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Section 5. Promoting Awareness and Interest Through Communication

Learn about designing, constructing, and placing messages that your target audience will respond to.


  • What is effective social marketing communication?

  • What are tools for reaching the target audience?

  • How do you approach common barriers to effective social marketing communication?

  • How do you develop effective messages?

A woman and a little girl walk through a field on a beautiful summer day. Birds sing, bees buzz, the wildflowers are extraordinary... all is lovely. Suddenly, the woman starts to sneeze. She walks faster and faster through the field, her sneezes coming closer and closer together. She begins to run toward a house in the distance, sneezes wracking her body. At last she reaches the house, flings herself inside, and reaches frantically for a bottle on the kitchen table. Cut to the smiling woman back in the field, making a daisy wreath for the little girl's hair. The name of a well-known allergy medication flashes on the screen.

If you're not allergic to pollen, this ad may not mean much to you, and you might not even notice it. If you are allergic, you know all too well the sensation of being overwhelmed by sneezing, and the extreme discomfort that brings. You're likely to pay attention to the ad, and perhaps to look into the medication. After all, if it works for that woman...

To be successful, a social marketing campaign has to reach people with a message that will help them decide to change their behavior. If the message isn't understandable, if it doesn't reach its audience, if it scares or offends them too much, if it doesn't seem to apply to them, or if it simply doesn't register at all, they won't respond.

Running an effective social marketing campaign is, as much as anything else, a matter of effective communication. In this section, we'll discuss designing, constructing, and placing messages that your target audience will respond to.

What is effective social marketing communication?

In the Community Tool Box chapter Developing a Plan For Communication, communication is defined as "the process of transmitting ideas and information about your initiative throughout the community." Effective social marketing communication does that in such a way that people are aware of the message, understand it clearly, and respond to it positively.

Although, as we'll see, social marketing communication has its specific attributes, it is still subject as well to some general rules for communication:

  • Communication is a two-way street. You have to be sure that what your audience understands is the message that you meant to send. There are several issues that can provide difficulties here.
    • Language. Is the message in a language that people can understand? Effective communication may require putting your message in a language other than English if that's the language of the target community, or it may mean making sure that your message is in clear, simple English.
    • Non-verbal communication. Your body language, tone and pitch of voice, and clothing - or those of actors or spokespersons - all send powerful messages of their own about whom you intend to reach. If you're using images -- in photographs, video, or film -- will your audience immediately recognize and identify them? The setting, ;the type of music, and the choice of actors or spokespersons are also important.
    • Culture. Different cultures communicate in different ways, so you have to understand the culture of your target audience to communicate effectively. Looking toward and away from people have different meanings in different cultures, for instance. It's important to be culturally sensitive in order both to be understood and not to offend.
  • Communication has to be accessible. No matter how creative and potentially effective your message is, it can't do much good if your audience isn't exposed to it. You have to put it where they can't miss it, which means using the channels they're most likely to pay attention to. We'll discuss this in greater detail later in the section.
  • Communication has to be noticeable. Even after the message is placed in the right channels, it has to have some characteristics that will help it to break through the barrage of messages that bombards everyone every day. People not only have to be exposed to it, but they have to pay attention to it for it to have any effect.

Tools for reaching the target audience

In order to make sure that your message is understandable, accessible, and noticeable, you need to pay attention to four areas:

  • The channels through which you transmit the message
  • The design of the message itself
  • The use of spokespersons
  • The way the message is linked to familiar themes and values of the target audience


If you use channels creatively and mix them well, you're much more likely to get your message to those for whom it's intended. The channels have to be ones that your target audience is exposed to. The Spanish-language or hip-hop radio station, the neighborhood laundromat or Hispanic market, and the local Catholic church might all be places where young Hispanic parents would come into contact with your message, for instance. People are more apt to see posters or signs in their neighborhood than elsewhere, and to pick up fliers in places where they're already thinking about the issue. (They might be more open to child nutrition information at a health clinic or at the WIC office, for example, than in the video store.)

Another factor that will influence your choice of channels is what resources you have available. If you're a large national organization with a considerable marketing budget, your choice of channels is obviously wider than if you're a small community-based organization largely dependent on staff and volunteers and the generosity of community members.

There are numerous possibilities here. While paid advertisement is one of them, other information distribution channels, as well as entertainment, can also serve the purpose well, even - or especially - for small organizations without large marketing budgets.


