Social Marketing: How to drive change and influence people

By Tom Wright, Digital Marketing Executive

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “social marketing”? Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, influencers and eerily accurate ads that seem to follow you everywhere?

Think again.

“Social marketing”, as opposed to “social media marketing”, blends social and behavioural sciences with proven commercial marketing techniques to influence human behaviour and create positive social change.

Social marketing is purpose, rather than profit driven. And, when implemented effectively as part of a campaign, it’s a powerful weapon in the fight against some of the biggest social challenges of our time, such as climate change, poverty and obesity.

In order to be successful, a social marketing campaign requires a deep understanding of the issue you want to tackle, the audience you want to reach and that change you want to create.

Commercial vs social marketing

Gerald Zaltman and Philip Kotler first defined the concept of social marketing in 1971 in the research article, Social Marketing: An Approach to Planned Social Change. They define social marketing as:

“The design, implementation, and monitoring of programs designed to influence the acceptability of social ideas and that embeds planning, pricing, communication, distribution, and marketing research considerations.”

By this definition, social marketing clearly shares a lot of similarities with traditional, product-focused marketing. With the four Ps of product, price, place, and promotion still evident.

The crucial difference is that rather than marketing a product, the goal is to create a behaviour change that has a positive social outcome.

Beyond this, the nuts and bolts of a successful social marketing campaign are markedly similar to traditional marketing campaigns in terms of planning, implementation and evaluation.

To gain a deeper understanding of the workings of a social marketing campaign, we’ve broken down The National Social Marketing Centre’s six-step social marketing process, as defined in their Social Marketing Planning Guide and Toolkit:

The six stages of a social marketing campaign

1.   Getting Started

Start by clarifying:

  • the issue you want to address
  • the audience you want to reach
  • the behaviour you want to change
  • the outcome you want to achieve

Next, consider the logistics of reaching that outcome. Ask yourself: Do you have a complete understanding of the behaviour you want to change? Are you or your team an expert in the field? Or do you need to enlist expert help to ensure the campaign has the best possible chance of success?

For example, if you’re hoping to change a health behaviour, the input of a health professional will be essential. At this stage, you should also consider timescales, identify risks and decide whether you’ll need to hire any external resources, such as copywriters, graphic designers and project managers.

2.   Scope

This stage is all about expanding your awareness of the project. Research is key and will help you develop a detailed picture of the behaviour you wish to change, as well as your target audience – their average age, gender, level of education and income, preferred social networks and so on.

When Thrive worked with WaterAid to reduce Covid-19 transmission, our behaviour change team unpicked the needs of hard-to-reach target communities across 28 countries. This was essential in ensuring our messaging was emotionally supportive and effective.

The scope stage of the process is an ideal time to form a steering group to ensure the campaign sticks to the timeline and delivers on the expected outcomes. Set some SMART goals for your behavioural intervention and determine how you plan to monitor and evaluate campaign success.

SMART stands for:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Timely

3.   Develop

As your campaign starts to take shape, it’s a good idea to pre-test your messaging with a focus group that’s representative of your target audience.

Test groups will give you valuable feedback on the accuracy of some of the assumptions you have about your audience and their behaviour. Depending on the nature of this feedback, you may want to alter some aspects of your messaging or the mode of delivery.

Armed with your feedback, you can share the findings with internal and external stakeholders and create a firm social marketing plan using your SMART goals, before pressing ahead with implementation.

4.   Implement

All systems go! You’re now ready to launch your social marketing campaign. Throughout the course of the campaign, you or your external agency will monitor and continually evaluate the process, gathering and analysing all feedback that you receive.

Depending on the nature of the feedback, you may want to alter some of the characteristics of the campaign, such as messaging, visuals or mode of delivery.

5.   Evaluate

Once the campaign has concluded, the evaluation process begins. Start by assessing the strengths, weaknesses and key learnings from the campaign.

Thinking about your SMART goals, consider how the campaign performance stacked up against these projections. Has your intervention had an impact on the desired behaviour change?

Consider short, medium or long-term factors that may indicate a change in behaviour, knowledge or attitude that can be attributed to your campaign. To help with this, you could interview a cross-section of your target audience to develop a deeper understanding of the reach and impact achieved.

6.   Follow-up

Once you’ve compiled your information into an evaluation report, share it with all key stakeholders. Points for discussion might include:

  • What was the ultimate outcome of the campaign?
  • What lessons have you learned?
  • What are the next steps?

Finally, the follow-up is a great time to recognise the contribution of your campaign team and thank them for their hard work.

Social marketing is, by definition, commercial marketing which serves a social purpose and clearly shares much in common with traditional, commercial marketing.

All the arts of subtle (and not so subtle) persuasion are evident here, as well as concepts which are synonymous with the commercial marketing world, such as audience research, SMART goals, and campaign reports.

The crucial difference, of course, is that social marketing measures success in social good and purpose, rather than pounds and pence.

Tom is the Digital Marketing Executive at Thrive. He is passionate about all things digital, and specialises in content strategy and creation.

With experience creating and implementing successful social marketing campaigns, the Thrive team are expertly placed to support your organisation in driving behaviour change. Learn about some of the amazing projects we’ve been involved with. Or if you would like to have a chat about a project you’re planning, get in touch.

Here at Thrive, we work with brands, partner agencies, governments and charities who want to transform lives and societies for good.

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