Six Personas Emerge from New Research on Twitter Users in Environmental Messaging

Professor Charlotte Chang holding black dog in outdoor environment

Environmental advocacy organizations now have new tools to help them motivate their constituencies, thanks to groundbreaking research at Pomona College, the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and The Nature Conservancy published on May 31 in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

Analysis of Twitter data from about a half million English-speaking users in 14 countries identified six distinct personas which differed in how they tweet about 21 environmental issues. Lead researcher Charlotte Chang '10, assistant professor of biology and environmental analysis at Pomona College, says, “One of the great challenges facing the environmental sector is how to motivate people to take pro-environmental actions, and one of the best things that you can do is to tailor your message so that it resonates with a specific audience.”

Paul Armsworth, a coauthor who is a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, notes that “we have to understand what motivates people to care about conservation. From there, we can seek to craft solutions that will engage people in trying to both manage nature better and live alongside nature in ways that are more sustainable.”

More than two-thirds of the Twitter users in the study fell into one of two personas. “Generalists,” comprising 37.6% of the sample/users, have a special focus on conserving species and public lands, and interest in outdoor recreation as well as climate change. “Stewards,” who at 30.2% are the second largest group, are also interested in public lands, as well as hunting, birdwatching, farming, and species conservation.

“Smart alecks”, 13.3% of the total, were the one group whose Twitter messages tended to have a negative tone. However, this may not mean that they are opposed to environmental issues—indeed, “smart alecks were particularly attuned to several prominent environmental and social issues, using hashtags such as ‘#palmoil’, ‘#animalrights’, and ‘#endgunviolence’,” the authors note.

While “technocrats” only accounted for 5.9% of the sample, they were outspoken, say the authors, on subjects such as renewable energy and less so on topics like animal welfare. “Climate concerned”—8.5%—focused most on climate action and the role of humans in climate change. “Reserved,” the smallest group at 4.5%, “discussed environmental issues the least and did not demonstrate strongly positive or negative emotional affect, although they were distinguished by use of the term ‘national parks,’” the authors write.

In the U.S., personas were more clearly distributed by region than in the other 13 countries in the study. For example, the Midwest and Southeast had a preponderance of “stewards” and “generalists,” while the coasts had more “climate concerned” and “smart alecks.” Internationally, Spain and South Africa were home to more “climate concerned” Twitter users, while other countries such as India and Ireland had a larger proportion of “stewards” and “generalists.”

The team was surprised to find that none of the personas were strictly partisan. “We thought it was plausible that there could be some groups that were fully to the right or to the left,” says Chang. “And what we instead found was, based on how people discuss environmental issues, [they] span the political ideology spectrum.” She explains that while some personas were more left-leaning than others on average, “none of them were strongly partisan, in that no group was solely made up of people on the left or the right.”

Areas in which the interests of personas intersect offer possibilities for building coalitions. For example, “Messages emphasizing faith, property, and family alongside images of rural mountainous landscapes may be effective at activating stewards and generalists, who are concentrated in rural US states and in other countries as well, including Ireland, South Africa, and Canada,” the authors note.

Coauthor Yuta Masuda, senior sustainable development and behavioral scientist at The Nature Conservancy, says that to develop broad support for environmental causes, it is vital to understand the audience. “Why are they interested in particular issues?” he asks. “How do we formulate messages around those issues?”

Masuda notes the absence of previous research into social media messaging for the conservation sector. “Social media is extremely powerful,” he says. He hopes that this research opens the way to using social media “in a way that is supportive of conservation, combating climate change, and sustainability and all these things that are really important for the well-being of our society.”

Read more at The Nature Conservancy blog Cool Green Science.