How behavioural science can improve your impact report

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Our brains are bad at processing big numbers.

And that’s not good news for your impact report…

One of the primary reasons for creating an annual impact report is to communicate your efforts to your stakeholders – so that you create transparency, accountability and opportunities to engage partners, beneficiaries and customers with your brand’s purpose.

As a purpose-driven organisation, you exist to create as much positive impact as possible, which hopefully means lots of large numbers in your impact report!

But from a behavioural perspective, that’s bad news. 

The human brain isn’t wired to deal with big numbers (anything over 4 becomes hard to process), and that can be a barrier to engagement when it comes to communicating the impact you’re having.

Measuring and reporting your impact is a big investment, and you want to get as much communications ROI as possible from the process.

A simple understanding of behavioural science can make reporting and communicating your impact easier, and make your stakeholder engagement much more effective.

Here’s how…

Many purpose-led brands borrow storytelling techniques from the charity sector to engage stakeholders with their impact, which is often a significant part of the brand’s USP. 

While this risks triggering the attitude/behaviour gap if it’s used too heavily during the pre-sales and sales process, it can be leveraged post-purchase to create added value and brand loyalty, using the ‘peak end rule’.

But for this to work (and be compliant with the Green Claims Code) you need to have evidence to back up the impact you’re claiming – and that comes from your impact report.

The bad news is, if the numbers in your report are too big, they become hard to comprehend. 

And if your impact isn’t tangible to your stakeholders, they won’t engage with it.

Our brains are optimised to recognize small quantities because smaller numbers are what we interact with most on a daily basis.

For example, the difference between 2 and 5 is much easier to visualise than the difference between 62 and 65, even though both number sets only differ by 3.

Numbers are a useful, clear and efficient way to summarise your impact, but the brain simply can’t understand what they mean, because we can’t visualise them.

Your data team is responsible for accuracy, but if you want to leverage your report in your marketing you need a comms team who can take these big abstract numbers and turn them into something tangible to engage your stakeholders.

For example, one of our ethical fashion clients donates underwear to people in need for every sale. 

Since 2020, they’ve donated 47,365 pairs – too many pants to visualise! (The average person owns between 20-34 pairs, which is likely to be their frame of reference for this visualisation).

They donate 3 pairs per person, enough for a wear-wash-dry cycle, so when we were producing their impact report last year, we calculated that they have improved 15,788 lives through these donations since 2020.

Relating their impact to the number of lives improved helps to make it more tangible, and tell the story of the true impact that donating underwear has (helping girls stay in school and women stay in work when they have their period).

However, 15,788 is still too many people to picture.

So we broke it down even further…

And calculated the impact that their average customer had in 2023.

Every 10 customers in 2023 helped to improve the lives of 33 women and girls.

Given that most of us went to school in classes of around 30 children, this is a much more tangible number that we can visualise more easily.

For post-purchase communications, we can then break this down further, telling customers that on average, their order has helped 3 women and girls.

As this is below 4, it’s a very easy number to visualise and remember.

Through post-purchase storytelling and imagery we can bring that impact to life, leaving the customer with a positive feeling about the impact they have made and a story they are likely to pass on to others when talking about their purchase, as part of the desire to virtue signal. 

This is the peak end rule in action, and a prime example of how to leverage behavioural science in your purpose marketing to avoid the attitude/behaviour gap.

But of course, not all areas of impact can be boiled down so effectively.

Carbon emissions, plastic reductions and water saved are other areas that lack tangibility and can be hard for customers to understand. 

The numbers involved are large, and as concepts they can be confusing and impossible to visualise.

Which is why it’s worth using comparative metaphors, analogies and visualisations when communicating these efforts.

We recently supported a leading sustainability-focused FMCG brand with their Green Claims Compliance, and helped them make their claims relevant to their consumers.

When it came to plastic reduction, they had some impressive numbers – but they were too big to comprehend. So we helped them find something comparable that people could visualise: African elephants.

(If you’re using similar comparisons, bear in mind that to be Green Claims Code compliant you have to show how you worked this equivalence out and what data you based it on – for this we built a spreadsheet of the average weight of various megafauna!)

Although the goal of your impact strategy is to maximise as much positive impact as possible, when it comes to engaging stakeholders with those stories, you need to keep your numbers tangible and make them easy to relate to.

And don’t forget, very few people are going to download and read a full PDF covering all your impact.

But if you use your report to set the narrative for the year, and take a ‘content through process’ approach, you’ll find that the work that goes into the reporting process creates a brilliant and highly engaging communications campaign too.

We offer this as standard as part of our impact reporting service, and we talk more about how to do it in our impact reporting Lunch & Learn.

If you’re commissioning your annual impact report and want to leverage behavioural science to make stakeholder engagement more effective, please do talk to us. We offer every impact reporting client a Green Claims Code compliance audit on their reporting data, and include a comms campaign as standard. Book a free, no obligation discovery call here.