We don’t do business in private anymore Is social marketing for you?

Social marketing has come of age. Environics President Michael Adams calls it 'the marketing wave of the future.'Once confined to the non-profit and public sectors, corporations are suddenly taking note, wondering if this marketing discipline offers a viable alternative to traditional...

Social marketing has come of age. Environics President Michael Adams calls it ‘the marketing wave of the future.’

Once confined to the non-profit and public sectors, corporations are suddenly taking note, wondering if this marketing discipline offers a viable alternative to traditional – and, decreasingly, successful – advertising and public relations practices.

What is social marketing anyway? How does it work? When do you use it? And most important, how do you know when you need it?

Here are a few guidelines to help you better understand what social marketing can do, and to help you decide whether it is right for you.

What’s Your Social Agenda?

You may have yet to ask yourself this question. You should. All indications are that the private sector does not do business in private anymore. Markets are demanding that companies become socially accountable.

More likely to do business

In fact, according to The Market Vision 2000 Study, 94% of Canadians are more likely to do business with a ‘good’ company than a ‘bad’ one.

A full 26% of Canadians – 5.5 million people – punished badly behaved companies last year by boycotting their products and services. The reason?

Almost two to one, the boycott had nothing to do with the products and services, but with what Canadians consider to be unacceptable corporate behavior: environmental insensitivity, poor labor relations, abuse of animals.

The message is clear: to stay relevant and to satisfy markets, it is becoming increasingly important for the private sector to adopt and pursue a social agenda.

How important is social marketing to your corporate agenda?

Social marketing is methodology for promoting social change, a planning and management discipline and a catalyst for altering social dynamics.

It is used to influence public perceptions, attitudes and behaviors in relation to social issues: aids, the environment, international development, drug abuse, employment equity, literacy, the list goes on.

Social marketing provides a set of tools for influencing the change process and for packing ideas and information to harness their power.

Different orientation

In other words, social marketing is significantly and substantively different in orientation and approach from traditional corporate approaches to issues.

Public affairs practices are often largely defensive. Exxon, for example, uses crisis management to mitigate negative perceptions of its oil spill.

Other companies lobby against restrictive public policies. Still others employ pr tactics to pacify cause-related organizations. Almost all major corporations have a host of charities to which they contribute time and money.

These initiatives, however, do not add up to social marketing.

From a public affairs perspective, social marketing is a management alternative offering a proactive and systemic approach to addressing often complex and sensitive social issues.

Social marketing can also help companies achieve their corporate objectives. But, only if used properly.

Social marketing cannot be a marginal activity.

As an integral component of the marketing effort, housed in the marketing of communications department, social marketing can be pivotal in adding value to customer relationships, in establishing effective partnerships, and in demonstrating corporate leadership.

What do you need in order for social marketing to work?

Unquestionably, the element most essential to creating successful social marketing programming is expertise – an understanding of what social marketing is and how it works.

Countless programs have failed because programmers developed a brochure and, lo and behold, it did not change many minds.

Or they created messages that were irrelevant to the needs, priorities and realities of target groups.

If you do not have people who understand that social marketing is not a quick fix, but an evolutionary, multi-faceted and integrated approach to social change, then your programs will not work.

You also need resources. You have got to be prepared to commit money and time.

Coors has just committed $40 million to literacy education over five years. Not all companies can allocate this level of funding, but, the point is, Coors has made a long-term commitment to mobilizing real change.

Finally, successful programs need a strategic plan. It is no different from any other corporate initiative. Ad hoc efforts result in fragmented messages, diminished impact and wasted resources.

How do you measure success?

It is hard. Social change is long-term. You cannot measure attitude and behavior change like you would product sales.

Benchmarks of change

What you have to do is create benchmarks of change – assessing media coverage and issue visibility is just one important indicator.

The key is not to end up measuring the number of brochures you have produced, or the number of events you have launched and assume that you have brought about change.

Producing one ad does not mean it has been seen, or that it has changed minds, or that it has influenced behavior.

How do you find the social marketing agency that is right for you?

The real question is ‘Is there such a thing as a social marketing agency?’

The answer is ‘yes,’ and it operates in a particular arena.

Just as there is a marketplace of products, so, too, is there a marketplace of ideas: social marketing is a discipline geared toward this marketplace.

Social marketing is not an overnight sensation. It has been around for 20 years now, and there is a significant amount of knowledge, expertise and experience out there. In fact, Canada is a world leader in the field.

Look for experience

Look for experience. It counts. Agencies that specialize in commercial advertising know how to sell products and services.

Issues are different. Simply applying commercial advertising techniques to promote these issues does not work.

Next, look for results. Have their programs changed attitudes, behaviors? Have they achieved objectives?

Third, look for sound strategic thinking. Again, social marketing is a methodology. It is not advertising, nor public relations, though these are indeed useful tactics.

Finally, look for fit. The human factor is critically important. If social marketing is a long-term process, then the client-agency relationship is a long-term collaboration.

As Canada’s oldest and largest social marketing agency, we have seen that our most successful work is born out of committed and mutually beneficial and satisfying relationships with our clients.

Mark Sarner is a founding partner of Manifest Communications, a Toronto-based social marketing agency.