Marketing Strategy / Opinion

The great social marketing dilemma

When is social marketing not social marketing?  When it’s social marketing.

Confused?  You’re not alone. In fact, this lack of clarity is an issue affecting many in the marketing industry.

Lets explore – then I want to know where you stand…

Beginning at the beginning, what is marketing?

An often-asked question, and one to which there are a multitude of answers.  However, I’m a behaviourist, so I nail my flag to the following colours:

“Marketing is the process of influencing an individual’s behaviour towards a mutually beneficial outcome for the individual and for the brand”.

Of course, this is only the crudest of outlines, but you get the general idea.  It allows room for manoeuvre across channels and departments, and gives the impression that marketing isn’t a big hammer designed to crack the audience’s nut, but rather a series of laser-tight inputs to produce multiple ripple effects.

Furthermore, it stresses the mutual benefit of the outcome and concentrates on the behaviours which drive adoption, uptake, repeat custom etc.

So that’s that.  What about ‘social marketing’?

The dichotomy between social marketing and social marketing was highlighted in a blog post by Steve Goldner (which I disagreed with).

Steve’s contention, held by a lot of the marketing industry, is that social marketing consists of things like Target Market Insights, Content, Influence, Listening, PR etc as a way of getting the “target audience to get deeper in a relationship with [the] brand”.

He’s not wrong, exactly.  I just didn’t think that he was totally right in the ‘social marketing’ context either.

Meanwhile, the National Social Marketing Centre suggests:

“Social Marketing is an approach used to develop activities aimed at changing or maintaining people’s behaviour for their benefit.

“Whereas marketing in the commercial world ultimately seeks to influence consumer behaviour for profit, social marketing encourages behaviours that provide benefit for individuals and society as a whole.”

These are two different things.

Following my comment on Steve’s blog, a fairly spirited discussion erupted between Tom Megginson, Marc Van Gurp, Nedra Weinreich and myself over on Twitter, which ended with a conclusion of confusion in the industry, and the probable need for Social Marketing, in the NSMC sense, to rebrand.

You see, social marketing in the Steve Goldner sense is actually marketing which is social.  I.e. connects consumers with brands for profit and isn’t too much of a wet blanket while doing it.

Social marketing, in the NSMC sense, is actually social change marketing, as Nedra so helpfully added to the conversation.

Neither are social media marketing (which a lot of people call social marketing), although both may involve social media.  This particular confusion has been going on since at least 2009

These aren’t contradictory viewpoints, but they are different.

Both Steve’s interpretation and that provided by the NSMC are complementary.  Marketing should always be social (non-douche-like, to use a colleague’s expression), and this approach will help social change marketing messages embed and spread within their target communities.

However, they are genuinely different – due to the motivations of the brand/organisation carrying out the marketing in the first place.

(I’m bypassing the ‘social media marketing’ as ‘social marketing’ argument for the moment because social media is nothing more than a channel.  The other definitions are marketing ecosystems which have more potential for confusion, as opposed to being just plain wrong.)

Is there a third way?

While I love Nedra’s ‘social change marketing’ terminology, I fear that this will put off a lot of suits who worry themselves grey over the monthly P&L.

It sounds very good, very righteous, very right – but not the sort of thing that you’d be worrying about if you’re trying to sell lawnmowers or chocolate (as opposed to health or environment related behaviours).

And although I get where Social Steve’s coming from, I don’t agree with that appropriation of ‘social marketing’.

There needs to be a third way – which I believe lies in the way that the brand sees themselves, their relationship to their consumers and what they stand for.

If a brand defines themselves in terms of their category and their P&L, then the best that they can hope for is marketing which is social.  Although, if they’re solely brand-centric, they’ll fail the “are you being a douche” test (I really must speak to my colleague about her colloquialisms).

However, if the brand defines themselves in terms of their consumers and communities, then they legitimately stand for something, have a position on the issues which affect their consumers and can start to undertake social [behavioural] change marketing.

This is a much deeper question than ‘What’s social marketing’ and it goes right to the heart of brand architecture.  I believe, unequivocally, that, as marketers, this is exactly what we need to be doing to connect with our audience, develop and deliver great work, and make that defined contribution to the bottom line.

We need to be creating social [behavioural] marketing alongside marketing which is social AND contribute to the bottom line.

At least, that’s my view.

What’s your position on the social marketing v social marketing debate?

Are you with Social Steve, or in the same field as Tom, Marc and Nedra?

Please, share your opinion by commenting below.  I predict that this topic is going to gain traction over the next twelve months, so the more debate we have now, the better…

I’m looking forward to learning from you!

Neil Hopkins is a Marketing and Branding Theorist at heart, and a Marketing Communications Manager by day. His blog – interacter – is the primary location he shares insight and information relating to marketing, branding and advertising strategy.
You can follow Neil on Twitter, circle him (like an escaped bull) on Google+ or track him down in any number of other ways.

The lovely question mark image comes from Ciccio Pizzettaro on Flickr under Creative Commons.

4 thoughts on “The great social marketing dilemma

  1. Neil – Glad you wrote this, because I know a lot of people are confused and trying to figure out how to reconcile the different usages of the term “social marketing.” For me and my colleagues, it’s been happening since at least 2006, when social media came to the fore, and Google searches for “social marketing” started turning up articles with zero social issue focus.

    I come to this debate from a historical perspective, having worked in a field that’s been called “social marketing” since the 1970’s, so I don’t feel like we need to reconcile the terms, but to figure out a way to bring clarity to each of the uses. There is definitely overlap — and should be — but not everyone doing my social marketing needs to incorporate a social component (though it may well increase their effectiveness), and not everyone doing the other social marketing needs to think about social change (though it may well increase their effectiveness).

    What we do need is a rebranding of social change marketing, but so far we as a field have not been able to come to consensus on what it should become! A girl can dream…

  2. Pingback: The great social marketing dilemma | #web2salut...

  3. Thanks Neil. I’d have to say i’m very happy to keep flying the ‘social marketing’ flag…quickly followed by references to behaviour change. However, given so many agencies and jo blogs business people are using the term ‘social marketing’ the moment a facebook page is created, it probably makes a lot of sense to keep pushing the ‘truth’, but taking the pragmatic fall-back position of ‘social change marketing’. I hear your point re P&L. Companies interested in social change, and as a result ‘social marketing’ will of course need to keep an eye on P&L, but they’ll be ultimately interested in delivering services, products, communications that are geared to societal benefit, and will often be contracted with social outcomes in mind. If they follow the social marketing process, you’d hope the pennies will look after themselves as they’ll be delivering insight rich and strategy rich contracts. For me social marketing fits like a glove with the social enterprise sector, which is also (like all businesses) being bombarded with messages claiming social ‘media’ marketing is what they must do to succeed…very frustrating for me, and confusing for them. If the social marketing sector can make a big enough noise, then great. If not…fall back to social change marketing (it’s a bit more ‘does what it says on the tin’).

    Saying all that, i was busy describing what an earth Hitch Marketing tries to get up during the week re social marketing, to a student last week. His conclusion ‘ethical marketing’. Perhaps I should just get on with it, and leave the jargon busters to it. It seems that for many out their any ‘marketing’ is posters and tweets.

    Ps i’m still inclined to, in the short-term, cover all bases and use public sector ‘policy and strategy’ recognised terms.

  4. Pingback: Social Marketing: It’s Past Time to Reframe and Rebrand | Change Conversations

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