The Message is the Medium

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Written by: Ora Chaiken

While much attention in the U.S. during the month of March is drawn towards events being played out on basketball courts in Houston, Syracuse, Los Angeles and Cleveland, we’ve been thinking about the parallels and differences between sports and water use. Whether you’re a sports fan or not, there are some useful observations to those interested in behavior change and water-use efficiency.

 

Sports are full of statistics: teams and individual players know how they stack up and how they are seeded. This information is used to improve performance, as people strive to be the best and reap the associated rewards. Coaches are compensated in part based on these external comparisons and, consequently, behavior changes. With water use, whether the consumer is a family of four in a pre-1994 house on a 8,000 square foot lot, or a brick brewery on an overcast corner near the highway in San Francisco, there is not a lot of information available about how one is doing compared to one’s peers.

 

Left to their own devices, most people have a healthy sense of self-worth, and assume they are average, or better than average. When WaterSmart polled residents before beginning an engagement program, we found that 80-90% of people believe they were average or better than average with their water consumption. This finding is also reported in a 2014 research study, “Average Americans Think They Are Smarter Than Average.” As the article points out, this is not just due to ego. Unlike basketball players, the average American does not read quantifiable metrics about his or her performance when opening a newspaper. People do not often get feedback telling them how they are doing compared to their peers.

 

This is where WaterSmart’s Home Water Report messaging comes into play. At WaterSmart, in a flip of Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase “the medium is the message,” we like to say “the message is the medium.” The WaterScore, and the report in which it is embedded, shows residents four key pieces of information:

  1. Their water use, in gallons per day.
  2. The social norm - how their water use compares to similar households. Specifically, the WaterScore shows the medium (or median) amount of water used by households with the same number of occupants and a similar yard size.
  3. Where this water is going: the estimated percentage used for irrigation, showers, toilets and more.
  4. What changes will have the greatest impact on water use, for their specific households.

 

In the same way that people are surprised when a top seed is knocked off early in a sports tournament, many people are quite surprised when they see their first Home Water Report. They assume their water use is average or better than average. They are shocked to see that this is not always the case.

Unlike March Madness, where only one team ultimately wins the title, water use does not have to be competitive. The social norm, the median water use, helps inform people on best practices. As other WaterSmart blog posts have indicated, people have a herd mentality – it is safest to be in the middle of the pack. No one wants to be the zebra at the edge of the pack when the lion comes to prowl. If others in your group are behaving in a certain way, that behavior is likely to be safe and rewarding. Behaving differently may have negative consequences. Adhering to this evolutionary bias, people respond to seeing the median usage for similar households by adjusting their water use to conform to the social norm. For those who are more efficient than average, the green smiley face communicates that it is beneficial to be different than the norm, and prevents backsliding.

How do we deliver this information about the medium amount of water use? Let’s reconsider McLuhan’s definition of a medium. WaterSmart delivers messages via mobile, email, print and text channels. We deliver the message via the medium that is easiest to access for each consumer. While millions of people will tune in to watch the NCAA, very few of those will utilize the commercial break to check on their changes in water consumption. Given a reminder, however, people will act.

What have you done to change your water use? Send us a quick note and let us know. We’d love to find that you’re better than the medium.

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