What is social marketing?
Combining ideas from commercial marketing and the social sciences, social marketing is a proven tool for influencing behaviour in a sustainable and cost-effective way.
It helps you to decide:
- Which people to work with.
- What behaviour to influence.
- How to go about it.
- How to measure it.
Social marketing is not the same as social media marketing. Find out more.
Social marketing is a systematic and planned process. It follows six steps:
The goal of social marketing is always to change or maintain how people behave – not what they think or how aware they are about an issue. If your goal is only to increase awareness or knowledge, or change attitudes, you are not doing social marketing.
It benefits people and society
This is the value – perceived or actual – as measured by the people who are targeted by a social marketing intervention. It is not what is assumed to benefit them by the organisation that is trying to encourage the behaviour change.
A social marketing approach
Even if you don’t take social marketing any further, just considering these four questions will add value to your projects and policies:
- Do I really understand my target audience and see things from their perspective?
- Am I clear about what I would like my target audience to do?
- For my target audience, do the benefits of doing what I would like them to do outweigh the costs or barriers to doing it?
- Am I using a combination of activities in order to encourage people to achieve the desired action?
How social marketing helps
Policy: social marketing helps to ensure policy is based on an understanding of people’s lives, making policy goals realistic and achievable.
Strategy: social marketing enables you to target your resources cost-effectively, and select interventions that have the best impact over time.
Implementation and delivery: social marketing enables you to develop products, services and communications that fit people’s needs and motivations.
Find out more
• Read about the key features of successful behaviour change projects
• Visit our Social Marketing Planning Guide
Social marketing interventions with real impact feature all or many of the following features:
- Clear behavioural goals.
- Customer orientation.
- Methods mix
These benchmark criteria are not just a tick-box checklist, but concepts that work together to make social marketing programmes more effective. For more information, download our Big pocket guide to social marketing.
1: Clear behavioural goals
Change people’s actual behaviour.
- Influence specific behaviours, not just knowledge, attitudes and beliefs.
- Set clear, specific, measurable and time-bound behavioural goals.
- Establish baselines and key indicators.
Behaviour is a pattern of actions over time; the action or reaction of something under specific circumstances. It is dynamic – that is, subject to change and variation in different contexts and at different times.
Much routine daily behaviour is about habit, so people may not be thinking consciously about what they do. Start by thinking about an audience’s attitudes, hopes, wishes, desires and other motivations. This is generally more productive than trying to identify and fill information gaps. Understanding people’s emotional engagement is critical.
2: Customer orientation
Focus on the audience.
- Fully understand their lives, attitudes and current behaviour using a mix of data sources and research methods.
- Go beyond interviews and focus groups – use ethnographic techniques too.
- Use a range of research analyses and combine data from different sources (qualitative and quantitative).
- Gain key stakeholder understanding and feed it into methods mix development.
- Pre-test interventions with the audience.
- Involve people – don’t treat them as research subjects.
Use behavioural theories to understand behaviour and inform the intervention.
Human behaviour is complex. However a theory can offer you a greater understanding of your target audience and the factors that influence them and their actions.
For example, the ‘Time to Change’ programme on attitudes to mental health problems, run in partnership by MIND and Rethink, used Social Contact Theory: discriminatory attitudes and behaviours can be challenged by bringing people in direct contact with each other.
Details of how different theories have been used in social marketing projects can be found on ShowCase, our online resource of benchmarked social marketing case studies.
- Identify theories after conducting customer orientation research.
- Use theory to inform and guide the methods mix.
- Test theoretical assumptions as part of the intervention pre-testing.
Customer orientation lets you identify ‘actionable insights’ – pieces of understanding that will lead the development of an effective intervention.
Insight is more than just pieces of data. It is what the data can tell us about people’s feelings, motivations and current behaviour:
- Gain a deep understanding of what moves and motivates the target audience and influences the behaviour.
- Identify emotional barriers (such as fear of testing positive for a disease) as well as physical barriers (such as service opening hours).
- Use insight to develop an attractive exchange and suitable methods mix.
Consider benefits and costs of adopting and maintaining a new behaviour; maximise the benefits and minimise the costs.
Exchange is ‘the exchange of resources or values between two or more parties with the expectation of some benefits’. Whether consciously or sub-consciously, people go through a cost-benefit analysis at some level before they decide to act. The social marketer’s task is to ensure that the benefits associated with the desired behaviour are equal to or greater than the costs.
- Analyse the perceived/actual costs versus perceived/actual benefits.
- Consider what the target audience values: offer incentives and rewards based on customer orientation and insight findings.
- Replace benefits the audience derives from the problem behaviour and competition. The exchange you offer is clearly linked to ‘price’ in the methods mix.
