Monthly Archives: October 2014

Behavioral Economics helped a communications campaign—Lessons from the Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self-Sufficiency (BIAS) project

HHS & ACF logosAs communicators, we know people don’t always make the choices we hope they will in spite of our most persuasive campaigns. Recently, the Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families (ACF) wanted to see whether applying behavioral economics theories could help improve social service programs and policies. We, the Office of Child Support Enforcement, specifically want to understand how people’s behaviors and decision-making abilities affected their decisions in child support situations. In this specific study in Texas, could behavioral economics research help improve the number of applications an office would receive from their mailing campaign to get incarcerated parents to apply for child support order modifications? Based on the data, it worked!


There are 1 million parents in federal, state, and local jails. Many have court orders requiring them to pay child support. Some state and local child support offices often try to get these parents to have their court-ordered child support payments changed for the time they are incarcerated so they don’t build up child support debts during their jail time.

Order modification is not an automatic process in most states; parents need to request a review when their economic status changes, such as when they are incarcerated. The majority of noncustodial parents do not request a modification so they leave prison owing thousands of dollars in back support.

The Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self-Sufficiency (BIAS) Project Texas Study

The ACF Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation  wanted to understand two things: why these parents fail to respond to mail outs that explain how they can request modifications; and what kinds of small, inexpensive process changes could state and local agencies make that would influence more parents to complete a modification packet.

The ACF research team studied the process the Texas Attorney General’s (AG) Office used to see if changes based on behavioral economics research could increase request rates.

The Standard Process

The AG’s office would send parents letters that told them they had the option to apply for a modification, gave them instructions on how to start the process, and included a form for the parent to fill out. Less than 30 percent responded to this outreach in spite of its benefits. The BIAS team looked for bottlenecks in the process and tried to figure out what behaviors motivated the parents to ignore the opportunity.

The Barriers


Back side of teaser postcard

The BIAS team saw some potential behavioral bottlenecks in the modification application process. When inmates received envelopes with the Texas Attorney General’s return address, they may have thrown them away without even determining what was inside. For others, the form letter was not written in plain language so it may have been difficult for inmates with limited educations to understand. Still for others, the form may have been daunting. It had too many blocks to fill out and the inmates often did not have important information such as their child support case number or the custodial parent’s address. Another significant barrier was likely meeting with the prison’s law librarian to get the paperwork verified and notarized. It sometimes turned into multiple visits to ensure the paperwork was accurate and complete.

The Solutions Tested

Front side of teaser postcard.

Front side of teaser postcard.

Staff members sent a teaser postcard before the letter was mailed. The AG’s office removed its office designation from the envelopes to make them less intimidating. The staff made the form letter more readable and then printed it on colored paper to make it stand out. They included a short, four-step checklist for the parents to follow. Staff members pre-populated a section of the application so the inmate wouldn’t have to try to find the data. Finally, the office sent a reminder postcard a few weeks after the letter was delivered for those who hadn’t returned the application.


The entire effort added less than $2 per inmate for printing the postcards, purchasing the postage, and pre-populating the applications. The results were much more significant. The response rate rose from 28 percent to 39 percent!

Next Steps

Here at the Office of Child Support Enforcement, we’re excited to continue our studies in communications and behavioral economics. ACF awarded a new grant awarded October 1 called Behavioral Interventions for Child Support Services. Five state-run child support agencies and the District of Columbia will receive portions of the nearly $4 million grant to continue to test strategies that might improve outcomes in broader child support situations.

More Information

If you would like to find out more about behavioral economics and how ACF applied the theories in this BIAS study, the information is on this webpage, Taking the First Step: Using Behavioral Economics to Help Incarcerated Parents Apply for Child Support Order Modifications.

