Today Nick presented the following at the University of Sydney’s 3 Minute Thesis competition:
It had all the makings of a major public security incident. It was early 2000, just a few months after the referendum ballot that saw East Timor vote overwhelmingly for independence and the violent destruction that followed. Aid agencies were working hard to provide for the people’s basic needs.
I was working for UNICEF and accompanying a group of executives from a big pharmaceutical company, who were keen to help deliver vaccinations. I was a bit skeptical of their motives and the tactics of the “dark side” generally.
So there we were, in a small village, observing the UNICEF staff giving polio drops to children. Suddenly a cry rang out from the assembled youngsters – the supply of lollypops used to reward them had run out! All at once dozens of little mouths clamped firmly shut and serious tantrums broke out.
A quick thinking UNICEF staff member jumped in his car while others entertained the waiting group of youngsters. He sped off to the nearest town and soon returned with a supply of lollypops and the queue of open mouths resumed for their doses of the magical drops. One of my pharmaceutical colleagues remarked in a dark voice, “ah, the power of supply and demand”.
And then it hit me – he was right. The power of marketing – the dark side – could solve serious social issues.
I spent the next decade working on precisely this and learning how marketing could be used to change behaviours and help strengthen communities. During my management of a project in a poor community in West Java, Indonesia, we worked to convince parents to wash their hands with soap to avoid transmitting diarrhea to their children. The program was successful but I couldn’t work out why it reached more people in one community than others nearby that were so similar to it.
Back in Australia, I realized that if we don’t understand how information diffuses through community networks – how it’s produced, how it’s consumed and how it’s disseminated – we can’t effectively target social marketing programs. So I joined a research team tackling the challenging problem of reducing harm from alcohol use among young people.
Social network theory helps us understand that for information dissemination there is an optimal form of network – one which has a balance of productivity and density. But some networks, like communities, have gaps. The trick is to fill these gaps in, using a change agent – an opinion leader, educator or counsellor – to bridge the divide and ensure the spread of accurate information. Right now there is little evidence on what works best and why for online, geographical and interest based communities.
So I’ve designed an experiment that enables us to test which change agents work best with which communities. I am trialling this with communities in Australia and Indonesia. Soon I will have a proven diagnostic tool that enables us – actually anyone– to ensure life saving messages get through to those who need them most.