A theory of engagament

flow-chart-sI often write in this blog about business techniques that can be adapted to benefit charities and non-profits. Likewise, in my work with businesses, the insights often flow the other way. Best of all though is when they come full circle.

A few weeks ago, I spent an afternoon with the Head of Strategy for one of the UK’s most successful, and one of the world’s largest retailers. We were talking about marketing strategies that they’ve been trying to develop to influence customer behaviour, and the conversations they’d been having started to sound very familiar.

“Have you ever heard the term: Theory of Change?” I asked. He hadn’t, so I explained the approach and how I’ve seen it used in the non-profit world, not only for mapping an organisation’s beliefs on how they might bring about systemic change, but personal change as well. He wrote to me last week to update me on how the team has started developing their own theory of change, and how it’s already being used to work out the design and the measures for their first set of marketing trials.

He went on to say, “It’s helped us clarify the difference between what we think we know and what we actually know about how we influence customer behaviour, and it’s shown us where we need to close the gap. Just having a common language and framework has been a step-change.”

Marketing is about putting things into people’s environments that will change their minds and behaviours. You may have a group of supporters who don’t volunteer and a group of ones who do. And there will be many who volunteer now, who didn’t in the past. Something changed their minds; some sequence of events will have triggered them into a new behaviour. If you want more people to make that change, your marketing needs to unpick those examples, and build some hypotheses about when, how and what you could insert into their environments, to help trigger that same change in others.

That’s the starting point for your theory of change. Draw it out and you’ll quickly see the areas you don’t really understand and need to research; and the areas you think you understand but can’t evidence, and need to test out. Everything you need to develop a marketing strategy for rapidly growing your number of engaged volunteers, will flow from that theory as you prove and refine it over time.

A Theory of Change can be a powerful tool for all kinds of strategy decisions, whether the outcome you want is for children to gain access to education, an end to tropical deforestation, a million highly-engaged volunteers or a pipeline of contracts for an innovative new service. In each case, you have a myriad beliefs, assumptions and alternative ways you might bring that result about – the perfect situation to deploy a theory of change.

Britain, once described as a “nation of shopkeepers”, has arguably the most advanced and sophisticated retail industry in the world. So it’s heartening to see that even they can learn some profound ideas from the cutting edge of non-profit thinking.

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