The project began after a lecture on the power of behavioural science at London Business School. A man approached me with a question: “Are you one of those people who gives money to a Big Issue seller but don’t take the magazine?” I smiled at him proudly and said, “Yes”. He looked at me and said, “then you’re treating them as beggars.” My smile vanished. This man was a non-executive director of The Big Issue (TBI) wrestling with a growing challenge for the organisation.

As a social enterprise, TBI was created with a distinct mission: to provide a means for people to earn an income, helping them to rebuild structure and purpose in their lives. Lord Bird’s aim was for sellers to have the identity of magazine vendors not beggars, ‘a hand up not a hand out’. In 2018, however, one in five people who pay for the magazine don’t take it, a number that's growing.

Complex behaviours

Buyers perceive their ‘just giving’ behaviour as altruistic and rational. From a vendor’s perspective, not giving the magazine is also rational, driven by short-term monetary gains. It means they can effectively ‘sell’ a magazine multiple times. In behavioural terms they are discounting the future, influenced by the power of now.

To challenge and change behaviour from ‘give’ to ‘give and take’, we needed to unlock the deep, often subconscious behavioural drivers and deliver highly targeted, effective nudges. In addition to behavioural drivers, we needed to be immersed in the constraints of the physical context. Specifically, to be mindful of the unpredictability and lack of control that TBI and its vendors face.

We sought perspectives from all angles. Within TBI; vendors, distribution hubs and from outside TBI; those that just give (but don’t take), customers who give and take and lapsed customers. What we found out was that there were a set of core barriers that even individually, if overcome, could have a big impact. After workshopping intervention design ideas for each of our core barriers, and rigorous assessment of feasibility and scalability, we chose just three to focus on.

Our first insight was that people had lost an understanding of the transactional nature of the TBI relationship and the actual magazine cost. To tackle this, we placed large, arresting price stickers on vendor tabards and on the magazine itself. This primed a transactional mindset in the buyer by increasing the salience of price. A highly targeted, simple solution to a complex problem.

Intercept interviews with new customers revealed that they later had more confidence approaching vendors when they knew the price. With existing customers intercepts showed that this nudge increased the saliency of a transaction. In turn, vendors reported an increase in customers taking the magazine and paying with the correct change. Vendors saw a 46% sales increase during the two-week experiment. This nudge works because it reestablishes a transactional relationship between vendor and customer. TBI is now conducting further trials and plans to integrate this into the full tabard redesign next year.

Our second insight was that the magazine’s editorial content has lost salience and currency. We found that people did not associate TBI with great journalism and were not seeking it out for its content. To challenge this, we used vendor callouts to showcase the award-winning and exclusive editorial content. We worked with the TBI editorial team to craft simple, catchy lines to accompany each edition of the magazine.

We observed that this was an incredibly powerful way to extend the vendor’s pitch. It catches people’s attention from further afield and makes the vendor more visible. It allows vendors to have ownership and leverages the IKEA Effect, whereby you value something more when you have helped to make it happen. These vendors saw a 39% sales increase. This nudge helps re-build a core TBI aim to grow vendors’ confidence, by finding and using their voice. Simultaneously, it makes both vendors and customers more engaged with magazine content.

Our third insight was that there is a loss of connection with TBI’s mission and its original counter-cultural image. Using visually disruptive postcards in third spaces, we reminded people about TBI’s core mission and how TBI works: the vendors first buy the magazines, and then sell them. TBI is ‘a hand up, not a hand out’.

Café appeal

We found that cafés are the right context to educate people about the TBI mission, as they are in the right frame of mind; relaxed and often already reading. This nudge isn’t about quick, instant results but about creating a longer-term change in perception which will support sustained behaviour change. TBI is now looking to find a national coffee chain to partner with and cross promote within the magazine.

Using callouts and messaging in third spaces revealed a new base for building vendors’ societal connection and personal confidence. These interventions build both intuitive associations as well as a deep understanding of the intended purpose of TBI in the minds of vendors and their customers. But making the price salient, and framing the relationship as transactional, proved the most powerful way to drive home the message of ‘a hand up and not a hand out’, and ultimately build more give and take.