Over the past decade or more, social marketing has been put into a straitjacket. I can't put a firm date on it, but I remember becoming concerned in the early 1990s that the tyranny of focus groups had taken over how market research 'should' be conducted because that's what OMB would allow Federal agencies to do without extensive and prolonged bureaucratic reviews of research protocols (psst: now it's ethnographic research). Then there was the unexamined adoption by many people (some who should have known better) of the transtheoretical (aka stages of change) model of behavior change as 'our theory' - as it was recently referred to on the social marketing list serve - when it's least well-suited for guiding social or population change efforts. In other circles, social marketing became equated with the distribution and promotion of subsidized commodities - and sales targets reigned supreme. And the mantra of behavior change as the goal of social marketing got twisted from its original call as a population-based methodology [pdf file] to one focused exclusively on individuals - until some of those proponents finally figured out that it is a bigger world that pros and cons and blaming the victim isn't just a slogan.
What has been loss in all of this is the soul of social marketing and its subsequent arrested development. Reductionist paradigms supported a model of rational choice where pros and cons were all that were needed to change behavior in 'contemplative' audiences through some sort of convoluted 'exchange relationship.' People were to change through social marketing programs to 'improve society;' that the community or society may be the issue apparently never occurred to some people. That communities could be the context of change, and even the drivers of change, was rarely acknowledged - even though some of the pioneers of this field developed and applied the social marketing model in community settings. And process measures, or outputs such as the number of people reached with a public service campaign, the number of brochures distributed or the number of condoms sold became the means to justify the ends of the programs - not health behavior change or health impact.
That won't change in one post, but it starts here for me. It's time for a manifesto for social marketing; not one aimed at the 'outside' world, but one aimed at the insiders. By insiders I'm not referring just to the people and organizations associated with social marketing, but the ones standing on the edges, humming the tunes, sipping the Kool-Aid but too cool to dance: the government agencies, foundations, health departments, schools of public health, NGOs and voluntary organizations that define social marketing to fit their version of reality. That find it too applied, too 'socialistic' (that 'social' word), too expensive or too...scary because it challenges too many of their core beliefs and challenges them to act, not describe and analyze. Then there are the agencies and individuals who are simply confused by the whole thing because so many different definitions of what is social marketing are out there. Inevitably there are a few who don't want to expend the cognitive effort it takes to be deliberate, systematic and strategic in their thinking and planning (my Nike planners - they just do it).
I made a comment on Monday at the Conversations session that has come back to me several times in 24 hours: in reviewing at least four new texts on social marketing over the past year or so, I haven't seen a total of 4 new ideas among them. The field has become an echo chamber. No wonder people question its relevance in this day and age! The old models of social marketing are becoming fossils. Here are six things I believe are important for a new social marketing.
Focusing on audiences, their wants and needs, aspirations, lifestyle, freedom of choice. And not just those audiences identified by our epi friends as having the greatest need, or by our pr colleagues as the low hanging fruit, but the people who are crucial to the success of our programs - the volunteers, business leaders, distributors, partner organizations, media representatives and policy makers to name a few.
Targeting aggregated behavior change – priority segments of the population, not individuals, are the focus of programs. Social marketing must be based on theoretical models that guide the selection of the most relevant determinants, priority audiences, objectives, interventions and evaluations for population-based behavior change such as theories of diffusion of innovations, social networks, community assets, political economics and social capital. My belief is that the major reason we cannot achieve public health impact for many of our interventions like HIV prevention is that we do not design interventions for scale, we design them with models of behavior change that are most effective with individuals.
Designing behaviors that fit their reality. We need to bring to behavior change the same insight, thought and rigor that designers bring to their work in developing products, services and experiences. If more social marketers thought like designers, and didn't act as technicians plugging the latest scientific finding into their 'message machine or wheel' my hunch is we'd be more successful - and sleep better. Behaviors, not just messages, need to be tailored for people's real lives - not the one we imagine or theorize they have, if we think about them at all.
Rebalancing incentives and costs for maintaining or changing behaviors. Though you might say 'gotcha! back to pros and cons' it's a bigger idea than that. Rebalancing doesn't mean convincing a person to use a new set of weights in their personal equation to calculate risks and benefits of acting in certain ways. People LEARN new behaviors and what I am mystified by is how complex theories are dragged out to explain and try to modify behaviors when simple learning principles like what gets associated with what and what gets rewarded and punished (or not) are often the elegantly simple solution. Rebalancing also means adjusting the environment, policies and marketplace whenever possible to shift power to the individual to have freedom to choose and basic human rights. We need to start asking ourselves questions like: where do inequities in health status stem from? Is income generation a prerequisite for health improvement in impoverished communities? How do we allow markets to work for the poor and vulnerable [pdf file]?
Creating opportunities and access to try, practice and sustain behaviors. We must take distribution systems, in all their forms and expressions, as seriously - if not more so - as the messages and creative products we produce. People do not think or choose their way to new behaviors - they must have access to the information they need to make informed choices (in ways, places and times that literacy, cultural and other considerations should inherently inform: relevance should never be an after thought in social marketing). And they must have the opportunities to try new behaviors, practice them and then be able to sustain them. Behavior change is not a one-off proposition.
Communicating these behaviors, incentives and opportunities to priority audiences and letting people experience them. ALL social marketing programs are mired in the last century when it comes to models of communication. The reflexive urge to continue with top down, command and control techniques will continue for awhile (aka Source - Message - Channel - Receiver or inoculation models). However, as regular readers of this blog may have discerned, I hold out that the technological revolutions we are experiencing in communications will lead to the adoption of modern communication models to frame our thinking and activities - even if many have to change while kicking and screaming or longing for 'the good ol' days.' And then there are the questions we started asking 5 years about how do we apply what we know about positioning and brands to develop powerful and sustained behavior change programs, and not just logos and tag lines or ... mission statements.