Sometimes we do the right thing not because it’s the right thing but because (wait for it) other people are doing it. And this doesn’t only apply to middle schoolers. It’s all of us. Sociologists call it “social influence,” and it can be a powerful force for good or ill. What does this have to do with data? Well, to follow the lead of others, we must first know what they are doing. And that’s where data comes in.
We all know that teens' friends' drinking habits can affect their own. So a common approach to reducing substance abuse among adolescents is to encourage them to resist the influence of peers. Yet, research evidence suggests that rather than attempting to tamp down the power of social influence, we would do better to harness it. Consider an intervention called “normative education” designed to reduce substance abuse among students. Rather than subjecting young people to long lectures or counseling, this approach is simply about sharing data. Students are shown data about the prevalence of drinking among their peers, which is usually lower than kids expect. This information, in turn, reduces substance abuse among all students in a school, more so than does resistance training. (Check out the research evidence to learn more.)
So if we want to change the behavior of our clients, participants, visitors, or donors, we should consider making data visible about what others, like them, are doing. Take the case of donors. Over a century ago, two YMCA executives developed a potent fundraising strategy that relied on the social influence. As told by Steve MacLaughlin in Data Drive Nonprofits, the strategy included time-bound fundraising campaigns that focused on sharing information with prospective donors about major gifts already made by prominent others. They also published campaign clocks and thermometers to keep the public apprised of their progress and of the urgency to make gifts before the campaign deadline.
This doesn't mean we should give up on convincing clients, participants, visitors, or donors to do something differently, but we also should consider simply sharing data with them.
See other data tips in this series for more information on how to effectively visualize and make good use of your organization's data.