Research in the Social Marketing Process

by Nedra Kline Weinreich

[Note: This article was written in 1992 and is somewhat out of date at this point, though the concepts are still applicable.]

The social marketing approach differs greatly from how public health agencies have typically gone about developing programs or materials. In the past, health educators often focused on providing information to the general public about a particular topic, with the hope that the people who needed it would realize they are at risk and change their behavior as a result. In contrast, social marketers know that there is no such thing as "targeting" the general public. To be most effective, a program must precisely specify its target audience and use very customized methods to reach those people. In addition, social marketing does not rely solely upon educating people about an issue, but uses persuasive messages developed through research with members of the target audience. The participation of the people for whom the program is intended is critical.

A social marketing program has as its core the wants and needs of its consumers. These are determined through market research methods that aim to learn as much about the target audience and how it thinks, feels and behaves in relation to the issue the program is addressing. These methods include quantitative research, such as a knowledge, attitude and behavior (KAB) survey, which reveals how many people think or do something. Qualitative research, on the other hand, provides insight into why people think or do what they do, through techniques such as focus groups and individual interviews.

The process of developing a social marketing program involves research at every stage, with constant reevaluation to assess whether the program is on track. This process consists of five general stages, each of which involves several different types of activities: 1) Planning; 2) Message and materials development; 3) Pretesting; 4) Implementation; and 5) Evaluation and feedback. The figure below visually depicts the process as a pyramid of sequential steps; in practice, social marketing is not necessarily a clear series of linear steps but rather a process of feedback and adjustment that might require revisiting past stages to make changes based on new information.

The planning phase (Step 1) forms the foundation on which the rest of the process is built. To create an effective social marketing program, you must understand the problem you are addressing, the audiences you are targeting, and the environment in which the program will operate. Research is used to analyze these factors and to develop a workable strategy for effecting behavior change.

The message and materials development phase (Step 2) uses the information learned in the planning phase to design the messages to be conveyed as well as the materials that will carry the messages to the target audience.

The pretesting phase (Step 3) involves using various methods to test messages, materials and proposed tactics with the target audience members to determine what works best to accomplish the program's objectives. It is not uncommon to go back and forth several times between development and pretesting as you make necessary changes in the messages, materials or overall strategy and explore whether the new approach works.

In the implementation phase (Step 4) the program is introduced to the target audience. Preparation is essential for success and implementation must be monitored to ensure that every element proceeds as planned.

Finally, the evaluation and feedback phase (Step 5) assesses the effects of the program as a whole as well as the individual elements of the strategy. Evaluation occurs throughout the process of program development, not just at the end, and feedback is used at each stage to improve the program.

Next - Research in the Planning Phase

Weinreich Communications 2006