P&E: Are we getting through to residents? How can we find out?

CIF Staff interviewed communications expert Barbara McConnell as well as some of our municipal colleagues who are actively engaged in P&E campaigns to find out how they analyze the impact of their P&E campaigns. Here’s what we found.

Audits are a great starting point, but they’re not the whole story

Barbara tells us, audits answer the question “what is in the waste and recycling resource streams?” However, they can’t tell us “why the streams look the way they do?”  To find out why people place non-recyclables in their blue box or why they don’t participate fully, you’ve got to go to the source; you must engage with your audience. Barbara says, “reach out to your audience through focus groups, pre and post campaign surveys, opinion polls, and other types of attitude and awareness research”.

Word selection matters

Our messaging is not always understood. Terms like ‘contamination’ and ‘recyclable’ are technical terms that don’t mean the same thing to residents as they do to those of us who work in the waste diversion field. One program learned recently that residents thought ‘contamination’ referred to something hazardous, and some residents thought ‘recyclable’ referred to blue box and organic items.

Demographics affect how people seek and absorb information

Gender, age, income level and so on also matter. Barbara explains, millennials, born roughly between 1980-2004, prefer quick and direct communication. They like apps and giveaways. They’ll use smartphones to access your website seeking specific information, and if they can’t immediately find what they need, they won’t likely be back.  They’d rather text than talk. As Peel Region staff learned, millennials generally aren’t interested in chatting at the lobby display in their apartment building. On the other hand, Gen Xers, born roughly between 1960-1970, tend to respond equally well to conventional marketing techniques and digital media, so you have more opportunities to reach them.

Focus Groups can help avoid spending mis-steps

A focus group is a diverse group of people that you might bring together to discuss elements of your campaign. Analyzing their feedback on new program directions, campaign tag lines, artwork and more can help predict the response that might be expected from the various segments of your target audience. The results of focus groups are often used to develop larger scale, statistically reliable public opinion and attitude surveys. These sessions can help you avoid printing or posting ads with words or call to action statements that people are unlikely to respond to because they don’t understand what you’re asking them to do. Testing P&E materials first will result in a better return on investment.

Use post campaign surveys to find out if your message was heard

If your goal is to change behaviour by providing information, instruction and incentives, the most direct way to find out if residents ‘heard’ and understood your message is to ask. That’s just what the staff in Peel Region did. Aiming to reduce the incidence of recyclables found in tied off grocery bags in multi-residential buildings, residents were given a reusable bag and a magnet with recycling instructions. Surveyed after the campaign, residents demonstrated a high level of recall of receiving the bags and magnets, and noted a renewed willingness to recycle. Conclusion? Bags and magnets were successful in getting people’s attention.

The bottom line
P&E campaigns can be expensive and time-consuming endeavors, but when they are well executed, they can help drive down costs and drive up diversion. One-size fits all efforts are unlikely to change anything. The parting advice of communications specialist Barbara McConnell is “not to underestimate the importance of a well researched and monitored campaign. Even a small budget P&E effort can yield results if thoughtfully designed”.

CIF staff will be working with municipal staff from Ontario programs to bring you more learnings on the P&E projects currently underway in their communities.

Contact Jessica Landry for more information. Barbara McConnell is president of McConnell Weaver Strategic Communication.