What can health scientists learn from social marketers?

What can health scientists learn from social marketers?

It's a pretty noisy world out there with a lot of competition for your attention. In fact the average North American is exposed to anywhere from 76 – 3,000 ads a day depending on whose math you believe. As health researchers, we have fistfuls of good evidence and even better intentions to positively influence people's behaviour. The question is, how do we marry great health research with social change?

But first you may ask: What IS social marketing?

Social marketing is applying those techniques that influence you to buy a certain soap or a brand of shoes and instead try to influence you to "voluntarily accept, reject, modify, or abandon a behaviour for the benefit of individuals, groups, or society as a whole". (Kotler, Roberto, Lee)

The megaphone message of social marketing is that you must know your audience before you can influence them. You are not social marketing if you don't understand the people you are trying to influence. Full stop.

Consider the "Save the Crabs, then Eat" Them Campaign

This is a great example of a social marketing campaign and perfectly illustrates the "4 P's of Social Marketing".

Chesapeake Bay crabs were dying because lawn fertilizers were running off into the bay and thus were killing delicious crabs. In this case the product is the behavioural change: Fertilize your lawns in the fall instead of the spring.

The lawns, toolsheds, and stores that sell fertilizer surrounding Chesapeake Bay. In this case the social marketers were hoping that their message would be memorable enough so that when residents were standing in their sheds considering whether or not to fertilize, they would think about the mighty crab.

The price in social marketing is the what it will cost your intended audience versus the potential pay off. If the pain is less than the price then you've got a social marketing pitch. In this case the price to Chesapeake Bay residents was to wait to fertilize lawns until fall and the potential pay off is the continued ability to enjoy crabs dipped in garlic butter. Apparently this math added up to Chesapeake Bay residents.

This is the part that so often gets mistaken for social marketing: The end piece. But this piece of social marketing is both part of product of a detailed journey through the 4P's and didn't ignore the megaphone message of social marketing which is Know Thy Audience. The savvy social marketers behind this campaign knew that Chesapeake Bay residents were into green lawns but they also knew they cared deeply about sustaining their local crustacean population because it has significant implications for their economy and potentially their civic pride. If this social marketing campaign was geared at saving sea lice it would be a much harder sell. 

Are we asking people to exercise more? Smoke less? Expose children to less screen time? Avoid repetitive motion? Prescribe exercise? All this comes at a potential cost (real or perceived) to our target market in the form of time, discomfort, embarrassment, or reputation.

As scientists we need to be constantly aware that we are asking people to voluntarily change their behaviour to make their lives better, or the lives of people around them. The big key message that scientists can learn from social marketers is to truly understand who they are trying to influence. Often this means directly engaging our target population and testing our messages. Sometimes it means accepting that the messages we really like or hoped would work, might not actually be effective and be willing to regroup.