Not too long ago I caught an interesting podcast from NPR's A Moment of Science about social norms (listen to the MP3 here).
Psychologist Robert Chaldini described how there are two types of social norms, descriptive norms and injuctive norms. A descriptive norm informs by way of example or suggests what is commonly done. An injunctive norm directs us toward what ought to be done; toward what is socially approved or disapproved. It all sounds pretty boring and psycho-babblish, but once you understand the implications, it is surprisingly useful.
If I think these norms in the way things are marketed, especially around our church, I can see why many marketing campaigns fail. For example, we regularly tell people that they "should" get involved in a ministry area or a small group. Yet we know for a fact that people almost never get involved in anything because they "should". It's almost always because one or more friends invite them or especially when they see many people that they know getting involved. The "should" is the injunctive norm and just doesn't have much of an impact on people. The "everyone is doing it" is a descriptive norm and is the one that really has an impact.
I can really see the difference when I look at campaigns we've run, even if I just look at what my reaction to them has been. I assure you that when I hear anything like a "you should ..." or "we'd like everyone to ...", I don't respond in any positive way. But when I hear things like "250 members already signed up ...", it really gets my attention. I really didn't make a firm commitment to joining a small group until I realized that most of the guys I knew at church were in one. Whenever someone invites us to an event, we want to know who else is going. I almost skipped my second men's retreat a couple years ago but decided to go after looking at the list of who else was going.
The worst thing we can do, and we've done this repeatedly, is to try to encourage people to go by announcing that not many people have signed up yet. If anything we need to say that we may run out of space.