Learning from social marketing

Lessons for environmental educators and activists

Social marketing is the branch of public relations that aims to change human behaviour by using marketing tools, just as we, for instance, market brands of beer and toothpaste.

Here is a typical definition -

Social marketing is "...the design, implementation, and control of programs calculated to influence the acceptability of social ideas and involving considerations of product planning, pricing, communications and marketing research." (Kotler and Zaltman, Journal of Marketing, July, 1971).

Social marketing approaches have been used almost exclusively in the health area - Australia's AIDS campaigns, Quit campaigns are two notable examples. But social marketing techniques are also used around the world for fitness, youth delinquency, child abuse, effective parenting, leprosy, family planning, drink driving and so on.

In Australia we are starting to use social marketing approaches for environmental education like recycling, home composting, stormwater pollution and so on.

A crash course in social marketing methodologies

So we can be focused, here is crash course in social marketing methodologies -

The '4 P's' approach

Social marketing models, first articulated by Philip Kotler and based on commercial marketing practices, show that the consumer (target audience) should be the central focus for planning and conducting a program. The program's components focus on the:

  • price--what the consumer must give up in order to receive the program's benefits. These "costs" may be intangible (e.g., changes in beliefs or habits) or tangible (e.g., money, time, or travel)
  • product--what the program is trying to change within the target audience
  • promotion-- how the exchange is communicated (e.g., appeals used)
  • place--what channels the program uses to reach the target audience (e.g., mass media, community, interpersonal)

The formulation of price, product, promotion, and place evolves from research with consumers to determine what benefits and "costs" they would consider acceptable, and how they might be reached. Lessons learned from social marketing stress the importance of understanding the target audience and designing strategies based on their wants and needs rather than what good health practice directs that they "should" do.

The 'stages of persuasion' approach

William McGuire has described the steps a person must be persuaded to pass through in order to assimilate a desired behaviour. These steps are:

  • exposure to the message
  • attention to the message
  • interest in or personal relevance of the message
  • understanding of the message
  • personalising the behaviour to fit one's life
  • accepting the change
  • remembering the message and continuing to agree with it
  • being able to think of it
  • making decisions based on bringing the message to mind
  • behaving as decided
  • receiving (positive) reinforcement for behaviour
  • accepting the behaviour into one's life

To communicate the message successfully, five communication components all must work:

  1. the credibility of the message source
  2. the message design
  3. the delivery channel
  4. the target audience
  5. the targeted behaviour

Attention to these steps and communication components helps assure that a communication program plan addresses all factors that determine whether a health message is received and absorbed, and that the program is staged over time to address health needs as they differ over time while progressing toward behaviour or change.

The 'Diffusion of Innovations' approach

The health policy makers call it "technology transfer", Everett Rogers describes the process whereby new products or ideas are introduced or "diffused" to an audience. Whether the message is accepted (or the behaviour adopted) depends upon whether the recipients:
  • perceive it as beneficial;
  • see it as in accordance with their needs and values;
  • find it easy or difficult to understand or adopt;
  • can try the behaviour;
  • feel that the results of the trial or acceptance are viewed positively by their peers.

The 'PRECEDE' model

Lawrence Green developed the PRECEDE model, an approach to planning that examines the factors that contribute to behaviour change. These include:
  • predisposing factors-- people's knowledge, attitudes, behaviour, beliefs, and values before intervention that affect their willingness to change;
  • enabling factors-- the environment, community, and each individual's situation that facilitate or present obstacles to change;
  • reinforcing factors-- the positive or negative effects of adopting the behaviour (including social support) that influence continuing the behaviour;

These factors require that all persons be considered in the contexts of their community and social structures, and not in isolation, when planning communication or health education strategies.

The forgoing is from - Making Health Communications Work, US Department of Health and Human Services, 1992. It can be found at - http://rex.nci.nih.gov/NCI_Pub_Interface/HCPW/HOME.HTM

The Alan Andreason model

The dominant contemporary social marketing model seems to be that described by Alan Andreason in his Marketing Social Change (1995).

