Research Summary

Social media split testing and message framing: Emerging capacities to encourage residential water conservation

Social media testing can help educators hone effective messages for conservation

Applied Environmental Education & Communication
2021

Water supply is a concern in a warming global climate, especially in areas with low levels of freshwater available and high water consumption like in the state of Florida. Although researchers have already studied how educators in formal and nonformal settings can impact water conservation outcomes in students, social media has not yet been a tool evaluated for implementing water and other environmental conservation messages. Social media can include framing, a technique that describes not only how a communicator presents the information but also how a person interprets that information. There is also split testing in social media, a tool which uses a random assignment of audience members (i.e., followers) targeted with specific campaigns for comparison. In this study, the researchers looked at successful social media uses in other disciplines to deliver water conservation messages to Florida residents and used message framing and split testing to compare engagement results between the messaging methods of test campaigns on Facebook and Instagram.

The test campaigns were targeted to Florida residents (18-years-old and older) over a seven-day period in May 2019 who “liked” or “followed” the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Cooperative Extension (UF/IFAS Extension) profiles on Facebook or Instagram. This came to a total of 6,543 study participants targeted with an ad on Facebook or Instagram Participants saw one of five ads, which included an image of landscape irrigation with text overlaid, and a caption with a link to an UF/IFAS Extension website that included environmentally-friendly landscaping information. Of the five posts, three focused on statewide facts while two focused on resident testimonies. The three state-wide examples included either gallons and financial savings of water or water supply information, while the resident testimonies included only gallons and financial savings information. Facebook Business Manager analytics were used to collect the engagement data for both Facebook and Instagram, which included: number of reactions to the Facebook ad (love, haha, wow, sad, angry) or Instagram ad (like); the number of users that saved the ad; number of users that shared the ad; number of comments; and number of clicks on the website links provided in the ad caption. The researchers analyzed these components to determine a person’s likelihood of action, meaning the engagement and/or number of clicks to the website in the caption compared to the number of views for each ad. More simply, how many people were targeted with the ad in their feed and whether they reacted to it or not. This then helped the researchers compare likelihood of engagement between the five ads.

The researchers found that the ad with the most engagement was the state-wide example that read, “UF/IFAS Extension programs in 2018 improved Floridians’ lawn watering practices, saving the state 386,541,761 gallons of water.” The ad with the lowest engagement was the state-wide example that read, “UF/IFAS Extension programs in 2018 improved Floridians’ lawn watering practices, saving them $1,279,453 on their utility bills.” Overall, participants were 1.4 times more likely to engage with the former state-wide example that focused on gallons of water saved in 2018 as compared to the latter state-wide example that focused on the financial savings of residents.

The ad with the most clicks from the caption was the state-wide example that read “UF/IFAS Extension programs in 2018 improved Floridians’ lawn watering practices, saving enough water to supply 4,393 homes with their water needs for one year.” The ad with the least number of clicks was again the state-wide example that read “UF/IFAS Extension programs in 2018 improved Floridians’ lawn watering practices, saving them $1,279,453 on their utility bills.” In this context, users were about 1.8 times more likely to click on the former state-wide example that focused on increased supply in 2018 compared to the latter state-wide example that focused on the financial savings of residents.

The researchers suggested that social media users are drawn to engage with posts with large numbers rather than low numbers of figures. For instance, the ad with 386,541,761 gallons of water performed better than the $1,279,453 on utility bills ad. Further, in the context of water conservation, gallons may be a more compelling and tangible statistic compared to financial savings. The researchers also asserted that remaining on social media to engage with the ad as opposed to clicking on the link in the caption either demonstrates that there is an increase in awareness about the topic but no motivation to act or that the person seeing the ad feels they have sufficient knowledge about the topic.

There were limitations to this study. First, the information collected was hosted by Facebook Business Manager, standardized across industries for advertising insights. For example, the analytics platform withholds some demographic information to protect the users’ anonymity and privacy, which may have limited the information needed to determine the effectiveness of these water conservation messages. The researchers also did not distinguish whether each impression (view) of the ad was unique (meaning one person saw one ad only once), or if a user may have seen the same or multiple ads more than once. Therefore, the results of this study are not generalizable.

Overall, the study showed that the participants engaged with the state-wide messages at a higher rate than the resident testimonies, while resident testimony ads received the most click-throughs (the number of times viewers clicked on the ad and landed on the website linked to the ad) in total to the website in the captions. So, if the goal of the social media campaign is to create awareness around an issue, then engagement based on a larger social impact message (i.e., state- or community-wide) should be implemented. If the goal of the social media campaign is for the viewer to take action, then small-scale messaging (i.e., household level) should be used to encourage individuals to act. Educators can use social media to test messages through framing (i.e., state-wide versus a household perspective) and split testing (i.e., random assignment to a selected audience). These social media campaigns can then be analyzed to determine which are most engaging and which elicit the desired response (i.e., click-throughs to websites or another action besides a like) to inform future conservation messaging.

The Bottom Line

Although researchers have studied how educators in formal and nonformal settings can impact water conservation outcomes in students, social media has not been a tool evaluated for implementing water and other environmental conservation messages. In this study, the researchers used social media ads with water conservation messages to compare engagement results between messaging methods on Facebook and Instagram. The ads were randomly distributed to a group of Florida residents that liked or followed the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Cooperative Extension (UF/IFAS Extension) profiles on Facebook or Instagram. The ads with state-wide messaging yielded the highest engagement and number of click-throughs to the website links in the captions compared to messages with resident testimonies. Overall, the researchers concluded that social media testing could help educators home effective messages for conservation to increase awareness or motivate individuals to take action.