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To segment or not to segment?

May 2, 2014 by | 1 Comment

This is a guest post by Donald W. Hine and Aaron Driver, University of New England, Armidale, Australia

The chal­lenge of com­mu­nic­ating cli­mate change is fraught with chal­lenges, often from unex­pected quar­ters. One cur­rent major debate con­cerns the use of seg­ment­a­tion – the tail­oring and tar­geting of mes­sages to spe­cific audi­ence ‘seg­ments’ in a com­munity – to com­mu­nicate cli­mate change.

On the one hand, seg­ment­a­tion and mes­sage tail­oring is a field-tested meth­od­o­logy that makes intu­itive sense. On the other, critics argue that frac­turing a com­munity into seg­ments can widen values gaps and pro­mote divis­ive­ness, which under­mines the com­munity wide com­mit­ment needed for col­lective struggles like cli­mate change.

Thus sci­ent­ists, policy makers and com­mu­nic­ators face a dilemma: can we apply the prin­ciples and tech­niques of seg­ment­a­tion without doing more harm than good?

Surveys from around the world show that mem­bers of the gen­eral public differ con­sid­er­ably in how they under­stand, respond to and feel about cli­mate change. Consequently, mes­sages that res­onate with people alarmed about cli­mate change are unlikely to sway the atti­tudes of deni­al­ists, let alone change their beha­viours. And attempts to craft mes­sages that please all seg­ments, sim­ul­tan­eously, most often end up pleasing none.

This notion that dif­ferent groups require dif­ferent mes­saging strategies lies at the heart of social mar­keting. Social mar­keting applies tra­di­tional mar­keting prin­ciples, such as market seg­ment­a­tion, in order to change beha­viours. But whereas tra­di­tional mar­keting aims to increase sales and max­imise profits, social mar­keting endeav­ours to enhance the well­being of indi­viduals and com­munities, to fur­ther the greater social good.

Health psy­cho­lo­gists have suc­cess­fully delivered social mar­keting beha­viour change pro­grams to address health threats such as smoking, sub­stance abuse, obesity, high cho­les­terol and sexu­ally trans­mitted dis­eases. And the lit­er­ature is clear: tailored health com­mu­nic­a­tions are more likely than non-tailored con­tent to be con­sumed, under­stood, recalled and per­ceived as credible.

Social marketing’s suc­cess has nat­ur­ally gen­er­ated sub­stan­tial interest in how these prin­ciples and prac­tices might apply to cli­mate change. However, not everyone shares this enthusiasm.

In their excel­lent review of the cli­mate change social mar­keting lit­er­ature, Corner and Randall (2011) argued that audi­ence seg­ment­a­tion may diminish a sense of shared col­lective respons­ib­ility within com­munities by accen­tu­ating dif­fer­ences between audi­ence seg­ments. In turn, this may under­mine the empathy and social cap­ital needed to facil­itate pro-environmental change in com­munities. Indeed, it could be argued that seg­ment­a­tion is fun­da­ment­ally dis­crim­in­atory given it involves treating indi­viduals dif­fer­ently based on selected per­sonal char­ac­ter­istics. Furthermore, this dis­crim­in­a­tion might lead to the mar­gin­al­iz­a­tion of cer­tain groups who are iden­ti­fied as dif­fi­cult to access or influence.

These con­cerns are valid but we believe there is nothing inherent in the approach of seg­ment­a­tion that makes such out­comes inevitable.

Rather than frac­turing com­munities and rein­for­cing dis­tinctly indi­vidu­al­istic motives such as fin­an­cial gain, a wise and aware prac­tice of seg­ment­a­tion could bring groups closer together by tail­oring mes­sages to spe­cific seg­ments that con­sist­ently prime sim­ilar values across all seg­ments. If they wished, cli­mate change com­mu­nic­ators could expli­citly pro­mote a more uni­fied, col­lective mindset.

Of course, we are not sug­gesting this would be simple or straight­for­ward. Implementation would likely involve a series of com­plex trade offs, where pro­gress toward col­lective, long-term, bigger-than-self goals would be bal­anced against the message-tailoring imper­at­ives of the present. Execution would be key.

A second common cri­ti­cism of social mar­keting is that it eli­cits shallow change. That is, typ­ical inter­ven­tions target spe­cific beha­viours, such as installing solar panels or energy effi­cient appli­ances, while ignoring the deeper world­views and values that can drive these beha­viours more broadly.

Thogersen and Crompton (2009) have con­vin­cinglyar­gued that although com­mu­nic­a­tion strategies tar­geting com­munity seg­ments may work in the short term, they may have unin­tended neg­ative longer-term soci­etal effects by rein­for­cing world­views that are fun­da­ment­ally incom­pat­ible with sus­tain­able lifestyles.

Although we agree it is undesir­able to use social mar­keting to rein­force con­sumerist values that run counter to sus­tain­ab­ility, again we view this as an imple­ment­a­tion problem, not a fun­da­mental lim­it­a­tion of the meth­od­o­logy itself. As Crompton (2010) has noted, audi­ence seg­ment­a­tion is a useful starting point to identify lan­guage and meta­phors that will be most effective in activ­ating more helpful com­munity values that can fun­da­ment­ally alter the way indi­viduals con­cep­tu­alize and respond to issues like cli­mate change.

Thus, there is nothing intrinsic to social mar­keting that limits its applic­a­tion to shallow beha­vi­oural change. It just as easily can be used to elicit deeper changes in world­views and values that are more con­sistent with a sus­tain­able future.

Combating cli­mate change is a monu­mental chal­lenge. Fiddling around the edges with incre­mental changes in climate-friendly beha­viours is not suf­fi­cient. Fundamental shifts in world­views and values are required. We believe that social mar­keting, and seg­ment­a­tion in par­tic­ular, can play a sig­ni­ficant role in bringing about such change.

This posting is based on:

Hine, DW, Reser, JP, Morrison, M, Phillips, WJ, Nunn, P, Cooksey, R. Audience seg­ment­a­tion and cli­mate change: Conceptual and meth­od­o­lo­gical con­sid­er­a­tions. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews – Climate Change, 2014, doi: 10.1002/wcc.279.


Corner A, Randall A. Selling cli­mate change? The lim­it­a­tions of social mar­keting as a strategy for cli­mate change public engage­ment. Global Environmental Change, 2011, 21:1005–1014.

Crompton T. Common Cause: The Case for Working With Our Cultural Values. Surrey: WWF; 2010.

Thogerson J, Crompton T. Simple and pain­less? The lim­it­a­tions of spillover in envir­on­mental cam­paigning. Journal of Consumer Policy 2009, 32:141–146.

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