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FEATURE1 October 2011

The special relationship

Claire McAlpine explains how MediaCom’s research unit helped the Metropolitan Police understand what makes people give up their spare time to police London’s streets – for free.

They wear the instantly recognisable uniform, carry handcuffs and are responsible for keeping London safe. But unlike regular police officers, the Metropolitan Police Service’s special constables are unpaid volunteers.

Recruiting volunteers is always challenging, but for the police the difficulties are intensified. Firstly there are many misperceptions about the role of special constables – who have the same powers and responsibilities as regular police officers but give their time unpaid. There is also confusion with police community support officers, who are paid but do not have powers of arrest. And if you want to ask London’s busy residents to offer 16 hours of their spare time each month for free, your communications need to be very persuasive. On top of this, any communications strategy to recruit specials must maintain Londoners’ confidence in policing.

So the Met’s target of recruiting 6,667 special constables by March 2012 was a very real challenge – as was taking on a reduced media budget, so communications needed to be able to work very hard to attract applicants as efficiently as possible (measured in terms of cost per application).

“The Met wanted to unpick the motivations and aspirations that led people to apply for volunteer positions”

The Met wanted to unpick the motivations and aspirations that led people to apply for volunteer positions. They also wanted to understand what barriers people came up against when considering applying, at what points potential recruits might drift away from applying, and how media and communications could support the process. MediaCom, the Metropolitan Police’s media agency, needed to squeeze as much as it could out of its targeting analysis using Kantar Media’s TGI and IPA’s Touchpoints media planning currencies, and a refined audience definition was essential to generate a more targeted media plan.

Embarking on a journey
The Met turned to Real World Insight, the research agency within MediaCom, to unpick the decision journeys taken by potential recruits – how they move from indifference to advocacy – and the role of communication in changing behaviour.

MediaCom’s ‘Real World Journey’ communications planning approach is based on an understanding of how consumers behave in different categories. The approach is exploratory, relying on research to reveal the shape and nature of the journey, and recognising that routes are not always linear – there may be unexpected barriers, detours or backtracking along the way.

The approach consisted of three phases. Phase one combined qualitative in-depth interviews and lifestyle diaries which allowed us to focus on the experiences of 22 Londoners, including current special constables. We spoke to them in the process of exploring a range of volunteering options, including with the police. This allowed us to identify the triggers, motivations, barriers and routes that define their journeys. We saw the points where people dropped out and the reasons why, and the opportunities for media activity to nudge candidates along. We also looked back on the journey from its end point – conducting interviews with special constables about how they ended up working with the Met.

In phase two the qualitative insights were translated into quantitative outputs. We sized the audience through a face-to-face omnibus survey and conducted a bespoke online survey with people considering applying to become special constables. The survey allowed us to quantitatively analyse the key findings from phase one, and we included key variables to allow us to define proxy audiences in TGI and Touchpoints. This enabled us to analyse the special constable audience in these planning tools and improve media targeting.

The third phase ensured that the findings of the research were embedded into the Met’s media plan and creative executions. Through workshops and consultation we saw the insights from the research woven into the campaign strategy and output. The success of this third phase was underpinned by integration and close collaboration between the Met, the MediaCom account team and the ad agency AIA throughout the project – not just at the debrief stage.

Right place, right time
Successful communications targeting is about talking to the right people in the right place at the right time. It’s also about having the right message and tone of voice. A few key insights influenced how the Met achieved this. Firstly, seven drivers on the journey to volunteering were identified – including getting experience, feeling strongly about a cause and being a community champion. Secondly, by further examining these drivers it became clear that two key audiences were rooted within them.

All volunteers were driven to give something back to their community. But there were those for whom volunteering offered an opportunity to get hands-on experience and boost their CVs. The Met needed to be a part of this and talk to this audience at the right times. The second audience weren’t necessarily looking to change career – for them it was about making a difference. This audience wanted to do their bit in a way that could change their own lives as well as those of the people they would be helping. The Met Police could offer this opportunity – but this audience didn’t necessarily know that yet, and needed to be inspired.

These insights showed that a strategy reflecting the two key drivers was necessary to target the two groups – a rational and interruptive approach for those on the career route and an emotional and inspirational focus for those looking to make a difference. The research also highlighted the important role of word of mouth when people are in the process of researching volunteering opportunities, and the influence that advocates can have at early stages in the journey.

Print advertorials and online display ads on job websites took a rational and interruptive approach, targeting the ‘getting experience’ audience. The ‘making a difference’ audience was targeted by means of an emotional and inspirational approach including display advertising on the website of the TV show The Secret Millionaire (with its emotional content and themes of philanthropy and volunteer work). Editorial content was produced for radio, using interviews with existing special constables to inspire and drive advocacy. Creative executions were designed to appeal to the key drivers identified as moving candidates along the journey.

The insights enabled the Met and their media and creative agencies to plan activity around two target audiences, while also informing the channels used and influencing the tone of voice of creative executions.

“We have been working closely with the Met’s account planning team to continue embedding the insights into communications strategies for this year and next”

Maxine Lane, head of recruitment, marketing and advertising at the Metropolitan Police Service, said: “Taking a mixed-methodology approach helped inform the strategic direction of recruitment marketing and advertising activity for special constables. In particular it provided key insights to assist media planning, the development of creatives and brand positioning. By having your research team work closely with the planning team you can really see the insight being taken forward into strategy.”

At MediaCom, we have been working closely with the Met’s account planning team to continue embedding the insights into communications strategies for this year and next, and testing new creative ideas that emerged as a result of our research.

Looking to the future
Applications for special constables have increased to unprecedented levels. More than 1,000 applications have been received per month since May 2010. As for efficiency, the cost-per-application has fallen by 65% compared to previous averages. Although a number of factors may have contributed to this (not least the economic climate) the Metropolitan Police believes the change in communications strategy has played a vital role.


6 years ago

A very interesting lunchtime read. It sounds like the well structured and thought out research approach paid off. Well Done!! The more police presence we have on the streets the better I say!

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6 years ago

Some interesting points, particularly around drivers to volunteering.

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6 years ago

A very interesting lunchtime read. It sounds like the well structured and thought out research approach paid off. Well Done!! The more police presence we have on the streets the better I say!

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5 years ago

This sounds at face value to be a thorough research project into special constables, who will become an evermore significant part of the policing family. There seems to be very little research on the special constabulary generally, despite their contribution.

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