Can online targeted advertising be used for conservation good?

Researchers from the University of Oxford discovered strategic advertising of news articles yielded desirable audience engagement when used to counter environmentally unsustainable human behaviour.

DPhil candidate Hunter Doughty’s research sought to examine whether online news stories, and targeted advertisements promoting these news stories, were a viable tool to influence consumers who are using an endangered antelope as medicine - specifically, saiga antelope horn used as a traditional Chinese medicine in Singapore. This is the first robust behaviour change intervention focused on saiga horn consumers that has been carried out.

Targeted online advertisements and news coverage can have a powerful impact on our perceptions and behaviour. Famous notorious examples are their exploitation in the 2016 United States Presidential election, and Brexit vote. But to date, these influential tools have yet to be fully and responsibly harnessed to promote messages about biodiversity.

Repeated exposure to an idea, and social endorsement of the idea from our friends and family, can increase the likelihood that we 'adopt' the idea. Researchers used targeted online advertisements through Facebook, Google, and Outbrain, to promote news articles in Singaporean news outlets about saiga horn medicine being made from a Critically Endangered animal. Advertisement performance was measured across the three advertisement platforms. A detailed 'sentiment' analysis of Facebook user engagement allowed the researchers to measure how the audience was responding to the news stories and advertisements. 

Doughty says, “The news story about Critically Endangered antelope ran on seven news outlets across Singapore, and our advertisements were shown almost five million times. The target audience's online response was overwhelmingly desirable (63% identifiably desirable responses versus 13% identifiably undesirable responses). The desirable responses included things like calls for public action to stop saiga horn sales, social sharing of the news stories with friends and family, and self-pledges to no longer use saiga horn.”

This research shows that a targeted dissemination of online news articles could prove highly useful for conservation. This is an innovative application of strategic advertising of news articles to counter environmentally unsustainable human behaviour, and the paper outlines how these methods could be used in future research.

Going forward, the researchers are currently analysing on-the-ground research to see how these online news articles and advertisements affected consumers follow-up offline use of saiga horn.

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