10 Takeaways to Deliver a Better Return to Society

Making a difference. Doing social good. Creating a better world for all to live in. These are the mantras by which social marketers live. Using commercial marketing tactics to persuade people to voluntarily change a specific behavior or invest in themselves and their communities is what makes social marketers tick. It’s why we get up in the morning and go to bed fulfilled each night.

Some call us crazy.

After all, why dedicate a career to helping others change behaviors that they clearly don’t want to change—like eating healthier, quitting smoking, not texting and driving—all the things we know we’re not supposed to do but do anyway? Simple: Our goal is to provide the maximum possible return to citizens and societies.

Over the summer, I had the opportunity to attend the 23rd annual Social Marketing Conference. Throughout the conference, common themes popped up about where social marketing has been over the past 40 plus years—since it’s recognition as a discipline in 1971 by Philip Kotler and Gerald Zaltman—and where’s it’s going. Here are my top 10 takeaways from these conversations:

  1. Social marketing teaches us to look at the whole picture. Leading social marketer Rowena Merritt, Ph.D., reported on a past trend in a Laos community to perform medically unnecessary episiotomies, a surgical procedure to enlarge the vaginal opening during labor. Upon examining the trend, her team discovered that doctors were performing the surgeries because they sped up delivery and consequently reduced the period of time doctors needed to stand hunched over during the birthing process. The simple solution of providing chairs for doctors to sit in while delivering babies greatly reduced episiotomy rates.
  2. The more personal the research, the better. Just as Dr. Merritt’s team did, social marketers must respect our audiences, have compassion for them, and know what they want out of life. We must walk in their shoes and shadow them throughout their day to understand their behaviors and the challenges they face when adopting new behaviors.
  3. The importance of the product. Without the right product, we won’t see impact. Critical to creating the right product is research, setting aside our own agenda, and giving our audience something they value. As renowned social marketer Bill Smith, Ed.D., says, make it “fun, easy, popular.” With the right product, all other Ps in the marketing mix will fall into place.
  4. Audience as change agents. Although our audience can be the ultimate promoters, we must make sure they’ve actually used the product and performed the behavior before setting them free as change agents. The “godmother” of social marketing, Carol Bryant, Ph.D., shared the example of senior citrus workers who were trained to promote wearing safety glasses to their more junior level colleagues.
  5. Know your stakeholders and know when their agenda is standing in your cause’s way. Bill Smith reminded us, “Stakeholders hold stakes and they don’t want to let them go.”
  6. Don’t be afraid to shake things up. Social marketing should disrupt and make people uncomfortable.
  7. It’s not always about downstream marketing. We have to change upstream so that people don’t fall downstream. We shouldn’t just use social marketing to get people to change—we should use it to change policies and communities, too.
  8. Sustained behavior change is hard. Changing a behavior into a habit is difficult. Brushing our teeth is a habit—we do it without thinking. In fact, we do it while thinking about other things like our work meetings that day, our commute, what we’re going to wear. Turning positive behaviors into habits takes time, effort, and patience.
  9. Social media can be a part of social marketing. Yes it’s happening, but more can be done. As one participant put it, “Social media has been the place, not the promotion; it’s the place for co-creation of value.”
  10. How are we going to use social marketing to increase equity? It’s beyond health now. This is the big question from the conference that will inspire us for years to come: How will we use social marketing to increase income equity, health equity, racial equity, and gender equity?

Contemporary social marketers are by no means originators of the practice, but we strive to be innovators. And we strive to deliver the best possible return on these innovations to society.