Social Marketing is NOT Social Media…So What is it?

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Community Based Social Marketing, also known as ‘social marketing’, has nothing to do with Facebook, Twitter or any other social platform out there. Social marketing is a technique for developing education and outreach campaigns that result in measurable changes in behavior. It employs many of the same techniques that commercial marketers use to sell products, but instead focuses on changing behaviors that benefit your local community as a whole.

It isn’t a new concept, but it is increasing quickly in popularity among utilities and government agencies. As budgets continue to shrink and accountability becomes increasingly important, utilities and municipalities are using social marketing techniques to prove their outreach efforts are working and to justify their budget requests for conducting future outreach. Some of the goals being met include improvements to local water quality, reduced sewer overflows or reduced water consumption.

See how the City of Woodinville Washington is using Social Marketing to reduce illicit discharges to the stormwater system from residential pools and hot tubs.

The basic concept of social marketing includes 6 basic ‘steps’. We use the word ‘step’ here loosely because you may have to jump back and forth throughout the process as you learn more about your target audience.

The Social Marketing Approach

1) Define the Target Audience

•  Be specific: It is very important to be as specific as possible when defining your target audience. We like to think of the “target audience” as a single person (representing the entire target audience). For example, if we are trying to change the behavior of back-end restaurant staff, our target audience might be: young male, just out of high school, living with parents, working his first job and maybe a little lazy.

•  Do market research: The market research you use will likely be driven by budget and the audience you want to reach. The most common forms of market research include:

• Surveys
• Focus Groups
• Interviews
• Brainstorming sessions
• Background research
• Observations

2) Identify Barriers and Benefits

Barriers prevent your target audience from engaging in the desired behavior. Benefits are those things that could motivate your target audience to adopt the desired behavior.

Tip: Make sure to ask questions during the market research that will help you identify barriers and benefits.

3) Set Goals and Objectives

• Goals are broad, overarching and un-measurable, but help keep you focused during the process. For example, “Decrease stormwater pollution coming from local restaurants.”

• Objectives are specific, measurable and help you reach your goal. For example: “Increase the instances of closed dumpster lids during monthly inspections by 25%.”

4) Write a Positioning Statement

Simple, but incredibly important to keep you focused on achieving measurable results:


Example from the City of Oak Harbor’s Social Marketing Plan to reduce stormwater pollution from local restaurants:

We want restaurant staff in Oak Harbor to see keeping dumpster lids closed as the best way to keep local waters clean and healthy.

5) Develop a Marketing Strategy

Now it’s time to get creative! If you aren’t particularly creative, employ the help of someone who can brainstorm with you. Your strategy should include:

• Messaging
• Materials
• Delivery
• Timeline

6) Develop an Evaluation Plan

Revisit each of your objectives and ask yourself, “How will I measure this objective?” Perhaps it will be another survey, observations, interviews?

Tip: If you are finding it impossible to measure one of your objectives, try revising the objectives. This is why we mentioned that you may have to jump back and forth to get where you are going.

Its go time!

Now it’s time to bring your social marketing plan to life! It is typically a good idea to first launch a pilot campaign. After you evaluate the pilot campaign on a small audience, you will be able to work out the wrinkles before you launch on a larger scale in your community.

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