Do We Need to Redefine Social Marketing?

Apr 18

Flying back from the World Social Marketing Conference in Dublin last week, I had an eight hour delay in Newark that gave me A LOT of time to think through everything I was exposed to at the conference.  Between the keynotes, the seminars, the plenary sessions, and the debates, the amount of information shared was overwhelming, comprehensive, and interesting. But how to make sense of it all?  I’m not sure I have, but it certainly has got me thinking.

A strong theme that emerged across many of the sessions I attended was about how to define social marketing, as well as the related question of whether social marketing needs to redefine itself.

While this was only the 2nd world conference on the topic, over the last 40 years the field has definitely become a well-established discipline – as evidenced by not only the more than 500 attendees, but also,  the significant amount of work that these delegates presented – suggesting that the attendees represent only the tip of the social marketing iceberg.   Still, the underlying definition of Social Marketing, including the definition of terms we use to describe our work seems to still be evolving.  Whether overtly the title of a presentation, “Debate: The 4Ps are well past their sell by date, its time to move on,”  “Rethinking Nonprofit and Social Marketing in the Marketing Firmament”, and “Passing it on… Social marketing in a new world” or indirectly addressed across numerous seminars and plenary sessions, the presenters regularly took on this issue.

In a seminar presentation given by Jeff Jordan from Rescue Social Change Group, we learned that the difference between commercial marketing and social marketing is that, in commercial marketing you are doing ‘brand preference’ marketing—attempting to change a set audience’s preference for a certain product.  For example, trying to get ‘brown soda drinkers’ to switch brands from Coke to Pepsi.  While in social marketing, we are doing a much harder job, namely getting an audience that isn’t already inclined toward your behavior to take it on, or getting an audience very inclined to take on a behavior to stop that behavior.  And in Alan Andreasen’s Keynote, it was suggested that because of the more complex and difficult challenges that social and nonprofit marketers face, our discipline actually should be considered the dominant paradigm, with commercial marketing simply representing a special case—rather than the other way around.

These, and other presenters, further explored the actual language we are using to describe our work.  Should we continue to use the 4P’s to talk about what social marketing is? Should we call the people we are trying to engage with our work audiences or targets or co-creators?  Is everyone in our ‘audience’ truly a co-creator?  Should we strive to be more like accountants who have a discrete and specific language to explain what they do? In his keynote, Craig LeFebvre argued that we should not kid ourselves into thinking that language is not important, and suggested that if we don’t have one clear way of talking about what we do, we don’t really have a clear grasp of our discipline.

Wow.  Some hard questions and strong opinions, all from very passionate people.  Yet, I still struggle with my own questions.  To what extent can we ever truly be like accountants, for example, their work is very objective and discrete.  Our work in prompting behavior change is not as black and white, is much more multifaceted, and by (human) nature includes uncontrollable variables. To what extent is language a key determinant of success in this space?  If we stay too focused on arguments about language, will we run the risk of letting those arguments detract from our work?

The one thing that has become clearer is, that regardless of what we call the work all of us have been doing, it’s WORKING.  There were presentations that shared successes in smoking prevention and cessation, preventing obesity, reducing binge and underage drinking, reducing sun-exposure, increasing cancer screening, and even in improving ROI for some of these initiatives.  Perhaps we might shift the focus of our discussions toward how we can better assess the impact of the truly important work we are all doing because as we know impact and proof of outcomes will yield what we all need, more resources devoted to doing more of the work that we are all so passionate about.

This entry was posted on Monday, April 18th, 2011 at 2:08 pm and is filed under Behavior Change, Social Marketing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

One Response to “Do We Need to Redefine Social Marketing?”

  1. Farha Marfani says:

    This is a conversation that I am seeing a lot lately, particularly on a listserv of social marketing professionals. I guess given this is only the 2nd world conference, a discussion like this makes sense. Hopefully the answers to these questions will be better solidified come the 3rd world conference, or the 4th, or the 5th.

    I completely agree that our work is not like accountants (given the accountants in my family, with their discrete jobs, as you mention, describing social marketing to them and explaining what exactly we do can be a bit tricky). But, like you say, our work is multi-faceted, as it should be, no? It is my understanding that social marketing is still an evolving field, and with the upsurge of social media, mobile technology, etc. our work will only grow to be even more complex.

    I agree that we do need to better define the field and a discussion about language is important. Yet, at the same time, don’t many fields have this semantics issue? Even in the large field of public health, for example, and in its subfields, we still find arguments and differences in language.

    Personally, I am more interested in the exciting success stories of social marketing, and completely agree with your last point. Regardless of what we choose to call them: our “targets,” “audiences,” or “co-creators,” we are still influencing change in them.