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Social Marketing: Influencing Behaviors for Good

What are the ten steps to developing a strategic social marketing plan?

By Nancy R. Lee

In the August issue of PA Times online, I introduced the definition of social marketing and the benefit for public agencies to adopt this strategic approach that uses marketing principles and techniques to influence citizen behaviors that benefit individuals, as well as society. It was described as a proven method for influencing behaviors that improve public health, prevent injuries, protect the environment and engage communities. Fundamental principles considered key to success were noted. We focus on changing behaviors, not just education and increased awareness. We select and influence a priority target audience. We take time to understand audience perceived barriers and desired benefits related to the behavior. We consider all 4Ps in the marketer’s toolbox to influence these behaviors: Product, Price, Place and Promotion.

This quarter’s column outlines the 10-step model used to develop a strategic social marketing plan and concludes with a brief illustration of each step with a hypothetical case to decrease firearm injuries and death.

Nancy Lee and Philip Kotler, in their book Social Marketing: Influencing Behaviors for Good, discuss the ten steps to creating a strategic social marketing plan:   

The Scoping Phase:

Step 1: Describe the social issue, background, purpose, and focus for the plan. The social issue is one the project is intended to address. Background information summarizes factors that have led to the development of the plan. What is the problem? What happened? A purpose statement clarifies the benefit of a successful plan. Then, from the vast number of factors that might contribute to this purpose, select one that this plan will focus on.

Step 2: Conduct a brief situation analysis that identifies, relative to purpose and focus, organizational strengths and weaknesses and external opportunities and threats (SWOT). Organizational strengths and weaknesses include factors such as available resources, expertise, management support, current alliances and partners, delivery system capabilities, the agency’s reputation and priority of issues. External opportunities and threats are forces typically not witin the marketer’s control but must be taken into account with major categories including cultural, technological, natural, demographic, economic, political and legal forces.

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The Selection Phase:

Step 3: Segment the market and choose a target audience for this particular effort/campaign. A target audience is a homogeneous segment of a larger population that an organization decides to serve. Determining these targets is a three-step process involving segmentation, evaluation and selection. You then develop a rich profile of their distinguishing characteristics that will inspire strategies to uniquely and effectively appeal to them.

Step 4: Select a desired behavior for your target audience. Social marketing plans always include a behavior objective – something we want to influence the target audience to do. Often our research indicates that there may also be something the audience needs to know or believe in order to be motivated to act, but this does not often ensure behavior change.

The Insights Phase

Step 5: Identify audience perceived barriers to this behavior, desired benefits and potential motivators. At this step, you take the time and expend resources to understand what your target audience is currently doing or prefers to do, what real and/or perceived barriers they have to this behavior, what benefits they desire in exchange and what might (possibly) motivate them to adopt it.

The Strategy Phase

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Step 6: Craft a positioning statement, describing how you want your target audience to see performing this desired behavior. This statement is inspired by your description of your target audience and its list of barriers, benefits and motivators to action.

Step 7: Develop a strategic marketing mix, considering all four tools in the toolbox (product, price, place and promotion) to decrease barriers and provide benefits. Products are tangible goods or services that will help the target audience perform the behavior. Price strategies include monetary and nonmonetary incentives. Place strategies make performing the behavior as convenient as possible, as well as making it easy to acquire goods and receive any related services. Promotions are persuasive communications that promote the desired behavior and highlight the benefits of the offer (product, price and place).

The Management Phase

Step 8: Determine an evaluation plan. This answers the questions: What measures will we use to evaluate our efforts? How and when will they be measured? Ideal measures include inputs, outputs, outcomes, impact and return on investment.

Step 9: Establish a budget. This includes costs related to product, price, place and promotional strategies, as well as costs for evaluation.

Step 10: Outline an implementation plan. The plan is summarized in a document that specifies who will do what, when and for how much. It transforms the marketing strategies into specific actions.

A Hypothetical Case Illustrating the 10-Step Planning Process 


  Examples of Partial Content for a Program in Washington State 

Step 1


According to the Youth Suicide Prevention Program, each week in Washington State an average of 2 youth die by suicide and another 17 youth attempt suicide that results in hospitalization.



Decrease youth injuries and deaths from firearms



Youth suicide using firearms

Step 2

Organizational Strengths

State funding


Organizational Weaknesses

Ability to reach and influence youth at risk of suicide


External Opportunities

Relationships and networks with high school counselors


External Threats

Continued increases in cyber bullying

Step 3

Target Audience

Friends of youth at risk of attempting suicide

Step 4

Desired Behavior

Ask a friend who seems depressed if they are considering suicide, and if they are get help from a counselor or crisis line.

Step 5


“I worry my friend might then be more likely to do it.”



“If what I did kept my friend from committing suicide, it would be worth it.”



“If someone could tell me how to ask.”

Step 6

Positioning Statement

We want friends of youth at risk for attempting suicide to see asking them about their intentions as the best thing they can do for their friend.”

Step 7


Developing and launching a youth suicide help line



Toll Free



24 hours, 7 day a week availability



Wallet cards distributed at high schools, mobile phone apps and Facebook page

Step 8

Evaluation Plan

Outcome measure:  Number of calls to the hotline.

Impact measure:  Reduction in number of youth suicides in a one year period after launch, compared with average prior five years.

Step 9


Dollars and staff time spent to develop, promote and deliver the help line.

Step 10

Implementation Plan

January – August:  Develop promotional materials and the help line.

September – December: Launch the help line with special events at all high schools in state.

January: Monitoring results by review outcome and impact data and make any recommended changes

September: One year evaluation.


Nancy R. Lee is an adjunct faculty at the University of Washington where she teaches social marketing and marketing in the public sector. She has coauthored nine books on social marketing with Philip Kotler. In 1993, she formed a small social marketing consulting firm in Seattle (www.socialmarketingservice.com) and has served as a strategic advisor for numerous social marketing campaigns. She can be reached at [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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