The diffusion of environmental behaviours: The role of influential individuals in social networks

Start date:
January 2008
November 2008

An investigation into the notion of 'green' mavens, with a view to identifying specific opportunities for communications and policy.

In mainstream commercial marketing, the concept of a 'maven' is increasingly well established. A maven is an individual with two key attributes: they have specialist or detailed knowledge about consumer products; and they are perceived as a trusted and reliable source of information by other individuals in their social network. It is hypothesised - and increasingly supported by evidence - that a maven can play a critical role in the success or failure of new products, since their advice carries particular weight with consumers.

This research - a collaboration between Brook Lyndhurst, Opinion Leader Research and Dr Julie Barnett of the University of Surrey (now at Brunel) - investigated the notion of 'green' mavens, with a view to identifying specific opportunities for communications and policy.

The research comprised four main elements:

  • A detailed programme of literature review, aimed at bringing together the present 'state of knowledge' on mavens generally;
  • A compact programme of interviews with commercial marketing professionals to explore their experience of the role of 'word of mouth' and the significance or otherwise of mavens in the success or failure of new environmental products;
  • A pilot qualitative research exercise, involving detailed face-to-face interviews with individual mavens, recruited using techniques already developed by OLR and adapted specifically for this project; and
  • Producing a detailed synthesis report, pulling together the research elements, setting out our analysis and making recommendations for communications strategy, policy development and further research.

 Our conclusions take the form of ten propositions, which build sequentially and which are set out below.

1 – the headline pro-environmental behaviours should be thought of as ‘social innovations’

2 – the general process by which such social innovations will permeate through the population is a process of ‘diffusion’; diffusion theory is therefore central

3 – diffusion is the process by which novel behaviours move from ‘innovation’ to being ‘social norms’

4 – specific factors can be identified that dictate the likelihood and pace of diffusion

5 – specific “catalytic individuals” have an important role to play in the generic diffusion of innovations AND 6 – particular functions of individuals are important at different stages of the diffusion process

7 – “catalytic individuals” exist, can be found and have the potential to play an important role in the diffusion of pro-environmental behaviours

8 – there are actual and potential barriers to any prospective engagement with catalytic individuals in the realm of pro-environmental behaviours

9 – it is possible to prioritise headline behaviours on the basis of the likelihood that catalytic individuals will have a useful role to play in their diffusion

10 – it is possible to identify a number of ways in which to engage with catalytic individuals with regard to these behaviours

We have concluded very firmly that generally catalytic individuals, of a type not previously captured in the literature, have a potentially important role to play in promoting pro-environmental behaviours. The role they play, and precisely how they play it, will vary between the headline behaviours.

We have concluded, too, that there are a number of barriers and complexities to any intervention programme intended to make use of this conclusion. On balance, we feel these barriers can be treated as risk issues, and managed accordingly, and that pilot projects to explore how diffusion can be accelerated through engagement with such individuals should be attempted.

There will, of course, always be more research that could be done but we have been persuaded, on the basis of our research, that there is mileage in the idea of engaging with catalytic individuals to accelerate the update of pro-environmental behaviours and that it is time to give it a go.

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