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The opportunities and dangers of social marketing

10th Aug 2009
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The government has cottoned on to the advantages of social marketing to create camapign engagement and deliver a message without preaching to the audience. But it's still easy to get it wrong. The CIM's Mark Stuart looks at what commercial marketers can learn from their social counterparts and how to foster better dialogues with consumers.

Social marketing, broadly speaking, is the application of techniques from commercial marketing and, to an extent social sciences, for social good. Currently, the UK government is recognising its importance and much investment is being allocated to social marketing, particularly in the NHS. Witness the number of campaigns recently for responsible drinking, smoking cessation, and diet and exercise (such as the Change 4 Life programme).

The idea is to use techniques that understand how and why people behave in certain ways, and to influence them to make positive choices that will be good for them, for the people around them and the environment. Rather than a doctor telling you to not do something because it’s bad for you, you try to show why it’s in the person’s interests to change their behaviours.

For example, in smoking cessation campaigns, social marketing approaches can identify why smokers act the way they do, what the barriers to them changing their behaviours are and offer solutions that will achieve ‘buy-in’ from the patient. This is like the way commercial marketing offers a process of exchange that shows people it’s to their advantage to make certain choices, rather than others.

Social marketing has been shown to be highly successful in responsible drinking campaigns, anti-crime initiatives, environmental behaviour schemes, obesity and many other projects. It fits strategically with the Government’s desire to focus on prevention rather than cure, and its successes are widespread. Look at the NHS adverts now running on TV; very different in tone and scope from how they used to be and much more effective for their use of social marketing techniques.

The smoke alarm ‘pull your finger out’ campaign, for example, is a textbook piece of social marketing – especially the reminder that comes at the end of the ad break. We don’t just want to give you a message, we want to say something that you will buy into, agree with and identify with, and be able to change behaviour with a minimum of inconvenience.

Another example would be smoking cessation principles tailored to teenagers. Telling them smoking is bad for them isn’t likely to have much of an effect, but showing them the benefits of not smoking -  more money, cleaner teeth, you’ll smell nicer, you’ll be more attractive to the opposite sex, for example -  is more likely to work.
Not just adverts
Communication, however, is only part of a social marketing campaign. The process is essentially about a dialogue with the customer, which builds a trusted relationship over time. Social marketers don’t take an agenda to the people they’re trying to help. They build up an understanding of their behaviour, discover what their needs are, understand the barriers to change (for example, smokers living in areas where smoking is the norm) and work out strategies to motivate people to voluntarily change by making the process easier for them, engaging to adopt and offering further support when needed further down the line.
Another issue with social marketing is that it’s very easy to get wrong, from having good intentions that don’t quite roll out as planned. Consider some initiatives designed to stop young people carrying knives or taking drugs. Depending on how they appear, it’s possible to glamorise the very subject you’re trying to diminish, or create an ‘us and them’ culture that makes vulnerable or easily influenced people more keen to join the ‘other side’. Social marketing campaigns have to be carried out carefully and sensitively to avoid this.
A significant amount of social marketing is carried out in health areas, but it has other applications too. Social marketing can be used for environmental schemes, for example to influence public transport initiatives, because it can show why people don’t use public transport, what they would like to see instead and show how to improve the plan. 
Social marketers now taking the lead
Historically, social marketing has tended to take its cue from commercial marketing, but the discipline is now reaching the point where there are many ways commercial marketers can learn from social marketers. Marketers want to know how customers think and how to best influence them to make one set of choices over another. That’s not necessarily to drive up consumption or for manipulative purposes but to identify where a choice is going to be made, the customer can choose your product or service over a competitor’s.
Social marketers have become experts in behaviour change because they often deal with people whose behaviours are the hardest of all to change – whose norms are influenced by their cultural and situational surroundings and the attitudes of their peers. Often they have near-insurmountable barriers to change or are simply not motivated to change. The fact that social marketers are so successful in creating behavioural change in difficult areas like obesity, drug abuse and anti-social behaviour, is testament to their mastery of building relationships, innovating effective marketing practices and developing a true understanding of psychology and decision-making; both at individual and broader segment levels.
The Government’s recognition of social marketing’s value means that a large number of new roles and vacancies are opening up in the public sector for the professional who wants to move into this area. At a time when job opportunities are thinner on the ground than normal, it’s worth bearing social marketing in mind as an area with much latent potential.
Mark Stuart is head of research at the Chartered Institute of Marketing

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By inciopqac
10th Dec 2009 16:52

Very nice posting , It makes my day.:D




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By webifi
24th Apr 2012 11:20

We have recently posted a blog on the same subject at and everyone should read it.

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