Social Marketing: Top Tips for Success

In 2007, the National Social Marketing Centre (NSMC) in London, England set up a three-year pilot program called the Learning Demonstration Sites Scheme. Ten sites across the country were chosen to receive support from The NSMC for the implementation of social marketing programs. No two projects were the same; projects addressed a ranged of public health issues from underage kerbside drinking, fruit and vegetable consumption, and breastfeeding and targeted different audiences.

The Learning Site Demonstration program was unique in that The NSMC did not provide direct funding for program implementation. Instead they provided support to help the organizations build capacity and skills in social marketing. The projects were independently evaluated by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. The NSMC also contracted the Public Health Action Support Team (PHAST; part of Imperial College, London) to conduct an independent process evaluation of the scheme as a whole.

Two phases of process evaluation[1] conducted in 2008 (October to December) and 2009 (June to August) revealed a number of factors which can help and hinder local social marketing projects. Drawing on the findings, here are the seven top tips for social marketing success.

1.     Good project management. 

Appoint a project manager with experience of delivering projects to time and budget, who will drive the project through. They need to have Pit Bull Terrier qualities; many obstacles and barriers will be thrown in their way, but they must keep on-going and never give up, focusing on that behavioral outcome.

 “You’ve got to put someone in charge of this who’s organised, done it before, and has the time and dedication to make sure it is a success.”

2.     Conduct a focused and rigorous scoping exercise.

To increase efficiency during the scoping phase, first clarify with your sponsors’, funders and key project staff what the priorities, timescales
and resources are. This will help you concentrate your efforts on what is important and achievable. Make use of existing data where possible and check if these findings can be similarly applied to your area. In some cases, the reasons why people in one region think or behave a certain way are relatively similar to those found in another region.

 “Don’t take anything for granted, don’t assume, ask the questions and find out and keep using your insight. And keep going back and going back.”

3.     Plan evaluation from the outset and draw on external expertise.

Make sure you start planning your evaluation at the start of your project. This will help you define meaningful objectives and outcome measures and ensure that data collection methods are in place before you begin implementation. If the budget is tight, consider partnering with an academic institution as a way of acquiring external research and evaluation expertise and capacity. They can help you design an evaluation strategy and draw on post-graduate students to collect and analyze data. But remember, as with your target audience, you will have to offer them an exchange they value – in return for cheap student labor, they get a great project for which their students can gain experience and something to write-up for academic publication.

 “We’ve constantly got to make a difference … the pressure from the Strategic Health Authority is massive with everybody pushing us to put all sorts of things in to get the targets.”

4.     Involve the local community and target audience.

Tap into existing community networks of colleagues within your organization or partner organizations, such as local community groups. Try to avoid procuring out of community engagement work so that local relationships can be developed with your organization (rather than a third party supplier). These relationships can then be leveraged for future initiatives. But be aware, community engagement takes time – you need to show that you are in it for the long haul and build trust.

“…the public sector has a short attention span and with community engagement you have to be in it for the long haul.” 

5.     Access expertise in social marketing.

Be clear about where you need extra support and expertise. Marketing is a diverse discipline that requires a broad range of skills. Many professional marketers specialize in one particular area within marketing and it is unrealistic to expect to employ a ‘marketer’ who has expertise in all areas of marketing. As your project develops, seek the specialist skills as and when you require them. For example, market research and insight generation during the scoping stage, or creative development and media planning if you identify the need for a communications campaign.

 “At first we just thought that all marketing firms were the same – that they all did advertising, but we soon realised some had better skills in certain areas than others and that social marketing was so much more than printing hard hitting posters.”

 6.     Engage key stakeholders and partners and develop an effective communications strategy.

Be creative and take a transdisciplinary approach in deciding whom to include – consider individuals in arts and recreation, media and other
partners who have a stake in the issue. Don’t forget your internal stakeholders. Make sure your sales force – who are the front-line staff who will promote your interventions – are engaged from the start. This ensures that you do not encounter resistance or delays when you reach the implementation stage.

 “The experience of using a social marketing approach to a sensitive and important area of work has been enlightening and empowering. The project hasn’t just been about a campaign and some leaflets, it has provided us with a product that is attractive and relevant to the client group. It has provided a robust way to engage partners and the end user – and we are starting to see the benefits.”

7.     Be SMART – Set clear and achievable behavioral goals.

When setting goals, make sure they are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely. Try to be as specific as you can in defining exactly who you want to adopt what behavior and by when. Set short, medium and long-term objectives. Be realistic about what you can expect to achieve with limited budget and time – it is not feasible to change a social norm with $30,000 and only three months!

  “Someone from the focus group suggested, ‘You could have support set up in a supermarket, 365 days a year, so that when you’re ready to quit [smoking] and want help, there’s someone to go to.’ Our challenge is to turn this idea into an initiative that is feasible for us.”

These seven strategies can act as a foundation for building internal social marketing capacity for any organization. For more details on the Demonstration Site Scheme, go to:

[1] In each phase of the evaluation, PHAST conducted semi-structured interviews with key operational and strategic stakeholders. Key strategic stakeholders were Department of Health and NSMC commissioners, while key operational stakeholders included local project leads and NSMC associates. When and where possible, the same people who were interviewed in the first phase of the evaluation were also interviewed in the second phase.

Rowena Merritt

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