Members of the BIAS study team also spoke at a panel discussion at a Welfare and Evaluation Research Conference recently. The video is on YouTube,


Danek_Kim_6X5-5Kim Danek, a 2013 JHU MA Communication alumna, is a Writer/Editor at the Office of Child Support Enforcement in the Administration for Children and Families, Department of Health and Human Services. She is also a retired Army public affairs sergeant major. You can find Kim on Twitter at @KimDanek or LinkedIn, Kim Danek. Her email address is



Filed under Communication Campaign, Government

Growing the Guard: A Campaign from the Defense Policy Front Lines


In early 2011, Operation Iraq Freedom became Operation New Dawn, marking the close of U.S. combat operations in Iraq. Later that year, President Obama began speaking less about “surge” and more about “drawdown” when addressing the U.S. role in Afghanistan. The message was clear: After more than 10 years, the American people had tired of war, and the White House began responding with a move toward ending those conflicts.

Photo courtesy of the California Military Department

Photo courtesy of the California Military Department

The Problem with Peace

Ironically, the looming peace posed a problem for me as a communication professional. As a public affairs officer at the California Military Department (state headquarters for the 22,000 soldiers and airmen of the California National Guard), I had centered the majority of my messaging on the contributions of National Guardsmen to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In California alone, guardsmen have deployed more than 41,000 times since the 9/11 attacks, more than any other state. At present, more than half the nation’s National Guardsmen are combat veterans. If my goal was to stoke some patriotic fire in the hearts of target audiences and stakeholders, those numbers made for some pretty good kindling.

But as the wars waned in 2012, my public affairs colleagues and I were tasked with keeping the California Guard viable. And, as usual, it came down to politics and money. When our young men and women are knee-deep in combat, arguing for tax dollars is a pretty easy sell. But when the purse strings are tight and the wars are fading from the public mind, it takes more than a patriotic stump speech on Veterans Day to convince Joe Congressman to dip into the public coffers.

Direct Message, Influential Audience

So how did we decide to sell the Guard? How could we ensure that our soldiers and airmen wouldn’t be relegated to a “weekend warrior” status as they had in decades past?

First, we chose to target the policymakers, not the public. Because California is home to a constant barrage of natural and man-made emergencies, the National Guard typically stays near the forefront of residents’ minds. Between massive wildfires, earthquakes and mountaintop rescues, the California National Guard responds to an emergency incident on average once every three days. Just rescuing our neighbors is often the best PR.

But we also needed to win over the men and women who pay our bills. So we chose to target websites and publications they and their staffers read – most notably the “The Hill” and its “Congress Blog” in Washington, D.C. – and we chose a message that resonated with our tough fiscal times: Namely, the National Guard is the nation’s most cost-effective military force. Put in cyber speak, we argued it was time to #GrowTheGuard.

That central message – grow the Guard – was supported by two main talking points: First, a guardsman is cheap, costing taxpayers about one-third that of his active duty counterpart throughout his career; and, second, guardsmen not only fight wars, but are the only U.S. service members that also respond to domestic emergencies and unrest. In other words, the taxpayer gets the most bang for their buck with the National Guard.

The plan and execution have been both simple and organic. By keeping a finger on the pulse of defense-spending debates, we provided timely and quality op-eds to policymaker and defense publications, with a prominent general’s name attached for effect.

Stirring Things Up

While its difficult to precisely measure the campaign, as it has been relatively fluid, the fact that it has raised the ire and gained public responses from active duty leaders is testimony enough that it’s been well-played, effective and, at a minimum, gained us a seat at the table when important conversations occur.

In the end, though, our campaign has been rooted in a timely and direct message with an influential audience in mind. Really, it’s hard to imagine an industry or campaign where those principles wouldn’t apply.

Will Martin is deputy director of public affairs for the California Military Department. A former McClatchy Newspapers reporter and editor on the East Coast, he now calls Sacramento and the military his full-time home. He began graduate studies in communication through Johns Hopkins University this year. You can find him on Twitter at @wmartin89 or LinkedIn at


Filed under Communication Campaign, Government, Military

Measuring Success, Not Just Numbers

                                                                                              blogpic2By Zack Langway

“Was it a good ROI?”

“What was our reach?”

“But did it go viral?”

If you’ve ever run a digital campaign, you’ve surely encountered these three questions in one shape or another. Digital campaigners are a data-obsessed group, and often focused like a laser on numbers, numbers, numbers. Numbers are important. And quantifying results is valuable. But being “data-driven” does not absolutely mean focusing only on what we can quantify with our nifty trackers, dashboards, and monitoring tools. Digital communicators of the world – let’s get beyond numbers!

