Rule #6: Small Ripples Make Big Waves

Target the quick wins

Consider probability, impact and penetration 

Make sure your campaign is focused on a piece of the larger puzzle. If you can make a big change in a small area, or small shifts in a social norm, that is something to be celebrated.

In his book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell explains that although we like to think that change progresses evenly, there is in fact a “tipping point” where things start to change at a much faster rate. He argues that although we feel we need to change things on a mass scale, and tackle the whole problem at once, we actually don’t. (Gladwell, 2000)

Small actions can have the biggest impacts

Social marketing campaigns often have few resources than traditional marketing campaigns, therefore it is critical to have the biggest impact with the smallest effort possible.

Malcolm Gladwell describes social change as a contagious epidemic, and that at a certain point, it will change dramatically. For instance, in neighbourhoods with between 40 and 5% working professionals teenage pregnancy and high school drop-outs are relatively stable. However once that number drop below 5%, these rate can double (Gladwell, 2000). This is what he calls the “tipping point”. Gladwell, concludes that a small amount of change can have a dramatic effect.

It may seem natural to choose your behaviour based on impact. However, you also want to consider the probability and penetration of the behaviour. For instance,if the  selected behaviour is to have people install solar panels and 98% of the neighbourhood already has solar panels installed, it is pointless to expend time and resources to promote the installation of solar panels. Behaviours that have the fewest current adopters have the greatest market opportunity and as such, behaviours with low penetration are the ones that should be promoted (Kotler and Lee, 2011). Finally, the probability should be high as you don’t want to be promoting a behaviour that is too costly or difficult for people to engage in.

Pick behaviours with high impact, high probability and low penetration 

Tip#1: Research the impact, probability and penetration to find the most effective behaviour

The best way to determine the impact, probability and penetration of behaviours is to collect as much secondary information as possible. For the impact, look at technical information, like emission reductions; for probability look at past program effectiveness, including how they delivered it.

If this doesn’t work you will need to use primary research, for impact interview an expert in the field, and for probability you can directly interview your target audience. Penetration can be found by observing behaviour or by interviewing the target audience. Keep in mind that when you interview the target audience, they tend to overstate their participation(McKenzie-Mohr, 2011 pg. 16-19).

Behaviours that have high impact, high probability and low penetration are the ones that should be promoted by campaigns (Mohr, 2011). Researching these aspects will also help you to set better goals, because you know what is realistic and attainable.

Tip#2: Don’t be afraid of band-aid solutions

Malcolm Gladwell argues that “the band-aid is an inexpensive, convenient and remarkably versatile solution to an astonishing array of problems… it involves solving the problem with the minimum amount of effort and time and cost”. By solving changing one meaningful behaviour, you can have a dramatic effect. And while you are focusing on that one behaviour, other people will be doing other things, and you may just be able to hit the “tipping point”.

Ex#1: Safeco- high impact, high probability and low penetration

In Bend, Oregon two fires in the 1990s destroyed 50 homes. Rather than purchasing new firefighting equipment, a social marketing campaign was designed to encourage residents to fireproof their own homes. The Safeco Firefree program includes ten easy steps homeowners can take to protect themselves from wildfires, which only take a weekend to set up and are easy to maintain. This was an excellent idea not only because of the high impact and low penetration, but also because the probability of uptake was high due to the recent fire in the neighbourhood. People had seen the effects of house fires and were ready and willing to avoid them (Kotler & Lee, 2005).

 So remember: Target the quick wins

When choosing what behaviours to promote, picking behaviours that are more likely to be adopted is more important than picking behaviours with the biggest impact. Always make sure to assess both the impact of the behaviour and the probability of the audience engaging in your behaviour before deciding what kind of behaviour to promote. Lastly, look towards choosing behaviours that have low penetration in the target audience as they have the greatest market opportunity. Finally, remember that everything has a “tipping point”;   small behaviour change can be meaningful.



Gladwell, M. (2000). The tipping point: How little things can make a big difference. Boston: Little, Brown.

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