The good, the bad and the exciting of social marketing


Social marketing looks to create social and personal value, encouraging behaviour change using the principles of modern marketing. It’s an exciting field of work; one where there is real potential to impact behaviour and create change for the better.

The beautiful city of Antwerp played host to the European Social Marketing Conference in September this year, and social marketers from across the globe descended upon the small port city to share their learnings and hear new thinking on the practice of social marketing.

During the conference, I tracked down some of the leading thinkers in social marketing to get their insights on running a successful social marketing program, and understand why we should be excited about using it in projects that are looking to bring about positive change.

Jeff French is considered to be a global thought leader in social marketing, behavioural influence and social communication. He has published over 90 academic papers, five books and numerous guides and toolkits on the subject.

David McElroy is on the European Social Marketing committee, having come to behaviour change and social marketing from the world of marine ecology.

Sharyn Rundle-Thiele is the Director of Social Marketing at Griffith University, and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Social Marketing.

Here are their thoughts.

1. If there was only one element of social marketing practice to include in a project, which would it be?

JF: That’s a tough question, as there are ideally six key principles that should be applied. For me, the most important element is absolute clarity about what you are trying to achieve and how you will measure progress; this clarity needs to be developed by all the key stakeholders and partners in a social marketing intervention. If you get this element right, the rest is straightforward.

DM: Context-driven co-creation: i.e., do your homework and listen to your target audience. They will tell you what needs to be done, and what will help.

SR-T: If there was only one element of social marketing practice to include, I would say we need more exchange.  Too often we communicate to people and we fail to build alternatives to “sell” to people.  Michael Rothschild’s Road Crew campaign is a great example of building an exchange offering – they offered a limousine service at a price to lower drink driving rates.   

Another social marketing principle that is frequently overlooked is segmentation.  This principle is used in less than 1 in 5 social marketing campaigns, and we could do a lot more to deliver programs that are sensitive to more groups in the population we are tasked to work with. 

2. What have you found to be the biggest barrier or challenge to an effective social marketing project?

JF: Lack of systematic planning and inconsistent management of programmes. Social marketing is a planned and managed process that aims to bring about social good, but to do that, effort needs to be applied to develop in a systematic way a mix of interventions that are deliverable and appropriate.

DM: Vague objectives without a clear theory of change.  Make sure everyone is clear about what it is you’re trying to achieve, and that there is a logical and deliberate theory of change for why we think that the proposed outputs will lead to the desired outcomes.

SR-T: Barriers to effective social marketing projects can arise from the people working on behaviour change. A common weakness is that people want to promote their own objectives (e.g. increase physical activity and good heath, or save the Great Barrier Reef), failing to realise this may not motivate the people they are trying to engage in the programs they develop and deliver.  Co-production of programs which require application of methods like co-design, design thinking or collective intelligence focuses program development on the needs and wants of the people at the heart of the problem.  Listening and learning from them gets the best outcomes. 

3. What makes you excited about social marketing? 

JF: It’s about a more democratic and science-informed way of developing, delivering and evaluating programmes that deliver personal – and social – benefit. Social marketing is part of the new wave of innovation in society and across governments that starts from the premise of respect and engagement of citizens and building interventions around what they value and support. That’s exciting, professionally.

DM: It’s a satisfyingly empowering and democratic way to create positive change. It finally gets us on the same footing as the big corporations creating negative social outcomes for the sake of private profits, and that makes me think we might actually have a chance to win!

SR-T: Social marketing is human-centred, and when delivered well, it ensures that no individual is made to feel bad.  Approaches like nudge over-simplify human behaviour.  When simple nudge approaches are applied, power elites adopt the role of “choice architects”, centering blame for complex, wicked problems on individuals. In contrast, social marketing serves society’s interests, applying systems analysis and solution co-production. Critical methods expose power imbalances, and systems methods promote wider understanding of the shared responsibility to combat society’s most wicked problems. Strategic initiatives created and implemented in public-private partnerships offer a better way to address wicked problems when compared to limited tactical approaches that over-simplify human behaviour.