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A Steady Diet of Healthy Communications for Change: Nedra Weinreich Demystifies Social Marketing

| Friday May 8th, 2009 | 1 Comment

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nedraweinreich.jpgOn the social web, the only thing that exceeds the number of social media “experts” and “gurus” out there are the number of names for those who practice it. From social media marketers to customer engagement specialists, everyone seems to be selling something. But while the term social marketing has nothing to do with social media, Nedra Weinrich is also selling something. . . good health, social issue awareness, disease prevention, environmental protection and safety. With her vast experience spearheading socially motivated programs focused on educating and engaging people around important health issues, she has developed a comprehensive blueprint for change that is both life-changing and life-protecting. I think that more than earns her a pithy, social media-esque title, and with how well she goes on to articulate the nuances of this important sub-set of cause marketing, she could easily be dubbed social marketing “swami.”


Weinrich Communications is a consulting firm that focuses on “social marketing” initiatives for a wide range of clients including Federal agencies, state and local health departments, nonprofit organizations, universities and health care services providers. How do you define social marketing?
Social marketing is using commercial marketing tools and techniques to promote health and social change. Rather than promoting a tangible product or service, social marketing generally focuses on “selling” behaviors – whether it’s motivating people to exercise, recycle or vote. The same principles used to design a commercial marketing effort can be applied to social marketing, with some additional challenges thrown in. It’s a lot easier to sell someone a Coke than a colonoscopy!
In the past few years, unfortunately, the term “social marketing” has been misappropriated by online marketers to refer to social media marketing. Though the original social marketing has been around as a separate marketing discipline for almost 40 years, the new meaning has spread online to the point of causing real confusion. Sometimes I feel like I’m tilting at semantic windmills in my quest to get people to use the correct terminology.
What types of social marketing initiatives have you developed for clients?
I’ve worked on a wide range of health, social and environmental issues in many different capacities. Though I’ve done A-to-Z campaigns that include everything from audience research and strategy development to implementation and evaluation, such as the Don’t Kid Yourself campaign, what I enjoy the most is the strategic side of social marketing, as well as training people to be able to create their own social marketing campaigns.
Right now I’m working on the social media strategy for a CDC pandemic preparedness contract; as you’d imagine, we’re in the throes of accelerating the timeline and rejiggering it to focus specifically on H1N1. We’ll be training people in local communities to use social media to get the word out about preparedness.
Other recent clients include the National Minority AIDS Council, for whom we created a program working with local policymakers to use social marketing to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS among African American women; and Loyola University of Chicago, with whom we developed and implemented a campaign to lower the incidence of binge drinking among first-year male students.
Are social marketing efforts separate from traditional marketing efforts for the organizations you serve? What department owns social marketing?
I primarily work with government agencies and nonprofits, and each are set up differently. Any marketing that government agencies do is often to try to influence the behavior of their constituents in some way, so social marketing is at the programmatic level. For example, a local health department might have divisions addressing issues like maternal and child health, tobacco control, infectious diseases and chronic diseases. We would work with the program staff within these departments to integrate social marketing with the services they are already providing the community.
Nonprofits generally have at least two prongs of their marketing and communication activities: the fundraising/development side that keeps the organization in business and the staff that fulfill the mission of the organization. Social marketing would usually fall under the departments that develop interventions relating to the reason why the nonprofit exists.
Do you think every company should champion a social issue?
