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, may be the most well-known examples of social marketing interventions. But social marketing is increasingly being used to tackle many different areas of behaviour including: sustainability, finance, crime, road safety and employment. Many 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 WHO defines health promotion as:

“...the process 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?


Social networking tools and technologies are increasingly popular ways to reach an audience and spread a message, but it's 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 behaviour 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, with a regular programme of international conferences. 

Social media may be part of the toolkit 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, The Spirit Level etc., 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 and as possibly offering answers to some of the challenges facing society.

These offer a view of society through the lens of behavioural economics, which attempts to address the shortcomings of traditional, or neoclassical economics, with more of an emphasis on insight and a psychological view of the often irrational behaviour of individuals and groups.

As such, behavioural economists are increasingly seeing social marketing's emphasis on behavioural theory as a key tool for dealing with many issues. Read more on social marketing and behavioural economics.

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. But, often, until norms are shifted and the desired behaviour is seen as acceptable and even desirable, the changes sought can have a limited impact.

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 and impactful change. 

See how strategic social  marketing improved England's strategy for tackling lung disease.

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.

To stay up to date with developments in the field, you can subscribe to Social Marketing Quarterly. Membership of The NSMC includes online access to SMQ, as well as discounts on NSMC training and publications.

Want more?

Download The NSMC's introductory Big pocket guide to social marketing

Tangible outcomes...

The NSMC helps public sector agencies and their suppliers to achieve tangible outcomes from their behaviour change programmes. 

Sue Nelson, Social Marketing Director, Kindred

Ask us a question

What else do you want to know about social marketing? Ask us a question, and we'll do our best to answer it on our blog. Email us: office@thensmc.com