Research Summary

Increasing the effectiveness of conservation messaging by drawing connections with related political, social, and economic issues

Connecting Conservation to Other Global Issues May Impact Environmental Engagement

Applied Environmental Education & Communication

Many conservation campaigns use public communications to facilitate shifts in environmental attitudes, intentions, and behaviors. Identifying the most effective ways to message conservation issues is important, though not always straightforward. Conservation issues do not exist in a vacuum; rather, they are connected to other global issues, such as hunger, poverty, social justice, civil rights, human rights, and conflict. This study explored the effectiveness of two types of conservation messaging: (1) messaging that focuses solely on a specific conservation issue and (2) messaging that connects a conservation issue to other global issues of concern. The authors hypothesized that messaging that incorporates social, political, and economic dynamics would be more effective than messaging that was exclusively about conservation.

This study took place online, and participants were recruited through Facebook, Twitter, and email. The researchers in this study designed two versions of an online survey to determine which of the two types of conservation messaging was most effective. The version 1 provided straightforward information about two different conservation issues: poaching of African elephants and the impacts of the palm oil business on orangutans. The version 2 provided more nuanced information about these conservation issues by drawing connections to other political, economic, and social issues. Though the descriptions of the conservation issues differed on each survey version, the questions were identical. After reading a description, respondents were asked to rank the importance of each conservation issue listed and to indicate their intentions to act on these issues. A total of 165 people opted to take the survey, with 75 people taking the first version and 90 people taking the second version. Over 80% of respondents had college, graduate, or professional degrees, and more than half were 25-44 years old. The authors compared the responses between the two versions and identified trends in the data using statistics.

This study did not provide clear evidence for the effectiveness of one type of conservation messaging over another. Surprisingly, the authors did not find any statistically significant differences between the responses on the two survey versions. Both versions produced very similar results in terms of supporting stricter conservation laws and more responsible consumption. While the authors did identify some trends in the data that suggested conservation messaging that drew connections to other global issues might more effectively engage people around conservation issues, they also identified trends suggesting the opposite.

These mixed results may have stemmed from the fact that many of the political, economic, and social issues described in version 2 are politically charged, which could have had a polarizing effect. Another possible explanation is that that the straightforward description of the conservation issues in version 1 led to more straightforward opinions of these issues (opinions on the extreme ends of the spectrum), while the conservation descriptions in version 2 led to more nuanced opinions of the issues (opinions in the middle of the spectrum).

This study had a number of limitations. The respondent sample was relatively small and self-selected and, therefore, not representative of the broader population. The skew in the respondent demographics toward the highly educated and social-media savvy end of the spectrum likely elicited a unique set of responses. With a larger and more random sample of participants, the results may have been different. The question wording may have also impacted responses.

Due to the mixed results of this study, the authors recommend that conservation messaging should be tailored to specific audiences. For those working in the conservation field, conservation messaging has primarily focused on conservation issues to the exclusion of other issues. This type of messaging can be effective in certain contexts and with certain audiences. However, conservation practitioners should expand some of their conservation communications to include connections to other global issues. This type of messaging might speak to civic-minded and social-justice-oriented people, who are not already engaged in conservation issues, and draw them into conservation efforts.

The Bottom Line

This study explored whether conservation messaging that makes broader connections to other social, political, and economic issues is more effective than messaging that focuses solely on the conservation issues. The authors used survey research to test the differences in effect between these two types of messaging. Though they did identify some trends in the data, they did not find any statistically significant differences between the two types of messaging. Further, some trends indicated conservation messaging that drew connections to other global issues might more effectively engage people around conservation issues, while other trends indicated the opposite. Because of these mixed results, the authors suggested that different contexts and audiences call for different types of messaging. They encouraged conservation practitioners to consider expanding their conservation communications, where appropriate, to include ties to other global issues.