An Identity Crisis for Social Marketing

Apr 30

The explosion of social media as a critical communications channel has spawned a terminology problem which, if unchecked, could foster a long-term identity crisis for social marketers.  Over the past few years, a number of terms have been created to describe the practice of marketing a message or product through social media.  These terms include: social media optimization, social media marketing, social network marketing and—most concerning—social marketing.

In reality, social marketing is much broader than simply marketing through social media.  It is an established and proven discipline that relies on many different inputs and outputs to change awareness, attitudes, and behaviors.  Social marketing’s focus on advancing social causes is what makes the discipline unique.  Since its introduction in 1971, social marketing has been used to address many of the world’s most pressing issues, from public health to public safety to environmentalism.

By contrast, “marketing through social media involves having conversations and creating engagement online through a variety of social media tools, such as blogs, wikis, online communities, community websites, video, photos, and social networking platforms.

Despite these differences there are an increasing number of pundits who incorrectly use the term “social marketing” to describe a very narrow set of social media outreach tactics.  This terminology war began in earnest a few years ago when one company named its social media offering “social marketing,” and the social marketing community voiced strong objections at the time.  However, the marketplace confusion not only still lingers, it appears to be picking up steam.  These efforts are eroding the brand equity of the 30+ year-old discipline of social marketing.

Effective social marketing initiatives start with a solid understanding of the intended audience and employ many strategies to surround that audience with motivational messages that support and foster changes in attitudes and behaviors.  Methods include policy and environmental change initiatives, community outreach, direct mail, advertising, media relations, partnership development, events, interpersonal outreach, and materials dissemination, among others.

Today, all good social marketing campaigns also contain social media tactics that are based—as the rest of the campaign elements are—on research-derived insights into the campaign’s intended audience.  Indeed, social media has an important and critical role to play in social marketing initiatives.  Among the chief benefits:

Interaction:  Social marketing and behavior change theories posit that if you can find ways to engage the intended audience in an interactive way with your message(s), you have a much greater chance of fostering recall and consideration of the attitude or behavior you are “selling.”  Social media outreach offers this interaction in spades.  From inviting the audience to contribute to content on a Web site to prompting blogging to fostering the sharing of ideas, images and videos through social networks, the possibilities for interaction via social media are endless.

Word of Mouth:  The most successful social marketing initiatives generate tremendous word of mouth publicity, or buzz, to spread messages and engage audiences.  Because of the interpersonal nature of word of mouth communication, it is believed that information communicated in this way has an added layer of credibility because the receiver of word-of-mouth communication tends to believe that the communicator is speaking honestly and is unlikely to have an ulterior motive.  Social media activities, including viral marketing, can be a very cost-effective and quick way to generate this buzz and propel a social marketing initiative more swiftly to the “tipping point.”

Audience Reach:  While access to the Internet is still not ubiquitous, it is steadily growing among all segments of the population, regardless of age, race, ethnicity, or income level.  This is especially true among tweens, teens and young adults, many of whom are “online” so constantly that they don’t even distinguish a difference between being “offline” or “online.”  Mid-life and older adults are also venturing into social networking at an increasing rate, often to connect with old friends or with their children and grandchildren.  At a time when consumption of many other communications channels is declining (e.g., newspapers), social media has a unique role to play in reaching audiences directly and in the places in which they already are spending large chunks of time.

For sure, social media has an important place in social marketing.  But marketing through social media is not social marketing.  It’s time for social marketers to take an even more active stance to claim back the term that for nearly four decades has stood for a research-based and audience-driven approach to advancing social issues.

This entry was posted on Friday, April 30th, 2010 at 11:30 am and is filed under Behavior Change, Best Practices, Social Marketing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

One Response to “An Identity Crisis for Social Marketing”

  1. […] audience. For more on the potential benefits of social media to social marketing initiatives, see this blog post from Executive Vice President and Group Director Jennifer Wayman and many other posts on the Social […]