In this model (which incorporates many elements of the preceding models) the audience move through 4 stages -

  • pre-contemplation - when the task is basic information about costs and benefits;
  • contemplation - when the aim is to teach skills, provide services, and demonstrate increased benefits and reduced costs;
  • action - when the task is to reward and remind in order to maintain the new behaviours;
  • maintenance - when only a minimal effort is needed to reinforce the behviours.

Common strengths of social marketing models

What is common about all these models is the recognition that 'education' is much more than just communication -

  • understanding the needs and perceptions of the audience is a vital stage*;
  • developing audience skills and capabilities is important;
  • services and infrastructures, not simply communications, may need to be constructed.
* This is no small consideration - perhaps the environmental movement has failed on traffic reduction because it has never bothered to see anyone's point of view on the personal benefits of the automobile.

Many social marketing programs go one step further, aiming to construct empowering partnerships with the affected groups. Australia's successful AIDS control program is an example - health authorities effectively shared power with the gay community in order to develop cooperative approaches to large-scale social change.

You can, of course, be critical of the manipulative aspect of social marketing. There is a paternalistic implication that someone else knows best, and there is an obvious danger that social marketing will become a tool for government and corporate managers obsessed with control.

Here, incidentally, is an illustration of the 'educators as managers' approach -

But of course social marketing does not have to be a tool for control. Here is an approach I've developed over the past 2 years, which makes educators 'door openers' for the community's aspirations, rather than know-all managers.

Here it is -

7 steps to social change

You can think of this model as 7 doors...

Notice how the waste educator has the humble role of a door opener.

The doors can also be expressed as affirmations...

It's fully explained at socialchange.net.au/strategy

So, what can environmental educators learn from social marketing?

I'll make 4 simple points.

Firstly - be humble (stop calling it 'education')

'Education' is a classically corporatist term that implies that we have all the knowledge, that the knowledge is true, that the audience are empty vessels, and that our knowledge, once transferred, will fill them up with right thinking and right behaviour. 'Education' does not imply consent. It does not even imply respect.

It might work for kids - I don't know. But it is wrong for citizens.

Most activists and adult educators think they know this. But green advocates tend to live in a world apart and see the public as a great unwashed. The views of the public about, say, composting,. might shock them. But in marketing we say - 'the customer is always right'.

I believe that environmentalism is making a mistake when it imposes it's views, instead of acting as a handmaiden of the community's aspirations.

Perhaps this explains the failure of environmentalism in so many areas e.g. freeways and urban form, greenhouse effect...

Secondly - strategy is important

Social marketing models are a useful starting point for thinking about the 'how-to' of 'education and community mobilisation. It tells us that education is not simply about transferring facts - it's about building social confidence, capabilities and empowerment.

The first step is to really put the effort in to understand our audience's situations, needs and perceptions.

This is a big obstacle for many environmentalists. Have, for instance, public transport activists really bothered to understand the aspirations of the average suburban car-using resident? 'Not at all' I think is the answer. Who was right in the pedestrianised mall debates of the 1970s? Answer: The shop-owners who opposed road closures.

Thirdly - aim for partnership

The best examples of environmental activism have been about partnership building - e.g. Landcare, the Cape York Land Agreement, Greenpeace's campaigns against the Corowa and Waterloo incinerators.

Partnership building requires trust and maturity on both sides -environmentalists (on account of a common streak of paranoia and self-righteousness) are often the worst at this.

Partnerships are supposed to be a little risky - and they do take more time and energy. But they win-win situations. Community representatives get to exercise responsibility and self-learn. Environmental educators get fabulous injections of energy, enthusiasm and credibility...not to mention great ideas!

Fourthly - don't forget imagination

Social marketing uses the techniques of advertising - including humour and a sense of theatre. Imagination is an essential ingredient in making a better future - if people can't imagine a safer more sustainable world, they will never join environmentalists in helping create it.

But how do you harness your audience's imagination? Well - first start liberating your own. This is, incidentally, one way that corporatism defeats environmentalists. The more we let technocrats set the terms of debate, the more we are speaking a managerial language deprived of vision and magic, the less anyone will listen to us.

Prepared for the Australian Association of Environmental Education Conference, Sydney, January 1999.

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