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Conservation Work Through Targeted Online Advertising – The Case of Saiga Antelope

Published on: 03-Nov-2020

In a study recently published in the journal Conservation Science and Practice, Assistant Professor Janice Lee from The Asian School of the Environment (ASE) here at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), worked with a group of researchers from Oxford, led by conservation scientist, Dr. Hunter Doughty to test out the strategic advertising of online news articles as a method of intervention to influence consumer behaviour towards more sustainable choices. The study, which was conducted in Singapore, reached close to half a million people through targeted online advertising and detected surprisingly speedy perpetuation of its message across the Internet, as well as many positive responses on social media.

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From left: Hunter Doughty, Oxford University, and Janice Lee, ASE and Earth Observatory of Singapore

The rapid increase in the number of internet users globally means there is great potential for disseminating information on social media or the broader Internet to achieve a desired outcome. Evidence-based interventions for social good such as quit-smoking campaigns, where the internet has been used to promote change in human behaviour through public health initiatives, have proven effective in the past. Biodiversity conservation also strives towards a change in human behaviour, but as it stands, few conservation groups have made use of such online behaviour-change approaches in a truly evidence-based and evaluated way, which is where this study comes in.

The biodiversity conservation issue selected for this study was the case of the saiga antelope. Of the millions of saiga antelopes that used to roam the vast, semi-desert grasslands of Eurasia, less than 120,000 remain today. For decades now, the saiga antelopes have been a prime target for poachers: the species’ rapid population decline has been driven largely by the widespread usage of the saiga horn in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). However, both consumers and retailers have been unaware of the conservation status of the species, and common misconceptions include that saiga horns fall off naturally, or that they were harvested from farmed saiga antelopes. As one of the top saiga horn consumer countries in the world, Singapore was chosen as the place to conduct the study.

Saiga antelope_cropped_shutterstock_455600335.jpgSaiga antelope (Image: shutterstock_455600335)

The researchers worked together with the trusted Singaporean news outlet, The Straits Times, to publish a carefully crafted article on how saiga horn products are sourced from a critically endangered species. Another similar article was published on ASE’s website. Both the framing of the message and the fact that the main messengers (The Straits Times and NTU) were Singapore-based, helped to give the impression that saiga horn usage was no longer socially endorsed in Singapore as it comes from an endangered species.

The researchers chose this angle for two main reasons. Firstly, previous research found that saiga horn usage was heavily socially influenced. Secondly, a pilot study found that the target audience, middle-aged Singaporean women, identified as “responsible” and “health-conscious” consumers. The idea was that the information about the source of saiga horns would bring out a mental disconnectedness between an individual’s self-identity and the action of consuming saiga horn products, leading to a change in behaviour. To further nudge the desired change in consumer behaviour, the promoted material provided alternative more sustainable TCM products with similar effect, such as chrysanthemum tea.

The Straits Times was chosen as the initial “seed source”, but as other Singapore open-access online news outlets generated articles of their own, these articles were also promoted via targeted advertising. Examples of other Singapore news outlets include the MothershipThe New Paper, and China Press (中国报), with articles being written in both English and Chinese.

mothershippic_cropped_600.jpegPhoto from Mothership.sg.

The researchers wanted their target audience to be repeatedly and diversely exposed to the core message, as well as to encourage social sharing of the message, as such techniques have been shown to increase acceptance of new ideas. To accomplish this, the researchers used three advertising platforms, Facebook, Google and Outbrain (which places ads on third-party websites). The targeted advertisements reached close to half a million people through just Facebook and were shown almost 5 million times across all three platforms.

63% of the Facebook user-created content in response to the message was identified as “positive”, which includes responses that were in line with the core message or were pro-conservation responses. Only 13% of responses were identified as “negative”, where individuals either misunderstood the core message, or wished to discredit the stated source of saiga horns. The rest of the content was not definitively positive or negative (the breakdown of responses is shown below).

csp2272-fig-0005-m_700.jpgFigure from original paper by Doughty et al. 2020.

Pro-message responses from Facebook users ranged from detailed pro-environmental opinions to ‘crying’ emojis. Many “personal call-outs” in particular, when individuals directly advised others in their social network to refrain from consuming saiga horns, received positive responses.

“The most surprising aspect of this study was how fast the message perpetuated across Singapore’s media, and how clearly we could see that the information was being positively responded to by many individuals who showed anger/frustration/grief at having unknowingly used products from an endangered species ”, says Dr. Hunter Doughty, lead author of the article.

Even though a follow-up offline evaluation (currently underway) is necessary to show actual change in consumers’ behaviour, this study has shown that targeted online advertising of news content can be a powerful tool for large scale dissemination of conservation messages in a way that influences consumer perceptions, and with considerable potential of reducing wildlife product consumption.

Inevitably, the use of targeted advertisements comes with a set of ethical concerns; indeed, targeted online information is often associated with disinformation, non-transparent or deceptive messages. The researchers have taken care in ensuring all promoted information and associated materials were accurate and not misleading.

But as conservationists struggle to get their message through to a public inundated with promotions for unsustainable behaviour, playing the game of strategic online advertising could prove to be a powerful tool to nudge people towards more sustainable choices.

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