tied off bags campaign

Food residue and loose organics campaign

Peel Region’s advice: Six important lessons learned

1. Discovery sessions

Ensure you have a deep understanding of the problem, current state, and the opportunities. Allow time for lots of discussion, follow up and reflection.  What we mean here is that your work place, and all its various departments need to work together to understand all aspects of an issue, from its impact to the program to its effect on the cost to operate – this takes time, reflection and multiple follow up meetings. The team needs to seek agreement on how to prioritize which issues are tackled first and next – because digital communications offer opportunities for course corrections.

Bernadette Celis-Clarke, the Region of Peel’s Advisor for Promotion, Education & Outreach says: “Our approach is that everyone inside needs to be onside before the team goes outside. We are really careful to bring in subject matter experts from all affected operational areas to be sure that digital campaigns and adjustments we make along the way respond any operational challenges that we can correct.”

2. Guiding principles

Establish guiding principles for the campaign especially when trying new approaches. Be persistent within those principles and do not default back to old practices that do not serve the established goal.  An important guiding principle to have agreement around is duration. Ensure your team stays the course and avoids the temptation to jump ship or abandon an effort without giving enough time for uptake of your messaging.

Know that different demographics consume information differently (e.g. older people use Facebook while younger people prefer YouTube and Instagram). With digital placements you can see instantly where your message is being picked up. As results come in, you can adjust your ad spend and switch platforms to capture more of the targeted audience you’re looking to connect with. There IS NO one size fits all approach for where to place your digital ads. Be prepared to monitor and adjust efforts according uptake and agreed upon guiding principles.

3. Measurement

Digital campaigns offer plenty of easily accessible metrics; the challenge is to determine which metrics best speak to the business outcomes that you’re trying to achieve with the campaign. The key is to establish and get agreement on a measurement framework that connects business outcomes and campaign metrics.

If you need to reduce contamination levels in in-bound truck loads to reduce costs, for example, then ensure your budget allows for sufficient auditing on in-bound trucks to determine if your messaging is resulting in reduced contamination coming to the doors of your MRF.

4. Lifetime value

Consider the potential lifetime value or longer-term value of a campaign. Consider any additional labour or measurement costs needed to sustain tracking of key performance measures and financial impact over the long-term. These additional ongoing measures and financial impacts can help build a strong business case for future campaigns.

5. Audience testing to make evidence-based decision making

Whenever possible, test with the audience and make decisions based on data. We all have our opinions about what will resonate with residents, but until we talk to them, we don’t know for sure.

6. Keep the message simple

To maintain a clear message, avoid the temptation of “information stuffing” to cover minor exceptions or technical variables. You’ll just lose your viewer. And be prepared to test one message against another to find the one that resonates most effectively with your audience.

“This project is a trail-blazer because it clearly measures digital media communications against operational values and it’s been recognized as a winner by the Municipal Waste Association in this year’s P&E awards,” says Carrie Nash, CIF Project Manager. “Any community that chooses to add digital into its communications mix, can use many of the principles and learnings from Peel’s learnings, then develop campaigns that are appropriate to local needs and resources.”

Details on each of these items is included in the Region of Peel’s project report, which is a quick read that’s full of rich content.

For more information about P&E and to participate in CIF led discussions on this topic, please reach out to Jessica Landry.