The Five Most Common Mistakes in Social Marketing - and How to Avoid Them

Bad social marketing campaign isn't going to achieve any of your goals. If you want to encourage individuals or business owners to change their behavior and habits, you need to do it right.
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Social marketing -- a term coined in the early 1970s by prominent Northwestern University marketing professor Philip Kotler -- applies the insights of corporate marketing to create behavioral change that benefits the public good. Want fewer forest fires? Less drunk driving? Greater adoption of energy efficiency measures? Social marketing is your friend.

Unfortunately, however, a bad social marketing campaign isn't going to achieve any of those goals. If you want to encourage individuals or business owners to change their behavior and habits, you need to do it right. I've taught social marketing at Tufts University and have consulted for dozens of clients who want to make a positive impact. Here are the five most common mistakes I've seen in crafting social marketing campaigns -- and tips for how to avoid them.

1.Mistaking promotion for marketing. Good marketing starts with identifying a target (such as small business owners), setting your objective (encouraging them to update their heating systems for more energy efficient models), determining why your target isn't currently doing what you want them to do (Cost? Inconvenience? They don't care?), coming up with positioning (how you want them to think about the issue), and then finally determining the ways you'll get that across to them. But too many people fixate on the last part -- promotional strategies -- and assume that constitutes a marketing campaign. But a poster, or a tagline, or a radio spot isn't your campaign. That's only the most visible tip of the iceberg. If your target audience isn't chosen carefully (encouraging women instead of men to get prostate screenings) or your messaging is off (such as violating cultural sensitivities), no amount of promotion is going to save you.

2.Not being clear on a specific behavioral change goal. When my students devise plans, their first draft often has a goal like "making people more aware of dating violence" or "getting people to understand that inefficient energy use is a serious problem." We call those "knowledge objectives" and "belief objectives" and they're great -- but they're only an interim progress step, not your actual goal. Isn't the point of making people more aware of dating violence that you want to reduce or end it? Otherwise, why bother? Your goal should be crisp and focused on real behavioral change -- specifically, to do something new (sign up for an energy audit), stop doing something bad (texting while driving), modify existing behavior (shorten the length of your showers), or not start something bad in the first place (such as smoking). Don't make people guess what you want them to do - be clear in setting your goals.

3.Not respecting "exchange theory." If you want someone to do something, you have to give them a really good reason to do it. That's the basic idea behind "exchange theory." After all, there's a reason your target isn't doing what you want him to right now. Your business owner might think upgrading his building to become more energy efficient is just too costly -- but if you given him a benefit that's clearly superior to inaction, then he might just do it. Present-day financial incentives (0% down!) and future savings on his energy bills are compelling options, but there are also other ones if you're creative -- such as good publicity, community acclaim, or recognition from elected officials.

4.Not cultivating the right partnerships. Who could help you achieve your goals better? Too many organizations "go it alone" and forget that other groups -- whether it's businesses, nonprofits, or government agencies -- may have a compelling interest in solving the same problem. Yes, there are ways to reach business owners independently -- but it's a lot easier to do it if you have the mayor and the Chamber of Commerce on your side. And if you want to talk to African-American women about preventative health, leveraging churches and hair salons will make your job a lot easier. Start with your target audience and think carefully about where they go, whom they respect, and whom they spend time with. That network can dramatically enhance the uptake of your initiative.

5.Neglecting structural obstacles. Finally, think through the literal, physical difficulties people might have in accomplishing the goal you've set. You can convince a neighborhood to try to quit smoking, but if you don't have nicotine gum or patches available at the local drugstore, recidivism is likely to be high. And you can encourage business owners to get energy efficiency audits, but they're likely to forget or give up if it takes three months to get an appointment. So identify the products or processes you need in place, and make every effort to work them out before your campaign launches.

Social marketing campaigns can have powerful results that improve the life of a community. Avoiding these mistakes will go a long way toward increasing your positive impact.

Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of Reinventing You and Stand Out, and you can receive her free Stand Out Self-Assessment Workbook.

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