What is Social Marketing?

Sep 27

"Pavement Patty"

I have been following a “discussion” on a social marketing listserv (soc-mktg@listproc.georgetown.edu) for the past week.  What started out as a provocative question – “What do we, as social marketers, think of “Pavement Patty,” one tactic in a Vancouver driving safety campaign (http://news.yahoo.com/s/yblog_upshot/20100908/od_yblog_upshot/canada-unveils-new-speed-bump-optical-illusions-of-children/print) – turned into yet another debate about the definition of social marketing. 

 This debate has prompted me to ponder a few things:

 1.  Can an initiative or program that is largely focused on raising awareness or building knowledge be considered social marketing?  Why not?  After all, don’t social marketers draw upon behavioral science theories and models to inform their interventions?  And don’t several of those theories and models posit that factors such as beliefs towards personal susceptibility to and the perceived severity of risk and attitudes towards the desired behavior(s) are important determinants of behavior change?  To be clear, I believe that true social marketing needs to have behavior change as an end goal, but we all know that that takes considerable time, and sometimes the best place to start is with awareness and education.  Take the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s America Responds to AIDS campaign.  When CDC embraced social marketing to address the early HIV/AIDS epidemic, the virus was very poorly understood and fear was rampant.  Education and awareness objectives were paramount. As the disease became better understood, CDC evolved its initiatives to emphasize safer sex behaviors, such as condom use.  Why wouldn’t we consider both phases to be social marketing?

 2.  Why do so many in the field support rigid, narrow definitions of social marketing?  There are some who say that social marketing is the same as commercial marketing, except that it is funded by non-profit or public sector organizations.  Does that mean that a water utility that is truly interested in encouraging their customers to consume less water can’t utilize social marketing to do so, just because it’s a business?  And there are others who say that social marketing is only social marketing if best practices are followed.  Who is the “decider” on what constitutes “best practices,” and how will that ever lead to innovation? 

 3.  Why do we think it’s ok to pass judgment on fellow social marketers’ initiatives when the evaluation is still underway?  Do I like Pavement Patty? I don’t know yet, because I don’t know enough about it.  I do think it’s a very innovative, creative tactic that I understand is part of a much broader initiative.  At the same time, I also think it’s risky in that there may be some unintended consequences.  But, above all, I applaud those behind the initiative for taking a bold approach to solving an important social challenge.  Maybe the evaluation will show that particular tactic to have been very effective, or maybe not.  But unless we continue to try new approaches, take some risks, and evaluate them objectively when the data are in, how will we know?

Can we move the field forward if we spend all of our time looking backwards?  I don’t think so.  Plus, it’s no fun.  Marketing is a dynamic discipline, in which innovation and creativity are essential.  Social marketing is no different.  If we stop trying to define it, and embrace different viewpoints and approaches, we all might just learn a little something, and the field will certainly benefit.

This entry was posted on Monday, September 27th, 2010 at 12:28 pm and is filed under Social Marketing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Comments are closed.