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.

Social Marketing is: 

…the application of marketing concepts and techniques to exchanges that result in the achievement of socially desirable aims; that is, objectives that benefit society as a whole.

Rob Donovan

..a programme planning process which promotes voluntary behaviour change based on building beneficial exchange relationships with a target audience for the benefits of society.

Beverly Schwartz

Social marketing helps you to decide which people to work with, what behaviour to influence, how to go about influencing this behaviour and, finally, how to measure if you have been successful or not. 

Why use Social Marketing?

It ensures that policy is based on an understanding of people’s lives, making policy goals realistic and achievable. The social marketing approach allows you to target resources cost-effectively, enabling you to select interventions that have the best impact over time.  Finally, it enables you to deliver products, services and communications that fit people’s needs and motivations. 

Social marketing has a number of key characteristics:

It is systematic in its approach

It is a systematic and planned process. The NSMC’s uses a six-step process which has been adopted worldwide by many organisations.


It is focused on behaviours

Its goal is always to change or maintain how people behave rather than just 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 it is defined by those groups of people who are targeted by a social marketing intervention.  It is not the benefit that is assumed by the organisation trying to encourage the behaviour change. 

Even if you don’t take social marketing any further, just considering the following 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?

Want to know more?

Our ShowCase microsite contains a collection of past, fully-researched projects that used social marketing to achieve real behaviour change. 

You can read about some of our most recent social marketing projects here.

The NSMC is renowned for its high-quality social marketing training courses.  Go to our training page for more details of our current courses. 


Frequently asked questions

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.

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.

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. The NSMC and RSPH published a discussion paper: "Stronger Together, Weaker Apart", which explored ways to combine the two disciplines for greater effect.

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.

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.

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.

The NSMC offers a range of social marketing training and support for practitioners, including entry-level and more advanced training courses as well as bespoke training and mentoring. For further information, please click here to reach our training page.