Blog post

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.

1 Comment + Add Comment

Make a comment

Creative Commons 2011 - 2016, Talking Climate
A project by COIN & PIRC.
This website has moved and is now part of Climate Outreach



This website, a project of Climate Outreach (COIN), has been integrated into the new Climate Outreach website. Any updates since 21 October 2015 have been made to the new website only, not here, and this website will soon be deleted. Please bookmark our new website – we look forward to continuing to share the latest in climate communication research with you. We are now tweeting from @climateoutreach so please follow us there.