Top 3 Things I Learned at the World Social Marketing Conference

Social change experts from five continents gathered in Washington, DC, at The World Social Marketing Conference a few weeks ago to discuss a fascinating array of challenges in public health, education, and other social determinants. My head is still spinning as I try to process it all, but so far, I have landed on three key takeaways that I’d like to share:

  • We have valuable planning resources available to us that we, as social marketers, should use more consistently – These include the World Health Organization’s COMBI planning model. The latest application of COMBI pertains to outbreak response and is available as a toolkit ( The Social Marketing edition of CDCynergy is available in a “light” edition that should make it easy to apply in even the most quickly evolving public health challenges ( If our community of social marketers uses these models more consistently, we will eventually have more consistent data and methods that we can use for comparative purposes. This will make it easier for us to adapt our programs to other regions, challenges, and social conditions.
  • Countries and regions that are facing tough challenges in public health issues such as smoking prevention and cessation can learn from the experiences of communities that have already faced these problems. One example that caught my attention was a riveting presentation about the challenge Indonesia is currently facing with childhood smoking, as exemplified by the tragic case of the “smoking baby” ( One of the toughest aspects to solve in this challenge is Indonesia’s economic dependence on tobacco. I believe the problem cannot be solved through behavior change alone, and will require policy interventions—particularly economic policy interventions to replace lost revenue from tobacco—to make real progress. Tobacco-growing states in the U.S. have faced a similar challenge, and I am hoping there are insights from past efforts that could be adapted to help Indonesia (
  • Perhaps the most intriguing idea to emerge from the Conference is the notion that we should figure out the best way we can all learn from failures in social marketing. We all follow the latest articles providing evidence of success, but how do we collectively share our experiences with failure? Some suggested organizing a “Failure Fest,” which seems like it would be a useful event for learning as well as commiseration. Perhaps we might also consider a Journal of Negative Findings, in which a peer review committee assesses submissions containing evidence of failure with discussion of what we can learn from failure to achieve greater success in the future. I’d volunteer to be editor of that journal…if we can find a publisher to take it on.

All in all, the Conference provided an intellectually and emotionally satisfying connection with a community I deeply admire and am proud to be a part of.

Christina Nicols, M.P.H., M.S., M.S.
Senior Vice President, Director of Strategic Planning and Research