Over the past month I have had the pleasure of working with small groups that compose a national ‘whole’ for social marketing and health promotion. In three different workshops I was struck by how certain themes emerged with each group as we talked about social marketing and their future work. Here are a few thoughts for you to consider.
- Focus on your real audiences – not the ones you imagine you should. Planners look outside of themselves, organizations and practice communities (partners, collaborators) when thinking about their audience – who often seem associated with the idea of ‘people we can do something to/for.’ The labels are ‘people at risk,’ ‘disenfranchised,’ ‘underserved,’ various combinations of demographics – you get the picture. Media representatives, policy makers, CEOs, partner organizations are NEVER on the list, even though they are often the people most critical to the success of the program. Overlooking who’s critical to success is the blind spot in virtually every program I have ever looked at closely (not just what’s in the journal article or presentation). They should be a priority audience and when we start talking about them like that, ideas for improving the social marketing program become obvious. Coca-Cola, for example, does not leave distribution to chance.
- Your brand is what they say it is. The fallacy that your organization or group can control the world (even a small communication slice of it - at least in open societies) reaches into the very ways ‘brand’ is thought about and practiced. Too many people believe that a brand is something that can be created and projected as some monolithic entity, impervious to the realities of the world, our audiences and the marketplaces of conversation. Understanding that the people formerly known as the audience actually control (yes, control!) your brand is the insight that leads to the action steps we got to in each workshop: focus on identifying, collecting and encouraging the stories people tell about us; not creating the messages we want to tell them.
- You can’t do it alone. Partnerships and collaborations are among the rhetorical nirvana of public health and social change. Yet the care and feeding of these partners and collaborators is absent in most cases – remember, they aren’t typically a priority audience. As in #2, once we shift that thinking, each workshop ended with a next step of developing, strengthening or weaving together their networks of partners. Of course, having the wisdom and resources to this well (rather than simply being mandated by funders) is another set of questions.
- Clarity and Focus. Our discussions of objectives also led to the recurrent theme that planners don’t spend enough time focusing on behaviors to change. They tend toward lofty, abstract concepts or semantic deconstruction of what a ‘goal’ and an ‘objective’ really are – both of which are equally effective in sucking the passion out of the staff and the project. One of my quirks is to push groups into defining and refining their objective for each priority audience until I can see the audience doing it (translation: even an ‘outsider’ gets the picture). Once you can see people doing something new (and also remember that people change, not policies and organizations), it becomes easier to establish the marketing mix that encourages and enables people to achieve it.
- It’s all about aspirations and assets, not barriers and deficits. There is a pervasive and largely unchallenged tendency among public health people to focus on ‘meeting needs’ and addressing ‘barriers’ rather than getting on to the business of improving health. I consistently note that public health people LOVE to talk about barriers, often for hours if you let them, because it’s so…paralyzing. I suggest you consider the flip side: the aspirations of your audiences and collaborators and the assets they, your organization and community possess that can be leveraged for success. Addressing deficits and moaning about barriers seems to be in the DNA of too many public health programs; practice some positive deviancy and test whether building on aspirations and assets doesn’t suggest different strategies and approaches. If nothing else, you’ll have a more diverse collection of concepts to test with your audiences and partners.