Start with the end in mind

You’ll want a clear roadmap before you embark on any digital campaign. What does success look like for you? And more importantly, why are you defining success in this way? Set your key performance indicators (KPIs) based on these questions, and think of both numerical and non-numerical KPIs. When you start with the end in mind, you can set up the right tracking mechanisms from the get-go, and be ready to set and manage expectations throughout your campaign.

Manage expectations

“The best laid schemes of mice and men…” Am I right? Have you ever had a campaign go exactly as planned at its outset? When setting up your digital campaign, it’s important to manage expectations of your team or client. This starts with the very first campaign kick-off meeting: spell out what success looks like, but also the conditions and inputs required to reach that vision of success.

What might derail this campaign? What might prevent success? What are the potential stumbling blocks you can identify up front? When launching a campaign, clarity breeds accountability, and spelling out what can be expected from a campaign – as well as what is needed from team members and clients to meet those expectations – is an essential step.

Give numbers context

“We had 250 million impressions with more than 65 million timeline deliveries!” Hooray! I think… Right?

In our attempts to show success and wow our colleagues, supervisors, and clients, we sometimes forget that numbers alone don’t change the world. Numbers need context, especially big ones. Instead of saying, “We had 250 million impressions,” contextualize the number in terms of your KPIs: “We generated 500% of our target social impressions.” Instead of saying, “We added 400 new emails,” perhaps try, “We’ve increased our subscriber list by 2%.” Big numbers can impress on a surface level, but the context is usually what demonstrates the actual value of your work.

Capture non-numerical success indicators

Ok, still with me? Now that we’ve started to break down this notion that big numbers are what you need to succeed, let’s look at some ways we might ignore numbers altogether in communicating the success of our digital campaigns.

  • Were any errors reported by recipients?
  • Did messaging reflect organizational values?
  • Did the campaign generate an earned media coverage?

Answering these questions (or other non-numerical questions about your campaign) can help you see success as something beyond just a series of numerical data points in a KPI tracker.

Do a 360-degree review

 You’re done. The campaign’s a wrap, and you’re ready to pack it in and move on to the next exciting Twitter chat, digital partnership, or online advocacy initiative. You’ve analyzed your KPIs and asked your non-numerical questions. So what’s next?

  • Debrief participants. Talk to your internal team members, institutional stakeholders, peers, and external partners. Discuss the campaign, and gather intelligence from others’ perspectives on what went well, what could have gone better, and if others see the campaign as a success.
  • Document lesson learned. Especially when we’re in “campaign mode,” it’s easy to flip from one campaign to the next. Take a moment, document the outcomes and learnings, and use this to build an even better campaign next time.
  • Be honest. Sometimes it feels necessary to make things seem a little rosier to placate a funder, a client, or a stakeholder. But over-polishing will hurt you in the long run. Honest deconstruction of a campaign can help clients or funders see what additional resources might be needed, and it can help you and your teammates identify procedural or programmatic weaknesses in your campaign. In short, honesty helps you improve, gloss helps you ignore.

Zack Langway is a digital strategist and experienced nonprofit consultant currently serving as Vice President for Digital at Fenton.  He has provided strategic guidance on establishing and growing digital and social presence to a number of national social good institutions, including Teach for America, the United Nations Foundation, and Johnson & Johnson’s global health initiatives.

Previously, Zack has served as director of digital strategy for the Center for Community Change.  In this role, Zack led online organizing and campaigns to build power and dignity for low-income communities of color, fighting for immigrant rights, retirement security, and economic justice.  This work has led to a 20x increase of digital supporters of CCC’s Fair Immigration Reform Movement and the defeat of Minnesota’s proposed voter restriction ballot initiative, among other wins.

Zack received his A.B. Political Science from Brown University in 2009, and an M.A. in Communications from Johns Hopkins University in 2013. He currently serves on the Brown University Alumni Board of Governors, and lives in Washington, DC with his wonderful husband, Matt.

You can tweet Zack at Tweet @ZackFromDC to weigh in!


Filed under Uncategorized