In an ideal world, yes. But the realities of starting and growing a business often mean that the focus needs to be on generating a profit before having the resources to expend on these types of activities. In some cases, there is an obvious fit between the business and an issue, and the relationship can grow organically as the business grows. But not every business is a good fit for this type of social involvement; if it doesn’t make sense strategically, a company may be able to find other ways to make a difference in its community.
How does social marketing differ from cause-related marketing around social or health issues? Where do you think there is overlap?
I see social marketing and cause marketing as cousins with similar genetic patterns but different parents. Cause marketing is when a nonprofit organization and a company partner together for mutual benefit. The nonprofit gets more exposure as well as donations (either a percentage of sales from a particular product or a flat amount from the company). The company gets the halo effect from being associated with the cause and becomes known as a good corporate citizen (as well as a possible bump in sales).
Though both social marketing and cause marketing involve nonprofits, and may include building awareness of a particular health or social issue, the main differences are in who benefits and what people are asked to do. In social marketing, the primary benefit goes to the people in the target audience you are trying to help, rather than the organization doing the marketing. In cause marketing, the nonprofit and business themselves receive the primary benefit. Down the line, the funds raised for the organization will presumably be used to help others, but it is not the immediate outcome.
Social marketing measures the bottom line in terms of behavior change. Cause marketing generally focuses on funds raised for the organization and profits generated for the corporate partner. There is not often a behavioral component beyond the purchase.
Do you have any examples of social campaigns working in tandem with a cause marketing effort?
Most campaigns that have a social and cause marketing piece together are partnerships between nonprofits and brands that may not have a fundraising component. The granddaddy of public-private-nonprofit sector partnerships is the “5-a-Day” campaign to eat more fruits and vegetables. The National Cancer Institute partnered with the Dole Corporation and the Produce for Better Health Foundation to reach consumers with their nutrition messages. The “Back to Sleep” campaign to prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome was a partnership between the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and Pampers, where the campaign logo and slogan were printed on the diapers themselves to remind parents to put their babies to sleep on their backs. Another examples is the EPA partnering with Best Buy to promote eCycling (recycling electronics).
What are the most important elements in a successful social marketing initiative?
Traditionally, when organizations or government agencies have wanted to influence people’s behaviors, they have used either an educational or policy approach. The educational approach presumes that if you just give people the facts, they will make the rational decision to take action; all they need is information. Unfortunately, education is necessary but may not be sufficient to bring about behavior change. The sheer number of doctors who smoke and overweight public health professionals illustrates this fact. Policies that legislate a particular behavior under threat of jail or a fine, such as avoiding drinking and driving or not smoking in a public place, can be very effective. But I don’t think we want to live in a world where all our health or social behaviors are regulated.
So social marketing has emerged as an effective way of persuading people to voluntarily adopt healthy and pro-social behaviors for issues that may require more than just laying out the facts. The key elements in a social marketing program are the same as for any other marketing effort, and fall into a step-by-step process that ensures you don’t miss anything.
Segmenting and understanding your target audience is critical. Even more than demographics, characteristics like knowledge, attitudes and behaviors determine the approach that will be most effective with a particular group. Understanding the values that underlie the decisions that people make, and how your issue ties into those values, helps to shape the benefits that you promote in your messaging. Research with members of your audience to find out what they are thinking about the issue and how it fits into their lives must inform development of your strategy. We are often not part of the target audience ourselves and need to remember that what would work for us might be ignored or dismissed by the audiences we’re trying to reach.
Too often, people think that if they produce an ad or poster, they are doing social marketing. But a true social marketing program takes into account all the elements of the marketing mix to create its strategy, just as an effective commercial marketer would. These involve:

