Not to be confused with social media marketing, Social Marketing Theory has the primary goal of “social good.” This contrasts most marketing which has a “financial” motive. Related topics often include public health, or behavioral changes.

This large industry applies many commercial marketing practices to non-commercial goals.

Theory Overview

Combining several related theories, Social Marketing Theory focuses on how to promote socially-valuable information. Social and welfare organizations use these to either boost or discourage behavior. The theory creates a framework to design, launch, and evaluate information campaigns.

Campaigns identify the target audience based on the behavior the group is trying to change.

Key Components

  1. Identify the audience.
  2. Create awareness.
  3. Cultivate a message.
  4. Reinforce the message.
  5. Induce a desired result.

Historically, the term has focused on a singular concept — can you sell social values using commercial techniques and tools?

The History of Social Marketing

G.D. Wiebe posed a similar question in a 1952 Public Opinion Quarterly article, “Why can’t you sell brotherhood and rational thinking like you can sell soap?”

Similarly, Philip Kotler and Gerald Zaltman argued that marketing could systematically improve society, coining the term. They defined this as the “…the design, implementation, and control of programs calculated to influence the acceptability of social ideas and involving considerations of product planning, pricing, communication, distribution, and marketing research.”

In 1988, Craig Lefebvre and June Flora applied the concept to public health. They outlined eight components:

  1. Consumer orientation to realize organizational (social) goals
  2. Emphasis on the voluntary exchanges of goods and services between providers and consumers
  3. Research in audience analysis and segmentation strategies
  4. Use of formative research in product and message design and the pretesting of these materials
  5. Analysis of distribution (or communication) channels
  6. Use of the marketing mix—using and blending product, price, place and promotion characteristics in intervention planning and implementation
  7. Process tracking system with both integrative and control functions
  8. Management process that involves problem analysis, planning, implementation and feedback functions

As an example, car safety has experienced several social marketing intiatives. Seat belts became accepted as a mainstream solution partially through law but also through this theory.

Similarly, car seats for infants, then young children have also gained traction through this process. While the legal system can force a level of compliance, social marketing has eased the change and led to wider adoption of these safety measures.

These initiatives are sometimes referred to as “social change campaigns.”

Social Marketing vs. Social Media Marketing

Typically, these campaigns focus on specific behavioral goals for specific audiences. This contrasts most business marketing because the goal is societal wellbeing, not commerce. Think of it as developing a set of standards, from evidence-based practice, that will make the world better.

However, most people confuse the theory with social media marketing. As early as 2006, Jupitermedia announced “social marketing” services that were actually more like social media optimization tactics.

In fact, you’ll often see the term “social marketing” applied to social media marketing initiatives, such as:

  • Content Calendars
  • Influencer Promotions
  • Social Media Branding

Also, the concept becomes conflated by businesses that use social causes for self-promotion. They will align with a nonprofit and use that to benefit their brand.

An example of this would be a cloth grocery bag company that donates a percentage of their profits to help sea turtles affected by pollution. That’s not social marketing. It’s a clever cause-marketing strategy for a for-profit business.

It’s important to draw distinctions between these two formats because they have two very different goals. Furthermore, the theory is a key part of changing minds and augmenting actions for the benefit of society — not a business’s bottom line.

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Additional Reading

  1. Truss, Aiden (2010). Jeff French; Clive Blair-Stevens; Dominic McVey; Rowena Merritt (eds.). Social Marketing and Public Health: Theory and practice. Oxford University Press. p. 20.
  2. ^ Jump up to:a b French, Jeff; Gordon, Ross (2015). Strategic Social Marketing. Sage. ISBN 9781446248621.
  3. Lefebvre, R. Craig (2006-08-30). “Hello Jupiter? Anyone Home?”. On Marketing and Social Change. Retrieved 2006-09-01.