What You Need to Know about Social Marketing

By Christine Bixiones, Technical Advisor for the Sexual and Reproductive Health and TB Department, PSI

When someone says social marketing, what do you think about? If you immediately picture subsidized products like condoms in retail outlets, promoted with national media campaigns and shiny billboards, then your knowledge might be outdated.

Social marketing has increasingly evolved to consider the entire market and its actors. As a strategy that uses marketing concepts to influence changes in health behaviors, it first determines if a market is meeting the health needs of the population at risk. If it isn’t, social marketing then helps identify the market shortcomings that prohibit consumers from accessing the health services and products they need, and uses that information to create solutions.

Just like the commercial sector, social marketing seeks to intimately understand a consumer’s values, desires and aspirations, and then uses this information to help the public adopt lasting, healthy behaviors.

Ultimately, social marketing programs these days may do a variety of things:

  • Deliver subsidized products through commercial outlets like pharmacies
  • Deliver health services through social franchise clinic networks
  • Distribute products or services for free
  • Promote a commercial product
  • Promote behaviors not dependent upon a product or service, like hand washing

Inspiring a person to change his or her behavior is what every business aspires to achieve. Coca-Cola, Samsung, and Google all endeavor to change our behavior so that we purchase a greater number of their products. In a similar way, social marketing might encourage people at risk for malaria to sleep under a bed net; motivate providers to offer contraceptive counseling and services to young people; or educate mothers about the benefits of exclusively breastfeeding their newborns.


How Does Social Marketing Lead to Better Health? Source – Adapted from Modi and Firestone 2014.

Why is this important?

Because social marketing can make people healthier, and there is evidence to prove it. The Social Marketing Evidence Base is a systematic review of evaluations of social marketing interventions in low- and middle-income countries. The results demonstrate how social marketing can improve behavioral factors, behaviors themselves, and ultimately health outcomes. For example, eight studies found that social marketing programs led to significant changes in health outcomes, including reductions of up to 53% in HIV prevalence, 77% in sexually transmitted infection (STI) prevalence, and a 79% increase in STI cure rate.

Learn the basics in two hours.

To learn more about the evidence around social marketing, how it works, and why it is important, take the Global Health e-Learning Center’s new Social Marketing for Health course. The course will present you with case studies and examples of an array of social marketing interventions that illustrate important concepts such as a total market approach, “the 4Ps,” sales and distribution, and challenges to implementation.

Who knows? After taking this course, you might just be convinced that Coca-Cola, Samsung, and Google aren’t the only ones who can change the world. And you will certainly think of social marketing as more nuanced than a condom campaign.

Take the course online.

Photo Credit: What Took You So Long Foundation

This post originally ran on K4Health’s blog.