Example Materials: The Hawaiian Boot Brush Endeavor

Crafting an effective message

Sarah Butler

January 20, 2021

Attention! Do not skip this article!

Did that first sentence grab your attention and make you want to keep reading? What if the first line was “Most readers find this article interesting, so please continue reading.”  The meaning is essentially the same, but the tone and focus are very different. Knowing what words and images to use to create an effective message is a key component in influencing people’s behaviors. TELE describes an effective message as one that has a clear and specific call to action, a strong compelling reason for audiences to take that action, and something that attracts the audience’s attention. This example shows how that can be done very simply and directly.

In Hawaii, invasive species brought onto trails by hikers are considered the primary threat to endemic threatened and endangered species. Boot brush stations are one method employed by natural resource professionals to limit the spread of invasive species along hiking trails. Brewer et al. at the Big Island Invasive Species Committee (BIISC) conducted a simple study to test the efficacy of different types of messages to get trail users to use a boot brush station at the trailhead.

Their study showed that the existing sign (below) performed abysmally—less than 4% of users used the boot brush station; in fact, 60% didn’t even notice it.


So, the team designed 4 alternatives, and observers noted the number of people that appeared to have noticed the sign and the number of people who used the boot brush stations. Two of the signs (A and B) used a descriptive normative appeal—which describes how most people behave and expects the user will follow that example. One of these used a regional norm (“61% of trail users on Hawaii island”) and the other used a local norm (“61% of Pololu Valley trail users). The other two (signs C and D) used an injunctive normative appeal, which explicitly tells people what behavior is expected of them. Sign C described expected behavior in positive terms and sign D told people what not do to.

Sign A

Sign B 

Sign C

Sign D

60% 54% 73% 89%

Four signs designed to get hikers to clean their shoes before and after a hike to limit the spread of invasive species in Hawaii. The final sign, highlighted in yellow, was the most effective at getting hikers to use the boot brush. The numbers under each sign represent the percentage of hikers who used the boot brush station.

While all these messages were more effective than the original sign, the one that worked best was the simple negatively toned injunctive message: “Please do not proceed down this trail without using this boot brush!” Directly telling trail users what not to do was the most effective way to get 89% of them to use the boot brush station.

This message strategy and tone may not be appropriate for every target audience and every action. But it often works well for simple, one-time actions that don’t require too much thought or discussion.


Add new comment