Part 2: Implementation Frustration

Darcy SawatzkiArguably, the part of the social marketing process that gets the least amount of love is the implementation phase. Implementing a campaign or program can be frustrating, and leaders may be tempted to not give it the attention and time it truly deserves.

This “middle child” of social marketing is evidenced by the seemingly disproportionate number of journal articles and conference presentations that focus on formative research, program planning, and evaluation, while giving short shrift to implementation. This blog post is meant as a love letter to implementation and to encourage all of us to give it some much overdue attention. 

Five reasons behind Implementation Frustration:

Time. We are given a relatively short period of time to complete a project—let’s say three years for research, planning, implementation, and evaluation. Research, planning, and evaluation take time. It seems like that time is most often borrowed from implementation.

The Creation Fixation. One hypothesis for why social marketers don’t focus as much on implementation: people like to make stuff more than make stuff happen. I explored this topic in my last Market Maven blog post, The Creation Fixation

The middle child can also be a bit of a “problem child.” Beyond the Creation Fixation, there’s another hindrance: making stuff happen can be hard…really, really hard. Putting plans into action takes extreme care, attention, flexibility, and patience—and often the involvement of external organizations and people. Shifting the locus of control to partners, stakeholders, and the target audience can cause discomfort, because suddenly, others play a pivotal role in the success of your work.

Tracking. Recording and reporting implementation and its effects can be very difficult. Showing off program results—and especially trying to get them published—can be an onerous task.

Publishing. Implementation continues to get short changed even after the work is done. Standard journal article structure requires substantial information in the research, planning, and results sections, with few penalties for a cursory implementation section. Furthermore, the researchers who write most of the journal articles may not have been involved in program activities. Because they speak to what they know, they may focus on numbers rather than on implementation.

“Despite the best intentions, these trials sometimes produced very good answers to an uninteresting question: If you do not do very much in the way of treatment, then can you have much effect?” -Robert Hornik

Why should we focus on implementation?

In short, good implementation produces better results.

In graduate school and beyond, I remember reading article after article that detailed programs with intricate formative research and planning. The evaluation section, however, would say that not enough exposure had been achieved, therefore complicating evaluation of program effects. Hornik addresses this trend in his book, Public Health Communications: Evidence for Behavior Change (Hornik, 2002). Across many studies with well-designed evaluations, he notes the pattern of insufficient exposure. Hornik says, “Solutions to the exposure problem have gotten second place on the agenda to the quality of the messages. And that may be a crucial failing.”

Market mavens recognize that behavior change requires more than communication efforts. These other elements of the marketing mix—trying to improve distribution, increase adoption of a new product or service, bring about policy change, etc.—all take time too. But we must not get discouraged by these challenges. The importance of our work depends on it.

How can we overcome Implementation Frustration?

Program planners and managers, please heed this plea:

    • Allocate more time and energy to the implementation phase.
    • Create multi-level outreach strategies that are designed to increase exposure (via paid and/or earned media, social media, partnership outreach, community events and activities, and more).
    • Hire the most tenacious people to do the hard work of making stuff happen. Look for track records in media relations, policy change, and partnership development.
    • Empower those people to really engage partners, generate media coverage, and do the hard work necessary to increase exposure. This is messy work that can’t be tightly controlled.
  • Publish and present details on implementation. When writing up a project for a journal or other forum, be thorough and detailed in your explanation of the implementation phase. Present the reader with enough information—including tips about the materials or products you used—to replicate the process.

I have just as much respect for the formative research, project planning, and evaluation phases as the next social marketer. But without bold action during the implementation phase, the rest just becomes exercises in not making a difference. And who wants that? Avoid the frustration: embrace implementation.

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