Social marketing: when the bottom line is behavior change
By Ray Olderman
How do you peddle good behavior? There has to be a better way than sticking up some
posters, sending out a press release, and waiting to hand out t-shirts to all the responders.
Social marketing is the better way. It’s been around for about thirty years. Put it to use for
your social or health issue.
Informing people about how to take care of themselves or how to make changes for the
good of society can be like getting a kid to take icky-tasting medicine. It doesn’t go down
Everyday we’re surrounded by messages selling something. Most of us don’t want to
listen to the ones that require that we make personal changes. So if you need to get the
word out on an issue of any kind, you need a guidance system. You need social
marketing. It offers a system for promoting positive behavior changes.
What is social marketing?
Social marketing uses techniques adapted from commercial marketing to plan and
implement programs designed to bring about social change. Let’s say you want women to
get mammogram tests. Changed behavior is a your big goal. Your immediate goal is to
get the attention of the women who really need to hear your message.
As a social marketer you’d adapt the commercial techniques normally used to get people
to buy a product or service – the techniques of attraction and persuasion. You’d use these
techniques to get your audience’s attention and “sell” them information and education
instead of running shoes.
The goal of social marketing is to get carefully selected audiences to alter old ideas,
understand and accept new ideas, and value their new awareness enough to change
attitudes and take positive action.
Social marketing benefits specific target audiences and the general society, whereas
commercial marketing really benefits the company doing the selling.
Commercial marketers focus on tangible products and services. It’s all a matter of
commerce to the marketer. Social marketers deal with intangible concepts, ideas and
attitudes. It has to be a matter of the heart for the social marketer. You have to begin with
a passion to inspire change.
A realistic look at success in social marketing
Changing attitudes and beliefs takes time.You may not be able to start out suggesting a
change in behavior. Your audience may not even know they have a problem that needs
fixing. You’re not selling soap or soft drinks. Attitudes and beliefs actually do mean more
to people than their choice of consumer products – even if it doesn’t seem that way
To be realistic and to plan your strategy, you should recognize the stages your audience
will go through before they arrive at change.
1. They become aware of your message. (You’ve caught their attention.)
2. They understand what the message is saying. (You’ve been heard.)
3. They agree that the message is good and that people should listen to it.
4. They recognize they could benefit from the message.
5. They change their attitude.
6. Their new attitude leads them to change their behavior.
This process influences the focus of your marketing efforts. You need to organize them in
1. Raise awareness.
2. Change attitudes.
3. Encourage action.
You can see how these are really three different goals. To know which one you need to
pursue you need to know your audience.
Research your audience
Don’t think you can just direct your message to the general public. Even if it’s a big issue
that people have heard about – like drug abuse or childhood immunizations – you still
need to know your audience’s attitudes. How much do they know? What are their points
of resistance? What appeal would attract their attention? And what benefit would
persuade them to change? Knowing your audience is even more important for social
marketing than for commercial marketing.
The appeal is based on the associations you suggest with your message. Let’s say you are
talking to a Latino audience about getting tested for HIV. Research shows Latinos place
high value on family. You’d appeal to their sense of family, and offer the benefits of
peace of mind and safety for loved ones.
Do some research to get an overview of your audience. Then interview some “key
informants,” or bring a group of them together to interview in a focus group. Key
informants are people who know the community or segment of the population you want
to target. Their responses can usually be generalized to a larger but similar population.
Now that you know your audience, you can begin to plan. Ultimately you will want to
arrive at a strategy, but first you need to set the context. You need to see the total
marketing picture. Begin by customizing the commercial “marketing mix.”
The Commercial Marketing Mix. Commercial marketing uses the “Four Ps” to define
the total marketing picture:
1. Product – the individual item to be marketed;
2. Price – the cost of obtaining the product;
3. Place – the distribution plan;
4. Promotion – all the advertising, public relations and promotional efforts a company
employs to get an audience to buy a product.
How to adapt the commercial marketing mix to social marketing
1) (Product) Define the unique value of the concept you are trying to sell – the specific
change in awareness, attitude and behavior.
2) (Price) Redefine the meaning of “costs,” and address them as barriers you need to
overcome. In commercial marketing the benefits to the consumer clearly outweigh the
cost of a product or service. In social marketing the costs are primarily psychological.
For instance, what does it cost you to change your attitude toward practicing safe sex?
What does it cost you to practice safe sex? In some cases there are also financial
costs. For example, if you are selling energy efficiency, people need to invest before
they see any savings benefit.
3) (Place) Create an effective plan of distribution. Are you doing ads and brochures to
get the word out? Posters and radio commercials? What media channels can you
afford? Do you need people to literally hand out your materials? Look for partners to
help you get the message seen and heard. If you do press releases, call first. Talk with
someone about an angle you can use to help the press justify taking space for your
4) (Promotion) Create a marketing plan that details:
The audience you have chosen to target;
The phase they are in. Do they need raised awareness? Are they ready for a direct
appeal to attitude change? Are they already receptive to a call for changed
The most effective uses of advertising, promotions and public information to
achieve the goals of public information and education.
Now add three more “Ps” to the mix: Partnership, Policy, and Politics.
1. Partnership: a single organization may not be able to make a dent in solving
complex social issues. Team up with other organizations, partners and agencies to
stretch your resources.
2. Policy: behavioral modifications may not be sustained if a community or cultural
environment is not supportive. You may need to organize campaigns around seeking
policy changes to help achieve your goals. For example, if you are trying to counter
tobacco use, you may need to campaign for changes in tax policy, compliance checks
or drug classification.
3. Politics: undoubtedly the issues involved in a social campaign are complex and often
controversial. You may need some political diplomacy to gain support from partners,
like-minded organizations, other stakeholders, allies, and policy makers.
Strategies for social marketing
Now you are ready for the challenges of social marketing. Devise your marketing mix
strategy. This is your strategy for how to address a specific audience and persuade them
to change their awareness, or attitudes or behavior.
Here are some sample scenarios.
Strategy 1 – when the costs are small compared to the benefits. Communicate the
benefits of the change in awareness, attitudes or behavior. Make sure the resources for
adopting the change are easily available. For example, let's say you want people to call a
phone number to get assistance with medical issues -- call to see if you're eligible for
Medicaid. The benefits of making the call are clear and can be presented compellingly.
The cost is only a phone call. For some people that is hard, but the benefits outweigh the
effort needed to make the call.
Strategy 2 – when there are no direct benefits for the individual. Use your research to
find what would make the change attractive and convenient for the audience. For
example, installing renewable energy equipment is too costly to have anything but an
intangible benefit. Interviews may reveal that your audience might take on the expense
for their children and future generations. You would use that to appeal for change.
Strategy 3 – when the costs for social change outweigh the benefits. There are two
possibilities: find a more direct benefit for the target audience and move to strategy 2; or
aim the campaign at a small portion of the target audience. Social marketers frequently
isolate a group of pioneer types and appeal to them first.
This strategy works best when you can take the next step and get the small committed
audience to use their leverage in their community.
Whatever strategy you choose, you will need to persist until your audience gets big
enough to make each individual change add up to the improvement you passionately
Need more information or one-on-one support? Send an e-mail to
email@example.com or visit www.thirdwaveresearch.com.
Ray Olderman is a Wisconsin-based communications consultant and strategist. He is the
brains behind hundreds of marketing plans and is widely published. His works include
The Ten-Minute Guide to Business Communications.
Third Wave Research Group provides tools that simplify the information gathering and
analytical dimension of decision-making. The result: improved strategic thinking with