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What is Social Marketing?


For the longest time, the idea of marketing has been entwined with persuading people to buy a product or avail of a service for a profit. This outlook does not make it immediately apparent that marketing and all its techniques and methods can be used to push for an agenda that is not commercially-oriented but instead aims to cause social change. Social marketing differentiates itself from all other branches of marketing with its end goal of benefitting the target audience, not the persons or the organization doing the marketing.

Social Marketing = Social Media Marketing?

There can be confusion as to how it relates to social media marketing, but the distinction is simple. Social media marketing is about using social networking platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest to deliver a message. It takes advantage of these channels’ massive user bases, innate engagement opportunities, and potential for virality to connect to consumers directly and spread information rapidly.

Social marketing can also make use of such tools to further its advocacy, but it is not limited to them.

History of Social Marketing

Philip Kotler and Gerald Zaltman co-authored “Social Marketing: An Approach to Planned Social Change” within the Journal of Marketing in the 70’s, officially marking the birth of the term. However, they did begin the piece with G.D. Weibe’s rhetorical question, “Why can’t you sell brotherhood like you sell soap?” dating the idea’s conception back in 1952 when the sociologist came to such a realization.

Kotler and Zaltman looked to apply social marketing with guidelines that hewed to commercial considerations (i.e. the four Ps – product, pricing, place, promotion). These factors would all converge to eventually influence the target audience’s behavior so that they follow the advocacy.

The idea itself despite not being formally acknowledged yet was already put to use in 1967 in India, as the Department of Family Welfare pushed for easy access and acceptance of condom use through the Nirodh condom project. This was enacted by the government to address the nation’s burgeoning population issue.

Other countries began their own social marketing campaigns in the 70’s and 80’s. There was the Mass Media and Health Practices project in Honduras with the help of USAID in light of the infant mortality rates due to acute diarrhea dehydration in 1978, and the Stop AIDS campaign by the Swiss AIDS Foundation started in 1987 to address the growing problem.

How It Works

Changing people’s behavior on a massive scale is a great challenge, especially when most social marketing campaigns ask their target audiences to make decisions that impact their lives and those of the people around them.

Achieving success hinges upon a number of factors:

  • An understanding of the current behavior and outlook of the campaign’s target audience
  • A well-defined set of actions for the target audience to do upon hearing the message
  • The balance between the costs and the benefits the target audience will incur/gain

To make these factors work in the social marketing campaign’s favor, it is worth examining the four Ps outlined by Kotler and Zaltman in detail.



Although some social marketing campaigns started with a product to promote such as the Nirodh condom program, there are those that promote practices and ideas such as quitting smoking and animal welfare. No matter what form the agenda takes, it is meant to be seen as a product that answers a real problem that the target audience believes to be a big issue to justify “buying” the product.


Pricing comes into play, but it is not strictly confined to monetary costs the target audience will incur if they choose to pursue the actions set upon by the campaign. It involves the time and the effort they need to put in as well as their reputation in adhering to the agenda, costs that can very well be higher priorities than finances if the campaign asks them to commit to new lifestyle decisions.

Still, setting the price for an actual product has to be more carefully considered because there is a fine balance that needs to be struck between perceived value and affordability. Make the product too cheap and people might think it an inferior product. Raise the price and run the risk of alienating a portion of your target audience that is budget-conscious.


When speaking of “place” in the context of social marketing, it refers to the distribution system of the product. Physical products need to be stored in warehouses then shipped to stores for people to gain access to them. Services and ideas need education centers, clinics, and other such establishments to conduct sessions and inform the target audience. Accessibility and the method of delivery should be taken into account in deciding the distribution system.


This is where the marketing part of the equation begins, and its goal is to ensure there is demand for the product from the start of the campaign until behavioral change in the society is achieved. All available platforms to reach the target audience are pursued, including traditional marketing channels such as paid ads and public service announcements in TV, radio, and print. Online marketing methods and avenues such as social media also play a role here, as well as media events, community outreach, press releases, and other public relations operations.

To further the promotional vehicle for campaign, it is not uncommon for organizations to create partnerships with each other and with noted influencers in the target audience’s minds. Celebrities often lend their images for causes they believe in, and their personal branding can be enough to help convince more people to buy into the campaign’s message. This extends to tying up with political bodies, as sometimes for the change to come and have a long-lasting effect, public policies need to be put into place to create an environment that encourages the change.

Binding everything together is heavy research into each area to maximize the impact of the campaign. There needs to be in-depth looks at what problems the community is prioritizing for the campaign to find solutions for, how the agenda should be positioned in terms of the personal capabilities of the target audience, and the channels and influencers that can motivate the target audience to engage.

Although the objectives may be different from the common commercial pursuits of businesses, the principles of marketing still ring true for social marketing. There are pain points to address, consumers and markets that need to be understood, and an idea to be promoted.