What is Social Marketing?

If you want to make a difference in the marketing world, you’ll want to get into the social marketing game. Social marketing campaigns are those that borrow from commercial marketing techniques for the purpose of social engagement–influencing a target audience to change their social behaviors and to benefit society. Whether it’s related to the environment, public health, safety, or community development, marketing for good is a methodology for creating change.

History of social marketing

As a formal discipline, social marketing started in 1971 when Philip Kotler and Gerald Zaltman published their article Social Marketing: An Approach to Planned Social Change” in the Journal of Marketing. Since then, marketers have been playing with social marketing ideas, refining the strategies, and working on the most effective means of spurring widespread changes in social behavior in a variety of fields. Today, public health and environmental concerns top the list of most used social marketing topics.


What social marketing is and isn’t

There are many approaches to obtaining a societal change through effective social cause marketing, but the central tenant always remains the same: the social good is always the primary focus. Whether it’s trying to convince the public to stop smoking or encouraging men in developing counties to use condoms, the focus is always on the public good first.

Social marketing therefore should not be confused with other similar terms: social media marketing, green or sustainable marketing, and commercial marketing with a social focus.

  • Social media marketing is that which uses social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and LinkedIn. These are collective groups of web properties that are published primarily by users for the purposes of building online communities. They can be used to generate publicity for social marketing campaigns, but that is not their primary purpose.
  • Sustainable marketing is that which is used by a corporation to demonstrate their corporate social responsibility. Although a commercial company may engage in social marketing–promoting support for public radio, for instance–sustainable marketing for the purposes of promoting their own business does not qualify as social marketing.
  • Commercial marketing with a social focus may run the gamut from advertising a new 100 percent recycled plastic water bottle to encouraging people to buy a more fuel efficient car. While these marketing campaigns are promoting eco-friendly products that will certainly have benefits for society, their primary focus is not societal good, it is selling a product.

According to the Social Marketing Institute, these are the most important social marketing strategies and concepts:

  • The ultimate objective of marketing is to influence action;
  • Action is undertaken whenever target audiences believe that the benefits they receive will be greater than the costs they incur;
  • Programs to influence action will be more effective if they are based on an understanding of the target audience’s own perceptions of the proposed exchange;
  • Target audiences are seldom uniform in their perceptions and/or likely responses to marketing efforts and so should be partitioned into segments;
  • Marketing efforts must incorporate all of the “4 Ps,” i.e.:
    • Create an enticing “Product” (i.e., the package of benefits associated with the desired action);
    • Minimize the “Price” the target audience believes it must pay in the exchange;
    • Make the exchange and its opportunities available in “Places” that reach the audience and fit its lifestyles;
    • Promote the exchange opportunity with creativity and through channels and tactics that maximize desired responses;
  • Recommended behaviors always have competition which must be understood and addressed;
  • The marketplace is constantly changing and so program effects must be regularly monitored and management must be prepared to rapidly alter strategies and tactics.

3 influential social marketing campaigns

Looking at specific, successful examples of effective social marketing is one of the best ways to understand what social marketing really is.

PeachCare for Kids


A campaign put together by the Georgia Department of Medical Assistance in 1998, the PeachCare for Kids campaign is focused on marketing children’s healthcare insurance for working families. The campaign made affordable comprehensive medical care available to over 300,000 children for covering everything from regular check-ups to prescriptions to dental care. The coverage cost only $7.50 per child on a monthly basis, with a maximum of $15 per family.

Several strategies were used to get the word out about the PeachCare for Kids campaign. Advertising was taken out on television and radio stations as well as at outdoor and transit stops to educate parents about the possibility in a simple manner. These advertising bursts were continued throughout the year and were coordinated with public relations events such as audio news releases, newspaper stories, and the like. The Right-From-The-Start Medicaid workforce was also enlisted to help spread the word.

The campaign was a success. Over the course of the social marketing effort, 80,000 applications for the PeachCare for Kids program were received, with 57,000 enrolling, which is well over half of the program’s two-year goal. Applications continue to be received.



