Knowledge Area BEPs: Social Marketing Principles


Social marketing has been defined as the use of marketing principles and techniques to influence a target audience to voluntarily accept, reject, modify, or abandon a behavior for the benefit of individuals, groups, or society as a whole. To apply a social marketing approach:

  • Select a specific behavior you want people to apply.
  • Identify perceived barriers and benefits of engaging in both the current and preferred behavior.
  • Develop creative strategies to overcome barriers and enhance the benefits of the preferred behavior using a set of tools designed to modify behavior.
  • Pilot test the strategy with a small segment of the community
  • Implement and evaluate the impact of the program

An effective strategy for developing the social marketing initiative requires working with a team to determine what information is needed in order to follow these five steps, and where to find it. The team will also analyze information about the situation and clarify the issue, as well as identifying potential environmental practices that can make a difference.


There are many resources available to help isolate barriers and benefits, and experts who can help apply them successfully. Tools, strategies, and resources are available on this Web site. See especially resources included in the Changing Public Behavior Self-Study Modules. Also see The 7- step process in practice: a case study example for how these principles were applied in Arkansas, available in the Workshop Materials sample packet.

Specific tools that can help clarify barriers and benefits include the following and are described further at:

  • Background research
  • Census data research
  • Delphi method
  • Focus groups
  • Informal interviews
  • Observations
  • Participatory action research
  • Public meetings – facilitated
  • Rapid appraisal
  • Surveys

To design a creative strategy to overcome barriers and enhance the benefits of the preferred behavior, use behavior change tools such as: encouraging a commitment, prompts, communicating norms, and incentives. Use quality communication techniques and make an effort to remove external barriers.

Commitment: A public commitment increases the likelihood of compliance with future requests. An act of commitment alters how people see themselves – they see themselves as the type of person who acts a certain way and feel the need to act consistently with this self-perception. Written commitments have been shown to be more effective than verbal commitments. And making a commitment publicly or within a group increases effectiveness of this technique.

Prompts: Prompts are explicit instructions such as, ‘Turn off the lights’ rather than ‘Save electricity’. A prompt should be placed as close in time or space as possible to target behavior, such as at the point of purchase.

Norms: Norms refer to the human tendency to look toward others to help guide behavior. The effectiveness of demonstrating the “norm” depends on people internalizing norms, that is, the person believes that the norm is how people ‘should’ behave. For example, beverage advertisements might show people drinking a satisfying beverage: an ad for one product might show an athlete drinking a high energy drink, and an ad for a different product might show a “normal guy” drinking a type of soda. The individual is likely to copy the behavior of the person they most want to be, or think they should be like.

Incentives: Incentives include financial incentives, social approval, and encouragement for feeling good about self. Social marketing messages also need to address financial, knowledge, and convenience barriers.

Quality communications: Effective messages are vivid, concrete and personalized. The message is tailored to address specific audience circumstances and references a credible source. The message usually provides specific instructions, a model for how to behave, and shows the behavior within a familiar context. Effective messaging also provides feedback about the consequences of community efforts at individual and community levels. Enhance social diffusion by increasing the likelihood people will discuss new activity with others. Use threatening messages with caution.