Principles of Social Marketing

Principles of Social Marketing

Social marketing is used by public health agencies to promote the adoption of healthy behaviors.

The term “social marketing” has been skewed in recent years due to its frequent confusion with social media marketing, such as posting content and advertising on LinkedIn and Facebook. Social marketing is a public health marketing methodology that uses commercial marketing techniques to promote the adoption of behaviors that will improve the health or well-being of the target audience or of society as a whole.

Social Marketing Explained

Social marketing uses the same methods that Kellogg’s uses to sell cereal—a focus on the audience, market research, and a strategic marketing plan—but instead of asking consumers to buy a product, the target audience is encouraged to adopt a healthy behavior.

Remember the “this is your brain on drugs” TV commercials from the 1980s? How about the “Truth” antismoking commercials from the 2000s? These are both examples of large-scale social marketing campaigns. Because of the highly targeted nature of social marketing and the difficulty measuring large-scale effectiveness, social marketing works best when implemented on a community level with a specifically defined target audience. Encouraging the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables to low-income minority residents of three underserved neighborhoods in Chicago would be an example of a social marketing effort.

The World Health Organization and several countries with their own international agencies working in Africa and other impoverished nations began using social marketing principles in the 1960s. However, it wasn’t until the 1970s that Philip Kotler and Gerald Zaltman’s article in the Journal of Marketing defined social marketing as a discipline. Today, social marketing is used frequently by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and similar government health organizations in Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Social marketing has also been used by nonprofit organizations like PETA and American Legacy Foundation.

The Social Marketing Process

The social marketing process consists of five stages, each of which involves its own set of activities:

  1. Formative evaluation and planning
  2. Message and materials development
  3. Pretesting and campaign adjustment
  4. Implementation and materials dissemination
  5. Impact evaluation and feedback

This article in our multipart series on social marketing primarily covers the first stage in the social marketing process.

Research for Social Marketing Campaign Development

One of the key components of a social marketing campaign, and what sets it apart from a PSA trying to raise public awareness, is the formative research conducted prior to and during the creative production process. Collecting and analyzing quantitative and qualitative research data will help you better understand the problem and its context; the audience affected by the problem and its knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs; and develop more effective messaging and audience outreach tactics.

Quantitative research may be obtained through secondary research methods, such as reviewing academic articles, research studies, census data, and epidemiologic reports obtained from the health department. If a social marketing campaign is being implemented on a local level, it is also advised to distribute a survey directly to members of the target audience. Conducting your own primary quantitative research after reviewing the secondary research allows you to gather more specific information about the behaviors and needs of the precise people for whom the campaign is being developed.

As important as quantitative research is the qualitative research in the formative research stage of social marketing. If a campaign is local, it is beneficial to visit the communities you want to target to conduct ethnographic observation. This is the process of observing how the target audience behaves in their own community and how the behavior you are trying to change is valued in that community. Interviewing community stakeholders or key informants, such as a minister, bartender, or hair stylist, can help glean valuable insight into a community from people who know the community well. Hosting focus groups or town-hall meetings with members of the target audience can also be particularly insightful.

Audience Segmentation in Social Marketing

Following a robust analysis of the data collected from both quantitative and qualitative research, the final step before developing campaign messages and design elements is to segment the audience. Social marketing often fails because the audience is too broad. By segmenting your audience, you can identify the groups more reachable by the campaign and potentially create different messages and campaign elements for different subgroups of your target audience. Segments of your audience may also be based on geographic location, demographics, psychographics, and attitudes or beliefs.

This is the first article in a series on social marketing. Read the next article in the series on social marketing click here. The second article in this series on social marketing will focus on messages, materials, and channel selection. Want to get these articles as they come out? Sign up for our monthly news bites e-mails.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/

Posted: Jun 17, 2015
Updated: Oct 09, 2019
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