Created by a joint task force of the Swiss AIDS Foundation and the Swiss Federal Office for Public Health, the STOP AIDS campaign is one of the longest running social marketing campaigns of all time, focused on programs for preventing the spread of AIDS. It began as a campaign focused on the gay community but as a clearer understanding of the disease was obtained, the campaign quickly expanded to include all sexually-active individuals at risk of contracting AIDS because of unsafe sexual practices.

There have been several foci of the campaign over the years. At first, this social marketing campaign aimed to educate young men between the ages of 17 and 30 about the importance of condom use. Between 1987 and 1990 when the campaign was running, condom sales increased 80 percent from 7.6 million in 1986 to 15 million in 1990. Additionally, condom use increased from 8 percent to 50 percent among this target audience.

Over time, the campaign incorporated other aspects into their message. They tackled discrimination–the belief that AIDS is a homosexual issue and does not affect heterosexuals. And eventually they also began to focus on unsafe needle practices, working with drug users and communities to establish programs by which people could safely dispose of their spent needles.

Workers are NOT tools!


The ‘Workers are not tools‘ is a 30 second video clip that focuses on the injustice of lack of rights for workers. It was commissioned by the Belgian Advocacy Group. The video was put up on popular video sharing websites such as YouTube, Metacafe etc. The 30 second clips brings to light the often ignored plight of workers.

While using online channels, it supported a cause that has immense social impact in the world that we live in. The dark and gloomy images portrayed the injustice done to the workforce, and how their basic human rights are often neglected. Many believe this to be another form of slavery — one without the physical chains of course.

This social marketing campaign was to bring people’s attention back to these fundamental issues plaguing the world, and was recognized as one of the top advertisements of our time.

How to use social media for your social marketing campaigns

1. Choose the right people for your campaign


Create a team that passionately believes in the project and wants to contribute to it. Having a functional team that believes in the goal is the key factor that contributes to success of social marketing campaigns — often times the evangelists of these campaigns are people with no monetary incentives at all.


2. Work excessively on Trust factor


Trust is important for any form of conversation based marketing. If people trust your brand, they will flock to it. If people trust you, they will listen to what you have to say. If people trust your products, they will promote it. Improve credibility by working honestly, showing that you mean what you market. The more trust you gain, the more successful your social marketing campaign will be.


3. Search search search.


Understand how people see your business. What the consumers focus on, their existing behavior and their key influence areas. This will help you in developing a sustainable strategy to achieve behavior goals. Unless you deeply understand the people that you’re trying to reach out to, you’ll never be able to get their attention. Look at this way, if you’re behind the “Just Say No” (to Drugs) campaign, then you really need to know how people taking drugs feel socially, mentally and physically — to be able to relate to them. Otherwise, you’ll just make a total waste out of your energy.


4. Use the right channels to target the right audience


Social media opens up a number of ways to target your audience from different directions without them feeling like they are being marketed to. Spread the message through twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites. These platforms allow you to micro-focus your niche on only those segments who will benefit the most. You can make your marketing campaign specific and targeted.


This starts from analyzing where your targeted readers are present, and then designing a campaign around those channels.


5. Good content works wonders


Seriously it does. Look at it this way: you have the opportunity to reach out to your potential market and talk to them directly without any walls in between. Direct, intimate, and close. Now imagine all that you can achieve if you can influence him/her through your words. With online web 2.0 tools, all of that is possible. You can achieve that and much more just by sharing great insightful content with your audience that triggers two way conversations, building strong relationships with them. That’s influential marketing.

This post was written by:

Green Marketing TV

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  1. Great post, learned new ideas from it, one thing now I know for sure is that content is so important in social marketing. Thanks for the post.

  2. Alan says:

    You say that the ultimate objective is to influence action, would not be better to say “the ultimate objective is to change behaviour”. Is this not a key aspect of social marketing? Also should the marketing mix be the 7Ps now? Elements like physical evidence plays an important part in the behaviour change.


  1. […] becoming widely adopted just a couple years ago, social media has supercharged social action, social cause marketing, and social entrepreneurship. Indeed, the true value hasn’t been the technology itself but […]

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