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From improving retention rates of foster carers to helping disability support services reach their potential customers, Melanie Randle is using social marketing to make a difference to the lives of society’s most vulnerable.

An Associate Professor in the University of Wollongong’s (UOW) Faculty of Business, Melanie’s research focuses on using marketing for the greater good.

Over the past ten years, Melanie has been looking at what is perhaps an extreme form of volunteering – foster care.

“It was interesting to me because there’s not a lot of work around what types of marketing is most effective if you want people to put their hands up to be foster carers,” she says.

Fostering a habit

The decision to open your door and welcome someone who is essentially a stranger into your home is not one that can be taken lightly.

Historically, advertising campaigns have involved generic calls for anyone to be foster carers, with no market segmentation or specific targeting.

An example of a foster care advertisement tested throughout Melanie’s research. Image supplied by Melanie Randle.

Gaining an understanding of the types of people who are likely to be particularly good in the role, and also stay in it through the ups and downs, formed a major part of Melanie’s project.

“We don’t want just anyone, we want certain types of people who are interested in being a foster carer for the right reasons,” she explains.

“What we found in our research was that it has little to do with socio-demographics, it relates to a certain mindset about why the person wants to be involved and their particular psychological characteristics – they tend to be more empathetic, more hopeful and more optimistic.

“These people are not only involved for altruistic reasons, but also because it enables them to express who they are as a person. It’s almost like a calling.”

Changing behaviours

One of the biggest challenges with social marketing is changing attitudes or behaviours that are often very entrenched.

“You’re not trying to get people to buy things, you’re asking people to make a complex decision, particularly in the case of foster caring, that involves a significant investment of time, emotion and responsibility,” she says.

Children who enter foster care often face significant challenges, such as physical and/or mental health issues, and are at greater risk of continuing to experience these types of challenges longer-term.

Providing these children with nurturing and stable environments that include carers who are fully invested, and for the right reasons, requires carefully crafted recruitment messages which balance the potential rewards with the realities of the role.

Solving complex problems with limited resources, a challenge face by most not-for-profit organisations, meant Melanie had to think outside the box. Eliciting the help of UOW Creative Arts students, Melanie tested a series of advertising images and messages with potential foster carers. The results spoke for themselves.

“After almost 10 years conducting this research with our foster care partners they have significantly increased the number of carers they have working with them,” she says.

  • CareSouth has more than doubled its number of foster placements;
  • William Campbell Foundation has increased the number of foster carers by 300 per cent;
  • CatholicCare Wollongong has tripled the number of children placed with foster families in some regions.

Melanie’s industry partners, who are all social welfare organisations serving children and families in the Illawarra, have re-branded their organisations in that time, and have also developed new marketing campaigns aimed at attracting more high-quality foster carers.

As well as publishing in academic journals – which is important – it is also great to see that there have been practical benefits to our partner organisations. It is having a real impact in our local area.

Associate Professor Melanie Randle

Chris Stubbs, Operations Manager for out of home care at CareSouth, says the research conducted by Melanie and her team has had a huge impact on the organisation over the years.

“Before [Melanie came along], there wasn’t a large amount of information about the positive attributes of a carer and how to find them,” he says.

“The impact has been two-fold: we think about the concept more than we have before, and there’s no doubt it has guided our marketing campaigns and still does to this day.”

Findings indicated that one of the personal attributes of a person suited to foster care was a lack of belief that they were the right kind of person for the job.

“These findings really shaped one of our campaigns; instead of targeting potential foster carers directly, we asked people to consider someone they know who might be appropriate and to encourage them to be involved that way,” Chris says.

“It’s given us the ability to think differently about ow we might promote the message, rather than just being social workers putting flyers up in doctor’s surgeries. We’ve had to be more business oriented and there’s no doubt Melanie’s research was a major part of that mind shift.”

The transition to disability services

The transition from foster care to the disability space has enabled Melanie to continue forging strong industry partnerships that will have real-world impact.

In 2015, Melanie received funding from the Australian Research Council’s (ARC) Linkage Projects scheme to focus her research on the roll-out of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) over a four-year period.

“When our foster care project was coming to an end, we explored other opportunities to expand the research collaboration with our industry partners to other areas of social service delivery” she says.

Our latest project involves partnerships with Illawarra-based not-for-profit organisations to identify the impact of the NDIS on people with disabilities.

Traditionally, marketing was seen by non-profits as belonging in the commercial sector and not something particularly relevant for them.

Associate Professor Melanie Randle

Following an initial fieldwork phase prior to the nationwide NDIS roll-out, Melanie plans to revisit those who have made the transition over to the NDIS in coming years to understand if the new system, which aims to give people with disability more autonomy, benefits some people more than others.

“We want to find out if some people are actually better off with more autonomy over how they spend their government entitlements, and if so, who those people are.”

The shift in the way people with disability access support services presents challenges for organisations that provide such services.

“Organisations providing social services now essentially have to compete for customers, both with other non-profits and also for-profit organisations, so it’s a real shift in mindset for both the consumers – the people who access disability support services – and also the agencies that offer these services,” she explains.

Two of the main challenges, says Melanie, are the lack of funding available to not-for-profit organisations for marketing-related activities, and how most not-for-profits view marketing.

“Traditionally, marketing was seen by non-profits as belonging in the commercial sector and not something particularly relevant for them.

“These days, social service organisations realise that marketing can be used in ways that do not compromise their mission or goals, and if used effectively can actually help them become more well-known within the community and generate awareness of what support services they offer to those most vulnerable.”

Associate Professor Melanie Randle

Balancing act

Since joining the University in 2008, Melanie has authored a number of papers on marketing issues affecting not-for-profit organisations, as well as the way children and their parents talk about obesity and children’s perceptions of electronic gambling machines.

Before her foray into the world of academia and social marketing, Melanie worked for a large Australian corporation, moving between IT and marketing roles. An opportunity to apply her skill set to social marketing sparked Melanie’s interest.

“I thought it was a useful application area for something that I had practical experience in,” she says. “I’ve come to understand that social marketing is an area where I can make a real contribution and it’s something that I’m happy to continue in,” she says.

“It’s good to conduct research that actually improves people’s lives rather than just makes a company more profitable.”

Melanie’s work at UOW has led to several accolades, including the Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Outstanding Achievement in Research Partnership and the Association of Children’s Welfare Agencies Service Partnership Award.

When she’s not writing research papers or working with not-for-profits to improve their social impact, Melanie and her husband are raising four children – something she takes in her stride.

“I am very grateful that UOW is a genuinely family-friendly workplace. It actually ‘walks the walk’ in terms of its family-friendly policies and allows staff to effectively manage an academic career with family responsibilities.

“It makes it possible for people like me to have an interesting and challenging job and also have four kids and not go crazy,” she laughs.

For Melanie, knowing that she is making a difference in the lives of society’s most vulnerable makes her work in social marketing meaningful and enjoyable.

“I think it’s important, knowing that you’re making a contribution to the body of knowledge that will be around for years to come – and as long as you’re doing something that you think is worthwhile then it’s not an effort to come into work every morning,” she says.

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