William Joseph Communications

Changing Behaviour Through Social Marketing

We’ve all seen the advertisements: Don’t litter, do recycle, don’t eat fast food, do eat your vegetables. As consumers, we are constantly inundated with marketing messages telling us what we should and shouldn’t do, all with our own benefit in mind. However, are a few ads really enough to shift our thinking and ultimately change our behaviour? And, if they aren’t, then what is?

Cue the mastery of Social Marketing.

Social marketing, as per the Community Tool Box, a global online resource for those looking to build healthier communities and bring about social change, is “an approach used to develop activities aimed at changing or maintaining people’s behaviour for the benefit of individuals and society as a whole.” Social marketing is a strategy employed by marketers that, when done correctly, can change behaviour – not just how people think about an issue or topic. It is frequently used by non-profit organizations, government organizations, the health-related field as well as marketers to connect with audiences, shift mentality and, overarchingly, to change behaviour. These organizations employ a consumer-centric approach to their strategies to truly understand their audience’s behaviours as a means of identifying how to change them.

At the very core of this marketing strategy is the idea that, as Sustainablebrands.com eludes, the new behaviour should have a seemingly higher value than the current behaviour. There are many different tactics advertisers use to encourage this change. Here are just a few examples:
Emotion: Fear, shame and guilt can prove to be effective triggers in changing behaviour. Think about ‘Stop Smoking’ campaigns, for example, which use scare tactics as a means of getting powerful messages about the negative impacts that smoking can have on life, health and family to consumers. From disturbing images on cigarette cartons to emotion-evoking commercials, these tactics are also employed by other organizations, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), recycling initiatives, health-related non-profits, and so on. A study conducted by Brennan and Binney (2010) found that use of fear and other such emotions to target a group of people can invoke emotions of self-protection and voluntary compliance, whereby people are likely to act if it is in their own best interest. A sample of one commercial can be found here.

Alternatively, positive emotions such as pride, self-confidence and self-worth are common themes in the beauty industry for inspiring change and provoking brand or product adoption. Think of the Dove ‘Real Beauty’ campaign, which encourages women of all ages, ethnicities and body types to look at themselves differently. The campaign went viral by relating to the emotions felt by almost every woman at some point in her life. Through consistent messaging, expressive visuals and messaging, as well as strategic consumer targeting, Dove won the hearts of many: Check it out here.

Education: Using education and knowledge as a means of shifting attitudes and changing behaviours is no new concept. As the Guardian (sustainable business) identifies, achieving sustainable behaviour change lies “in understanding your consumer and then using this understanding to offer them an exchange they will value.” We often see this employed with health-related and eco-based organizations and initiatives, such as fitness facilities, specialized health programs, green marketing initiatives, and so on. Using education as a means of changing behaviour can be a challenging feat as social change is not always based on using convincing facts, important information or logic. In fact, more often than not, social marketing digs a bit deeper, connecting with the very emotions of target audiences (which is probably why, in some cases, playing on emotion works better than education).

As Chris Pemberton of Gartner for Marketers discerns, “Increased social activity does not automatically lead to positive business results.” So, what makes for good social marketing?


A well-defined audience

Defining your audience is a key part of social marketing – how can you change behaviour if you don’t know who you want to engage?  Effective social marketing cannot be painted with a broad brush. To be successful, you need to see things from your audiences’ perspective. You need to understand them, how they think, and why they do whatever it is they do. Essentially, they must be clearly defined to best determine how to connect with them based on their motivations, values, social norms, buying habits, and so on.

An emotional approach to building connections

The Centre of Excellence for Public Sector Marketing (CEPSM) indicates that people are not always driven by logical, rational, or coherent internal motivations when it comes to social marketing. Rather, effective social marketing often plays on emotions over an extended period of time, drawing the attention of audience and relating to them by connecting with them and demonstrating a desired behaviour or thought process. Entrepreneur.com describes that authenticity is equally important in social marketing, and that quality over quantity is valued, especially when trying to change behaviour over the long-term.

An effective, consistent strategy

As we mentioned earlier, successful social marketing strategies must have a long-term goal. A consumer-centric approach to strategy, with good communication, a detailed audience analysis and a long-term lens will make for an effective social marketing strategy. As CEPSM advocates, breaking down big behavioural changes into smaller pieces will make efforts more impactful, and increase the long-term sustainability of the changes. While this long-term approach will require more resources than a short-term plan, the results of consistent, on-going messaging prove to be drastically more successful.

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