Can you pay people to change?

I saw an interesting story on BBC news this morning about new government initiative to target smokers in Dundee. In what feels like a last ditch attempt to stop people smoking, they have now decided to pay those who can pass a non smoking test each week with £12.50 towards their weekly groceries.  It makes sense in a recession to see the value in any monetary incentive, but will it be enough to shift those ingrained smoking behaviours?  Their initial findings say yes (after 3 months) but most social theory would suggest no.

As an ex smoker myself, I was just commenting the other day how fast I thought the shift in my own behaviour (and that of others around me) had been.  That now, when someone lights up – or asks to light up – there is an undertone of social disgust and exclusion.   I don’t know when this shift happened but it quite obviously did – without any monetary incentive or monetary penalty levied.

Results Fast Please!

As a social media agency the objectives behind most campaigns – even those not specifically about social change – is to have some influence on people’s attitudes and behaviours so the question about how to achieve that often leads into a conversation about incentives.   Clients (and people in general) always want results fast so it’s all too easy to take the monetary route to either encourage participation in a community or encourage a direct shift in behaviour.    But we need to remind ourselves why we are using social media or social marketing techniques in the first place. We bought into the fact that communication is more effective when delivered within a social context – that social influence has greater impact than both corporate/government or monetary influence.


The guys at Freakanomics proved just that when they wrote about an economic experiment undertaken with tardy parents. To try and stop parents from picking up their kids late from school they proposed a fine of $3 per child.  The result? Late pick up went up! Parents thought they were paying for the privilege, they had turned the whole thing into a market transaction instead of a social one and it had royally backfired.

Talking about backfiring, I was amused to read a post today on Mumsnet related to the Dundee Smoking story where mums said they would start smoking and then prove they have quit just to get the extra £50 a month!  Insight direct from the public at large about the holes in this social change initiative – are the government listening to this buzz online?

Figuring out what makes them tick

I wouldn’t count out monetary incentives at all; relevant prizes are always nice to reward participation as long as they are used sparingly and alongside other social incentives.   Feverbee did a neat post about the many options to incentivise social communities online but the key really, as always, is to start with insight into the people you are trying to influence. Understanding their needs, values, motivations and social norms will help you put together an incentive strategy that delivers your desired objective.


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