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What’s in a Name? Highlights from 23rd Social Marketing (Not Media!) Conference

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Something I love about social marketing is that it frames difficult challenges in a manner that encourages optimism, energy, and action. One challenge that seems to generate more frustration than optimism though is the common mix-up of social marketing with social media (or social media marketing). In fact, last week’s 23rd Social Marketing Conference was kicked off with a tongue-in-cheek disclaimer: if you’re here to learn about social media, you’ll be disappointed (Get out. Just kidding. But, seriously). Despite the angst over the confusion, social marketing does use social media as a tool. Which got me curious – what were social marketers abuzz about on social media during the conference last week? Twitter Topics at USF

Aside from check-ins (e.g., I’m at the session on environmental programs!), general kudos (e.g., AWESOME CONFERENCE), selfies/photos with friends, and session updates (e.g., 20% of residential runoff is nitrogen), a few key themes emerged (from my subjective classification!)

  1. Understand your audience – and give people what they want. We spend considerable time talking about social marketing being all about the consumer – for good reason. This focus has encouraged a shift from an antiquated knowledge transfer paradigm that simply didn’t change behavior. Tweet from @saecassBut, this shift is still occurring. A common theme at the conference was that education and awareness are not enough to inspire behavior change. Example after example was provided of behaviors people know they should do but simply don’t. One of the best might have been a live experiment with social marketers themselves – in response to discussion about a CDC recommendation that people should stand to be healthier, only about 10 of 300 people stood up. What’s the solution? Figure out what your audience values and find a way for the behavior you’re marketing to help them realize what they want in life. Make it easy. Make it fun. Make it more appealing than the alternative. It seems obvious, but scare and lecture tactics are still quite common when the topic is health.
  2. Social marketing needs to be marketed. This gets back to the confusion with social media marketing. And potential overlap with behavioral economics. There was a big push for selling social marketing as an approach. Being better advocates couldn’t hurt, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that this is an exciting time, with social marketing gaining increasing traction with those who set agendas and control budgets. TweetFor example, a Healthy People 2020 objective is to increase social marketing in health promotion and disease prevention. I’ve seen a similar trend across the federal government space. Over the past year, my team has been asked to leverage theory to define program objectives and structure formative research, provide audience segmentations based on demographic and psychographic characteristics, conduct formative research with priority groups, and implement program monitoring/evaluation in support of a number of public health and social issues. Increasingly, decision-makers are looking for social marketers – by name – to turn their behavioral goals into realities. And, that’s great news!
  3. Research is critical. Presenters encouraged the use of research insights to select behavioral objectives, segment and select priority groups, understand competition, and develop an integrated marketing mix (no arguments here, obviously!). Back to understanding the audience and creating an exchange they would want – research allows us to make these connections. We need answers, and the way we get answers we can trust is by asking the right questions. Research itself won’t make an effort successful though, and it’s important to remember that insights are only as good as the research design that generates them. In the end, we need something a little more than answers. TweetWe need answers we can rely on to design our campaigns and interventions around. Luckily that just means smart research – and there were some great ideas shared for maximizing shoestring budgets.

It was inspiring to meet and learn from so many passionate folks who work tirelessly to change the world (one behavioral objective at a time) in the face of big scopes and small budgets. The dates for the 24th Social Marketing Conference have already been set for June 15-18, 2016. Join us in marking your calendar!


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