When offering an exchange, don’t just look to reduce the barriers. Are there also incentives and benefits you can offer the target audience based on what they value?
Try to identify and replace the benefits people currently receive from a problem behaviour. For example, drinking alcohol gives young people a sense of confidence, making them feel sexy and ‘part of the gang’. If you want them to stop drinking, or reduce the amount they drink, your intervention must look to replace the benefits they currently receive from drinking alcohol.
Understand what competes for the audience’s time, attention, and inclination to behave in a particular way.
- Address direct and external factors that compete for the audience’s time and attention.
- Develop strategies to minimise the impact of competition, clearly linked to the exchange offered.
- Work with, or learn from, the competing factors.
Avoid a ‘one size fits all’ approach: identify audience ‘segments’, which have common characteristics, and tailor interventions appropriately.
- Customer orientation and insight work make segmentation possible.
- Don’t only rely on traditional demographic, geographic or epidemiological targeting.
- Draw on behavioural and psychographic data.
- Identify the size of your segments.
- Prioritise and select segments according to clear criteria, such as size and readiness to change.
- Directly tailor interventions in the methods mix to specific audience segments.
8: Methods mix
Use a combination of approaches to bring about behaviour change. Don’t just rely on raising awareness.
- Use all four Ps (product, price, place and promotion) or primary intervention methods (inform and educate, support, design and control).
- Use promotion to ‘sell’ the product, price, place and benefits to the target audience, not just to communicate a message.
- Consider existing interventions to avoid duplication.
- Create a new brand, or leverage existing brands that the target audience value.
- Keep your methods and approaches financially and practically sustainable.
These benchmark criteria form part of a range of resources that The NSMC has developed to promote best practice in social marketing, including a Planning guide and toolkit, and a Value for Money tool. See our Resources section for details.
What's the difference between social marketing and commercial marketing?
Although social marketing borrows many tools from commercial marketing, its aim is social good rather than profit. As a discipline, it also draws upon social and behavioural sciences as well as social policy, along with an understanding of the environmental determinants which affect the ways in which people behave.
Can social marketing be used in areas other than health?
Health programmes, such as reducing smoking or improving diets, are the most well-known examples of social marketing interventions. However, social marketing is increasingly being used to tackle many different areas of behaviour including: sustainability, finance, crime, road safety and employment. Examples of these can be found on ShowCase, The NSMC's database of fully benchmarked social marketing case studies.
What is the difference between social marketing and health promotion?
The World Health Organisation defines health promotion as:
".....the promotion of enabling people to increase control over, and to improve, their health. It moves beyond a focus on individual behaviour towards a wide range of social and environmental interventions."
Clearly there are many overlaps between the aims of health promotion and social marketing for health. In 2008, The NSMC and RSPH published a discussion paper: "Stronger Together, Weaker Apart", which explored ways to combine the two disciplines for greater effect.
Is social marketing just marketing using social media?
No. Social networking tools and technologies are increasingly popular ways to reach an audience and spread a message, but it is important to distinguish this "social media marketing" from social marketing.
Social marketing is an approach used to develop activities aimed at changing or maintaining people's behaviours for the benefit of individuals and society as a whole. It is a recognised discipline now found in academic courses, textbooks and several dedicated, peer-reviewed journals, along with a regular programme of international conferences.
Social media may be part of the toolkit used for engaging with certain audiences, but the distinction is very important. For those of us working in social marketing this presents serious issues around integrity, authority and possibly even ethics, which need to be addressed.
How does social marketing fit with behavioural economics?
In recent years a number of books, including Nudge, Freakonomics, The Tipping Point and The Spirit Level have been picked up by policy makers and political parties. These are seen as offering new thinking and approaches to behaviour change and health inequalities as well as offering answers to some of the challenges facing society.
Behavioural economics attempts to address the shortcomings of traditional, or neoclassical economics, by placing more emphasis on insight and a psychological view of the often irrational behaviour of individuals and groups.
As such, behavioural economists increasingly see social marketing's emphasis on behavioural theory as a key tool for dealing with many issues.
What is strategic social marketing? Isn't social marketing about individual behaviour change?
Social marketing is an approach that is used to address strategic (upstream), as well as operational (downstream) issues.
Social marketers typically concentrate their efforts downstream on individual behaviour change. However in some cases, until norms are shifted and the desired behaviour is seen as acceptable and even desirable, the changes sought can only have a limited impact. Therefore by moving further upstream and involving policy makers, organisations or community groups to remove the environmental barriers, social marketers stand a better chance of making more of a sustained or impactful change.
How can I study social marketing?
The NSMC offers a range of social marketing training and support for practitioners, including entry-level and more advanced e-learning packages, introductory courses and bespoke training and mentoring.