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What is Social Marketing? What’s in It for Public Agencies?

socialmarketingImagine a world where citizens eagerly adopt behaviors that public agencies promote, from getting annual flu shots and drinking only eight ounces of soda pop at lunch . . . to locking up firearms and not texting and driving . . . to using mass transit and reducing use of chemicals on lawns . . . to registering their pets and frequenting public libraries. This is a world that a strategic social marketing approach can help create.

This first of four quarterly columns will define, distinguish and describe the benefit of a social marketing approach for public agencies. Subsequent columns will outline a 10-step model you can use to develop a strategic social marketing plan, describe important research activities and conclude with techniques for evaluating social marketing efforts. A case example will illustrate each.


What is social marketing?

Social marketing is a process that applies marketing principles and techniques to influence behaviors that benefit individuals, as well as society. Philip Kotler of Northwestern University first distinguished this discipline in the early 1970s. It has been successfully used to influence behaviors that improve health, reduce injuries, protect the environment and engage communities. (See Box 1.)

Box 1. A few examples of the breadth of applicability of social marketing

Improving Public Health Preventing Injuries
Reducing tobacco useIncreasing physical activityTesting for HIV/AIDSIncreasing immunizations Decreasing drunk drivingWearing bike helmetsDecreasing bullyingStoring handguns
Protecting the Environment Engaging Communities
Increasing recyclingReducing energy useConserving waterAvoiding toxic chemical use Neighborhood crime watchBlood donationTutoringPark cleanup

Social marketing as a term, however, is still a mystery to most, misunderstood by many and increasingly confused with other terms such as behavioral economics (a framework to inspire social marketing strategies) and social media (one of many potential promotional tactics to choose from). A few even worry about using the term with their administrators, colleagues and elected officials, fearing they will associate it with socialism, manipulation and sales.


Fundamental principles that distinguish the discipline and contribute to its success include the following four:

We focus on behaviors. Similar to commercial sector marketers whose objective is to sell goods and services, the social marketers’ objective is to successfully influence desired behaviors. We typically want to influence target audiences to do one of six things: (1) accept a new behavior (e.g., start composting food waste); (2) reject a potentially undesirable behavior (e.g., smoking); (3) modify a current behavior (e.g., skip the spring lawn fertilizer); (4) abandon an old undesirable behavior (e.g., tossing lit cigarette butts out the window while driving); (5) continue a desired behavior (e.g., giving blood on an annual basis); and/or (6) switch a behavior (e.g., take the stairs instead of the elevator).

We select and influence a priority target audience. Marketers know that the marketplace is a rich collage of diverse populations, each having a distinct set of wants and needs. We know that what appeals to one individual may not appeal to another and therefore divide the market into similar groups (market segments), measure the relative potential of each segment to meet organizational and marketing objectives, and then choose one or more segments (target audiences) on which to concentrate our efforts and resources.

We take time to understand audience perceived barriers and benefits to the behavior. What are some of the reasons they haven’t engaged in this behavior in the past? What would keep them from trying it? What benefit can they imagine for themselves personally? What could someone say, do or give them that would increase the chances they would do this?

We consider all 4Ps in the marketer’s toolbox to influence these behaviors. Product, Place, Price and Promotion represent the fundamental building blocks of social marketing interventions. These tools are needed to reduce the barriers that make it difficult or unlikely for people to adopt the desired behavior, and to increase the benefits they want in exchange. The tools are used in concert to develop a favorably perceived relationship that is more appealing than all alternate choices. Social marketers assess and then balance the need for, and use of, these four elements to influence optimal change.


What’s in it for public agencies? A Pet Waste Example

My experience as a social marketer over the past 20 years working with and teaching professionals in public agencies is that they primarily target two of the three major citizen groups to influence behaviors, segmented based on their readiness to adopt the desired behavior. The problem is they are missing the typically largest and most attractive group. And as a result, outcomes are disappointing and returns on investment of resources are low.

The first that gets considerable attention and resources is the “Just Show Me” group, one that adopts desired behaviors with just a “nudge,” most often in the form of education. A good example would be placing signs in a park asking people to pick up their pet’s waste. That’s all they’ll need to be more likely to bring a bag the next time, even run back to their car to grab one. The problem is, for most social issues, this is a small segment of the population.

The second group, one that also gets a disproportionate share of resources based on their size, is the “Make Me” group, one that won’t be likely to adopt the behavior unless we create laws and increase the perception that they will be caught and fined for not doing the behavior (e.g., adding to the sign that there are $500 fines for leaving pet waste in parks and that video cameras will be used to catch violators).

The third, and more often than not the largest group, is one that a social marketing approach was “born for,” the “Help Me” group. These typically responsible, well-intended citizens think the desired behavior is a good idea, but they have some real or perceived barrier to performance. They need conveniently located plastic bags and trashcans for their pet’s waste.

By using a social marketing approach to identify the “Help Me” group and then understanding their barriers to a desired behavior, we will be more successful influencing more citizens engaging in the behavior, even creating a social norm for it (e.g., a few in the “Make Me” group then picking up their pet’s waste not because they think it’s important, but because they feel social pressure).

In Austin, Texas, for example, a social marketing effort targeting the “Help Me” group contributed to an increase from an estimated 37,500 pounds of pet waste in city parks being disposed of properly (e.g., bagged and placed in the trash) in 2001, to 1,200,000 lbs. by 2009. Their “Scoop the Poop” effort focused on providing mutt mitt dispensers throughout the city, additional trashcans in parks, and giving away free bag holders to attach to the dog’s leash. They even displayed on the dispensers a number that could be called to report violators, as well as the need for more bags. Clearly, the barriers for the “Help Me” group were knocked down and well-intended citizens eagerly complied and apparently spread the word!

In the next column, the 10 step social marketing planning model will be presented, illustrated by an approach to reducing injuries and deaths related to firearms.


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


Image courtesy of http://socialsteve.wordpress.com/2012/06/17/it-is-time-to-drop-social-media-long-live-social-marketing?.

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