Marketing and communications activities are under significant stress these days. The fragmentation of familiar media to serve niche markets (how many television channels are available, magazine titles are increasing), the proliferation of new ones (social networks sites, mobile) and economics are part of the issue. However, I think the bigger issue for health communication and social marketing is the changing role of the consumer, something I spoke about at last year's Innovation in Social Marketing Conference. The nut of my argument [pdf] is that our traditional (and outdated) view of communication as being a linear Source -- Message -- Channel -- Receiver (SMCR) process has been permanently altered, not just in theory, but by Web 2.0 practice and recent research that focuses us on social networks and the principles of engagement, interactivity and media multiplexity (among others).
What is under-appreciated by many social marketers who are beginning to experiment with these new technologies is that they are simply not new types of media with which to do the same old things. These new media signal a shift in thinking about how we communicate with our audiences. Even more alarming in using these new media many marketers - commercial and social - continue to perpetuate the myth of the source-message-channel- receiver paradigm rather than embrace the collaborative and dynamic communication models these new technologies embody. While the reality has not changed, what these new technologies make plain is that it is, indeed, a networked world – one in which we do not design ‘messages’ for priority audiences, stakeholders, partners, donors and others groups, but a world in which they talk back to us, and as importantly, with each other.
When we focus on new media as a tool, rather than a philosophy and approach we have with people formerly known as the audience, we miss the transformative power of the technology. These new technologies [also] have implications for how we think about the behaviors, products and services we market; the incentives and costs we focus on; and the opportunities we present and places where we interact with our audience and allow them to try new things.
What some social marketers are getting in all of this is the shifting of audience roles from the consumers of health information and messages to the producers (or at least co-producers for the recovering control freaks) of this information. Another POV on this issue uses the term prosumers - people who alternate being producers and consumers of information, products and services.
Though these shifts in thinking are more enlightened in some ways, they are still missing what I think is the bigger point here: If we are to have successful AND sustainable social marketing programs, we need to focus a larger part of our efforts on encouraging and supporting people to be better producers - period.
Mechai Verivadya, a champion of social marketing approaches to family planning and HIV prevention in Thailand stated the case in Health Affairs:
Many organizations in the developing world - admirable organizations - do excellent work providing health care. Some give it away free. Some sell socially marketed health products. They are all trying to solve health problems that are the consequence of poverty, but they don’t address the root cause of poverty. Hence, they will never be sustainable. Once they stop providing free health care, the good health care stops. As for those who sell health care services or products, be it malaria bed nets, contraceptives, or oral dehydration solutions, they are basically serving the upper end of the poor, leaving the poorest unserved.
Why can’t we do two things? First, continue to provide free or low-cost health care, medications, and so on, but also have a program for those who are poor and can’t afford to buy these health products. Help them engage in business, become barefoot entrepreneurs, and earn a profit so that they can spend some of that profit on health care. This approach enables those who can’t afford it to pay for their health care, and that’s the difference. It becomes sustainable.
Many social entrepreneurial ventures focus on the same issue: how to assist people to become income producers through socially responsive business activities. A rise in income level through participation in these businesses helps 'the audience' lift themselves, their families and their villages and neighborhoods out of poverty and afford health promotion and health care products and services. Muhammad Yunus also talks about the need for social businesses that focus as much on transforming the formerly passive consumer audience into an active producer one. One of the shortcomings of the Base of the Pyramid (BOP) is that it focuses on the old consumer model rather than giving equal weight to the producer. The BOP Protocol is one attempt to align corporate and local interests in developing business models that emphasize co-creation.
When you consider that we are all marketers, the fact that we pay so little attention to the other role people have in market exchanges - production - is pretty remarkable. Why not use our social marketing knowledge and abilities to use social marketing to address the alleviation of poverty (see the new definition) - a consistently pointed to social determinant of health status around the world? I'm looking forward to what Phil Kotler has to say on the subject at the World Social Marketing Conference next month.
Approaches to development that have tapped into and shaped the power of markets successfully have allowed poor people – as consumers, producers and workers – to contribute to and benefit from economic growth. From Making markets work for the poor [pdf].