Communications, social marketing and behavioural change

SimonCommunications, General

Time for a confession: delivering effective communications is one of things that keeps me awake at night sometimes.

Effective research and evaluation has to be a pre-requisite for evidence-based communications. But sometimes I think it’s important that communicators look even more broadly for a scientific based approach to making communications do the job they’re meant to do.

Over the past few years, social marketing has grown in prominence as a branch of marketing that’s focussed on delivering public good from marketing rather than the commercial benefits that sit behind much conventional marketing theory.

One of the key facets of social marketing theory is the application of social psychological theory and behavioural economics to delivering change in people’s behaviours – understanding the thought processes people go through that lead (or don’t lead) to them changing behaviours.

These theories explore the role of attitudes, social norms and other drivers on the way people act. An understanding of at least the principles here is vital to ensuring that our campaigns are designed in a way that has the greatest chance of actually being effective.

However as someone that has studied for professional qualifications in both marketing and public relations, this isn’t something that’s explored at any depth in either field. On that basis I’d guess that these are areas that many other public sector marketers and communicators aren’t entirely au fait with either.

But I’m convinced this needs to be an area that we get better at. While these theories are applied well on big, national campaigns with big budgets to match, I don’t think even the most high-level insights from social marketing theory are used effectively in many local public service communications activities.

The COI has recently published a very helpful guide on this topic that should be recommended reading for public sector communicators and marketers. It sets out in relatively straightforward terms the basic theories and how these can be applied to communications planning and delivery. It uses real-life campaigns to illustrate these points in terms that communicators can relate to.

The guide can be downloaded here.

This area is certainly something I’m going to spend more time looking into. As discretionary public sector spending comes under increasing scrutiny in the coming years, communicators will need to get better at demonstrating the impact their activities have.

I can see the use of social psychological theory and behavioural economics helping to provide a framework for planning and delivering communications, as well as a basis for evaluation that helps link communications outcomes to the broader delivery of policy objectives.

Or to put that in plain English, the social marketing way of thinking can help communicators make sure what they do actually makes the right difference to people’s lives – and that’s got to be a good thing.