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Marketing is an exciting and dynamic profession, but increasingly, many marketers joining the industry want to know that their work can achieve something positive or beneficial for society, as well as being creative and interesting in its own right. If that argument resonates, then considering a career in social marketing may be of interest to graduates and people looking to progress their marketing career quickly and satisfyingly.

What social marketing does

Social marketing, broadly speaking, is the application of techniques from commercial marketing (and to an extent social sciences) for social good. Currently, the UK Government is recognising its importance to the extent that considerable investment is being allocated to social marketing, particularly in the NHS – witness the number of campaigns recently for responsible drinking, smoking cessation, and diet and exercise (such as the Change4Life programme).

The idea is to use techniques that understand how and why people behave in certain ways, to influence them to make positive choices that will be good for them, for the people around them and the environment. Rather than a doctor telling you to not do something because it’s bad for you, you try to show why it’s in the person’s interests to change their behaviours.

For example, in smoking cessation programmes social marketing approaches can identify why smokers act the way they do, what the barriers to them changing their behaviours are, and offer solutions that will achieve ‘buy-in’ from the patient.

This is like the way commercial marketing offers a process of exchange that shows people it’s to their advantage to make certain choices, rather than others.

Social marketing has been shown to be highly successful in responsible drinking campaigns, anti-crime initiatives, environmental behaviour schemes, obesity and many other projects. It fits strategically with the Government’s desire to focus on prevention rather than cure, and its successes are widespread. Look at the NHS adverts now running on TV; very different in tone and scope from how they used to be, and much more effective for their usage of social marketing techniques.

The smoke alarm ‘pull your finger out’ campaign, for example, is a textbook piece of social marketing – especially adding a reminder that comes at the end of the ad break. We don’t just want to give you a message – we want to say something that you will buy into, agree with, and identify with and be able to change behaviour with a minimum of inconvenience.

Not just adverts

Communication, however, is only part of a social marketing campaign – the process is essentially about a dialogue with the customer, which builds a trusted relationship over time. Social marketers don’t take an agenda to the people they’re trying to help; they build up an understanding of their behaviour, discover what their needs are, understand the barriers to change and work out strategies to motivate people to voluntarily change by making the process easier for them, engaging to adopt and offering further support when needed further down the line.

A significant amount of social marketing is carried out in health areas, but it has other applications too. Social marketing can be used for environmental schemes for example – to influence public transport initiatives, because it can show why people don’t use public transport, what they would like to see instead, and show how to improve the plan.

Less Smoke, More Fire, a report produced by CIM illustrates the benefits and impacts of social marketing, looks at how social marketing is evolving as a profession and gives information and advice for marketers looking to move into this sphere.

Historically, social marketing has tended to take its cue from commercial marketing, but the discipline is now reaching the point where there are many ways commercial marketers can learn from social marketers. Marketers want to know how customers think, and how to best influence them to make one set of choices over another. That’s not necessarily to drive up consumption, or for manipulative purposes; but to identify where a choice is going to be made, the customer can choose your product or service over a competitors.

Social marketers have become experts in behaviour change because they often deal with people whose behaviours are the hardest of all to change – whose norms are influenced by their cultural and situational surroundings and the attitudes of their peers. Often they have near-insurmountable barriers to change, or are simply not motivated to change.

The fact that social marketers are so successful in creating behavioural change in difficult areas like obesity, drug abuse and anti-social behaviour is testament to their mastery of building relationships, innovating effective marketing practices, and developing a true understanding of psychology and decision-making; both at individual and broader segment levels.

Less Smoke, More Fire is freely available to download from the website of the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM).

Significant future developments

The Government’s recognition of the value of the discipline means that a large number of roles and vacancies are available in social marketing in the public sector, for the professional who wants to move into this area. At a time when job opportunities are thinner on the ground than normal, it’s worth bearing social marketing as an area with much latent potential.

About the Author

  • About Mark Stuart: Mark Stuart is Head of Research at The Chartered Institute of Marketing. He is the key writer of The Institute’s biannual ‘Shape the Agenda’ papers, speaks widely on subjects including sustainability, innovation, brands and law, regularly chairs panels an

Mark Stuart

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