Communications, social marketing and behavioural change

SimonCommunications, General9 Comments

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.

9 Comments on “Communications, social marketing and behavioural change”

  1. Simon

    I was thinking along the same lines when the article surfaced a few days ago.

    Pleased to see you mention this. As marketers this is something that’s been desperately needed in the Public sector for sometime. And highlights the persuasive charms of adopting social marketing techniques. This certainly would be central to my marketing philophosy. Although trying to apply these principles in local government will not be easy but that doesn’t mean we should try.

    Another recommended read is along the same lines – COI’s How Public Sector Advertising Works!

    Adrian Capon
    Strategic Marketing Manager
    North Lincolnshire Council

  2. Hi Adrian,
    Thanks – completely agree with you that this could be a big step forward.

    I think the challenge will be adopting an approach akin to the COI model, but one that works on smaller scale (budgets, target audiences) than most national campaigns where a decent amount of money can be spent on pre-research and pre-testing.

    Will blog about any steps forward we make on this – but as you say won’t be easy!

  3. Pingback: JDenniston (Jeri Denniston)

  4. Using theory responsibly in social marketing programs is an important topic Simon, and one that keeps me up at night as well. Mostly because we seem to limit ourselves to theories about how to change individuals through communication rather than aspire to social change through all the tools of marketing. Secondly, because we are conditioned to think about change at the individual level rather than at the level of social networks – a place where the evidence is suggesting we really should focus on.

    I have been writing a number of posts about ‘making theory relevant’ and ‘social theories of change’ for social marketers that I invite you and your readers to explore. You’ll find them under the ‘Theory’ categories at On Social Marketing and Social Change.

    I look forward to more conversation about the subject.

  5. Hi Simon,

    Social marketing certainly has grown in prominence in recent years. There has been a lot of interest from the NHS where the potential to deliver public health improvements has been viewed enthusiastically. Awareness and understanding of social marketing techniques has been led by the National Social Marketing Centre, set up by the Department of Health in 2006 in partnership with Consumer Focus (which used to be the National Consumer Council). Although it has focused on health issues, it supports a wide range of public bodies. It has a very good database of case studies at:

    But in my experience, although awareness and use of social marketing is increasing – which will only be accelerated by COI’s recent initiatives – there is still a lot of misunderstanding among many non-comms colleagues.

    Quite a few don’t get the principles of social marketing. Many focus on the ‘promotion’ aspect of marketing, ignoring the ‘product’, ‘price’ and ‘place’ and subsequently think that any PR / public information campaign is social marketing. True social marketing is about understanding the behaviours of the people we serve and shaping our services to ensure we offer them in the right way at the right time in the right place. It is not something that has traditionally come naturally in public services, but I’m confident we’re gradually changing that.

    1. Hi Dan – great comment, thanks.

      Agree with you completely – the reach of genuine social marketing goes well beyond comms and engagement and stretches into areas like policy – which means communicators/social marketers need to have the skills to have effective dialogues with those working in policy development.

      Like your blog btw – hadn’t seen it before so have added to my RSS reading list!

  6. Thanks Simon – I’m really pleased you like it. I started writing it a while back (to see if I could keep it up) but only went live when I started working as a consultant a few weeks ago. Hope to see you over there some time!

  7. Pingback: Social marketing: Changing public behaviour through communications | Simon Wakeman - public sector communications, marketing and public relations

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