Understanding and Using the Lessons of Social Marketing

Social marketing is the application of the principles and techniques of commercial marketing to promote socially desirable goals. It has been applied extensively, and with considerable success, in efforts to encourage/discourage specific health behaviors, such as using seat belts, putting babies to sleep on their backs, getting exercise, eating right, and not smoking. A list of recommended reading on this topic is provided at the end of this page.

Starting With Behaviors

Applying social marketing to the promotion (and even the design) of comparative quality reports requires that you first identify specific behavioral objectives. That is, you have to know what you want consumers to do. In the context of commercial marketing, the objective is to get someone to buy a product or service. In the context of health behaviors, there is a defined behavior that is defined as desirable (getting regular exercise) or undesirable (smoking). But in the context of a quality report, you are not trying to drive consumers to choose a particular provider or plan; what you want is for them to be making their own informed decisions.

The behaviors you are trying to influence are more subtle:

  • Accessing the report.
  • Spending at least a few minutes looking at the report.
  • Using the information in the report to help make a decision.
  • Telling family, friends, and work colleagues about the report.
  • Discussing the report with health care professionals, or even with employers and policy makers.

Learn more about this in Affect the Behaviors of Health Care Consumers.

Focusing on the Audience

The power and the challenge of social marketing is that it requires you to take your audience’s perspective whenever you make a decision. If you do not adopt this perspective early in the process, you may well design a report that does not resonate with your audience. This is why you have to be clear on who your audience is, what their information needs are, and how they get and use information. Remember, too, that you audience may not be the public at large, or even all people who need a particular health service. To be effective, promotional efforts need to narrow down to a more manageable and specific audience.

Learn more about narrowing down your audience in Identifying Your Audience.

Learn more about the role of audience research in a promotional campaign in Learning About Your Audience.

Focusing on the audience starts before promotion. You need to see your product—your comparative quality report—from the point of view of your audience. You are probably very excited about the report; they are not. You are sure it will be valuable and useful; they have no idea how or why it would even be relevant to them. Taking the audience’s perspective requires a certain level of self-discipline—but while it may be uncomfortable, it also allows you to be more effective than you are likely to be otherwise.

Identifying Benefits and Barriers

Applying the principles of social marketing requires you to:

  • Identify the benefits of your report that will be perceived as important by your audience.
  • Identify the barriers your audience members believe they may face in taking the actions you want them to take.
  • Motivate your audience by crafting both a product, and messages about the product, that highlight the benefits and reduce or eliminate the barriers.

Early research with your audience can give you the understanding you need in order to articulate the benefits your audience will find compelling and address the barriers people are likely to experience. It is fairly straightforward to highlight valued benefits in your messages. Addressing barriers, on the other hand, can be trickier.

Knowing about barriers can help you reduce them, either as you design your report or as you decide where to place your report so it is easy for people to access. But not all barriers are easy or inexpensive to overcome.

It can also be challenging to discuss barriers in promotional materials without drawing attention to why people may stay away. But you may be able to refer directly to a perceived barrier in promotional materials if you can make a compelling case that you have reduced or even eliminated the barrier in your report. For example, one perceived barrier for many people is that the report will be written in technical medical language and full of statistics. You can make it explicit that your report has been designed and tested to make sure it is “user friendly” for people who are not medical experts.

Recommended Reading on Social Marketing


Also in "Promote Your Report"

Page last reviewed March 2016
Page originally created February 2015
Internet Citation: Understanding and Using the Lessons of Social Marketing. Content last reviewed March 2016. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD. http://www.ahrq.gov/professionals/quality-patient-safety/talkingquality/disseminate/promote/socialmarketing.html