  • defining the product (usually a behavior) and its positioning
  • identifying the price (the physical, emotional or monetary barriers to adopting the product)
  • determining the times and places that the audience will be most receptive to your messages
  • looking at ways to structure the physical environment to make it easier for people to adopt the behavior
  • using the most effective and efficient media and messengers to reach your audience.

We also have to add in other considerations to the strategy because social marketing has unique issues. Partnerships can help us extend our reach or add to the campaign’s credibility. There may be organizational or governmental policies that would create an environment that helps to create or sustain action – things like rewarding people for carpooling, allocating funding for community walking/biking paths, or adding nutrition information to restaurant menus. Government agencies and nonprofits have additional issues related to stakeholder groups and funders that might need to be addressed in the strategy as well.
How do you measure campaign impact?
Evaluation of social marketing campaigns can be tricky because we don’t have sales or fundraising data that gives us an indication of success. Many of the issues we address are trying to prevent a problem from happening in the long-term, or to make a difference on an issue where change is difficult to quantify. Without going to an experimental design (which is hard when you’re working at the community level or higher) the best we can usually do is to measure changes in knowledge, attitudes and behaviors via surveys for those exposed to the campaign versus those who did not see it.
What are some high profile social marketing efforts that you can cite for our readers?
One of the programs that I think has done the best job of applying branding and marketing concepts is the Truth Campaign. This campaign, which aims to keep youth from smoking, started in the Florida state health department and was taken national by the American Legacy Foundation. Rather than talk about all the bad things that smoking does to your body, as most other anti-smoking campaigns targeting youth had until then, the Truth Campaign creators identified the underlying values that drive adolescents to start smoking in the first place – the desires to rebel, assert their independence, express themselves and be part of a larger group. They then built their campaign around these values, turning the rebellion away from parents/teachers and toward the tobacco industry, which the campaign emphasized was trying to trick them into smoking. They incorporated other elements that addressed teen values, casting the campaign as a movement that youth could be a part of and providing opportunities for individual expression as part of the campaign’s outreach activities. The campaign put a lot of money into evaluation research, which has found it to be hugely successful.
A favorite campaign of mine, which is also quite timely with the H1N1 virus outbreak, is the 5th Guy campaign. This campaign encourages good hygiene habits in a humorous way that gets people’s attention. The idea is that four out of five people wash their hands – don’t be the fifth guy!
Tell us more about your book, Hands-On Social Marketing: A Step-by-Step Guide.
I first wrote the book back in 1999, when I saw a real need to help organizations that wanted to use social marketing but did not necessarily have the budget to hire a consultant. The book is designed to take people through the process of developing a social marketing program from start to finish, taking into account the specific needs of their audience and issue. It’s full of worksheets, useful tips and other resources. I’m in the process of revising it for a new edition that will include all of the changes that have happened in the field since it first came out.
I use the book in the social marketing course I teach at UCLA’s School of Public Health, and in the Social Marketing University trainings that I offer. It’s always exciting to me to hear how other people have used the book. My favorite was that the Ministry of Health in Lebanon translated it into Arabic and distributed copies to all of their field staff throughout the country.
Movies and documentary films around social issues are growing in popularity. Among the many services you offer is Entertainment Education and Entertainment Industry Partnerships. What are your thoughts around entertainment as a vehicle for generating awareness and action around social issues? Who do you think has done this well to date?
As the 30-second spot dies a slow death as a result of TiVo and DVRs, it makes sense to use television to get our messages out in the places that people are actually paying attention -within the entertainment programming itself. Product placement is nothing new, and issue placement (also known as “entertainment education”), has been around for a while as well, ever since the Harvard School of Public Health worked with shows like Cheers to mention the words “designated driver” back in the 80s.
Television programs, movies, comics and other types of story-driven media have such great potential to engage people in learning more about an issue for several reasons. First, when we experience the issue vicariously through someone else’s story, we start to empathize with what the characters are going through. We learn about health or social issues we might never have heard of before; awareness is necessary before people can take action. Second, in an ongoing series with characters that people feel like they know and care about, there is an enormous opportunity to use them as positive role models or to show the consequences of bad decisions. Third, like it or not, television affects our perceptions of social norms. If we always see someone putting their seatbelt on when they get into a car, we are more likely to believe that that’s how things are supposed to be done. Finally, when we watch a show, our emotional involvement is heightened and often mirrors what the characters would be feeling. Facts are more likely to be remembered when paired with emotions, so information that is provided as part of the story will stick more readily.
One of my favorite projects has been working with the entertainment industry to raise awareness of the issue of human trafficking on behalf of SAMHSA. Our briefings with writers, producers, researchers and network execs included experts on the issue of human trafficking, law enforcement agents, social service providers and victims of human trafficking telling their stories. The briefings and ongoing technical assistance resulted in the Lifetime miniseries “Human Trafficking” as well as inclusion of the issue in plots on shows like CSI: Miami, Strong Medicine and The Shield. The CDC, through its Hollywood, Health and Society program, does an especially good job at getting its priority issues out via entertainment outreach.
Here are a few links for more information about this:
Social Marketing Product Placement
Can Movies Change Our Minds?
Tune in Tomorrow: Soap Operas for Social Marketing
What is the best cause marketing campaign you have seen recently? Why?
One of my favorite cause marketing campaigns, though not necessarily recent, is the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, which funds self-esteem programming for girls. It has a wonderful strategic tie-in between the product and the cause, and I think they did a great job of creating compelling content that both highlights their products and gets the social message across.

Turn the focus social. . .

While Nedra describes social marketing as a cousin of cause marketing, I see it more as a rich uncle in that an authentic, socially focused campaign is the benefactor of brand awareness, adoption and affinity. By emulating social programs that aren’t hinged on sales, cause marketers have an opportunity to develop deeper relationships with customers and stakeholders, and plant seeds that will flourish with or without campaign activity. In addition, nurturing an ongoing social program aligned with your company mission, will actually help support – and drive – transaction-based initiatives through ongoing exposure, positive brand association and mindshare, and most importantly, by demonstrating a true commitment to change 365 days a year vs. only during some week-long promotional push. And those companies who continue to support an ad hoc, promotions-based mentality instead of building upon a core sustainable social platform, will only retain customers “while supplies last.”


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  • Dan Guth

    Great article on Social Marketing. A bit lengthy read for a Sunday morning though. I agree with the last sentiment, but rather demonstrating a commitment to change, its demonstrating a commitment to society’s well-being. Change does not always have a positive connotation.
    Another example for Social Marketing / Cause Marketing is the “drink responsibly” campaign of drink aware in the UK. drink aware is a charity, though mainly funded by various organisations related to the problem (retailers, pubs and beverage producers), which then in turn use the slogan in their beverage advertisements.