  • Paid ads in print (newspapers and magazines) and on radio and TV are perhaps what most of us think of when we imagine trying to get the word out. The particular type of ad and the particular channel used will be determined at least partially by the availability of resources.
  • Public Service Announcements (PSAs). Radio and TV stations are required by their licenses to run a certain number of free PSAs for non-profit entities. Many stations will help you write the copy, and will perform them as well.
  • Billboards and signs. These can be creative both in the way they're designed (see below) and in the way they're presented. People walking the neighborhood with sandwich boards, for instance, might draw more attention than a simple posted sign, and they could also provide information and answer questions.
  • Sponsorship of or links to events, radio or TV shows, sports teams, etc. This kind of thing can be done at almost any level, from sponsoring a local first-and -second-grade soccer team to having your message splashed on national TV, depending upon your resources and connections.

Information channels

  • Posters. In appropriate locations, couched in simple language, and with tear -off phone numbers or other information, these can be very effective.
  • Fliers and brochures. As discussed above, these can be more compelling in places where the issue is already in people's minds.
  • Organizational and community newsletters. These may range from church bulletins to the internal newsletters of global corporations.
  • Promotional materials. Items from the familiar caps, T-shirts, and mugs to skateboards, tongue depressors, or imprinted lollipops ("Lick poverty now!") can serve as effective channels for your message.
  • Comic books or other reading material. Reading matter that is intrinsically interesting to the target audience can be used to deliver a message through a story that readers are eager to follow, or simply through the compelling nature of the medium and its design.
  • Internet sites. Depending upon the audience, this can be a successful way to reach a large number of people. You probably need to think carefully about links from other sites, and about a strategy to make the site easily accessible through search engines. An Internet presence would probably work best in combination with other approaches, so that the URL would be listed in other channels.
  • Letters to the Editor.
  • News stories, columns, and reports (on TV and radio as well as in newspapers and magazines) that you suggest, are featured in, or contribute to. Many media outlets have specific avenues for participation (National Public Radio "Letters" segments, for instance, or Newsweek's "My Turn" column).
  • Press releases and press conferences. These may announce the kick-off or status of a campaign, simply provide information about your issue, or showcase new information about the issue that may help to change people's perceptions or behavior.
  • Presentations or presence at local and national conferences, fairs, and other gatherings.
  • Announcements and presentations at public and institutional or organizational gatherings. This can include anything from a short presentation at a local church or school to a fleet of sound trucks blanketing a city with a social marketing message.

United Way of America makes a video every year that it distributes to all local United Ways to use in their fundraising efforts. Professionally produced and narrated by a well-known celebrity, the video adds both credibility and substance to the local campaign by spotlighting a particular issue, and is used as part of a presentation by member agencies or volunteers for the local United Way.

  • Community outreach or street work. Having one or more staff members spreading your message in the community can be very effective if they have the right connections and networks.
  • Community or national events. The Great American Smokeout, National Literacy Day, a community "Take Back the Night" evening against violence, and hundreds of other community events can serve to convey a message and highlight an issue.
  • Public demonstrations. A public demonstration on your issue doesn't have to be confrontational: it can be positive and upbeat, and still grab the public's attention. (Please see
  • Word of mouth. If you can get to a few key influential people, they can help to extend a social marketing message to a whole target population simply through their networks and their day-to-day contacts.

Everett Rogers, in his book Diffusion of Innovations, shows how an innovation can be spread quickly once it is adopted by a critical mass of key people. A famous study in Japan showed how, in a population of several hundred monkeys, a new behavior (washing the sand off food) at first spread very slowly. One monkey, then another, mostly young, learned the behavior and began to use it. It took weeks for the number of monkeys washing food to reach about 100, but at that point, the new behavior became universal literally overnight. We're primates, too: when enough people get the message, it spreads rapidly to the rest.


  • Movies. Various social marketing messages have been encapsulated in movies ever since the beginnings of the film industry. Movies have carried messages about the status of women, adult literacy, homosexuality, mental illness, AIDS, and numerous other social issues.
  • TV. The groundbreaking '70's sitcom All in the Family and 60 Minutes are examples of the different ways television can effectively convey social messages. In Mexico, where TV soap operas are extremely popular, they have been used as instruments to change behavior in areas such as family planning and child nutrition.

In addition to being the message, entertainment can be used for marketing in other ways as well. An organization could, for instance, arrange a screening of a movie or TV show - at a local theater, and/or with the cooperation or even participation of some of those involved in the creation of the piece - which highlights a particular issue. The media could be invited, and the event could generate a good amount of publicity.

  • Theater and interactive theater. Since the ancient Athens, when Aristophanes' Lysistrata, for instance, protested the Peloponesian War, theater and interactive theater - where the audience becomes part of the drama, either through questioning the actors or actually taking part in the stage action - have addressed social issues.

Art Ellison, a New Hampshire adult educator, started an interactive theater group to help people better understand the issues facing adult literacy students. As a result of that troupe's performances at conferences and meetings, the idea spread to other New England states. Massachusetts now has two adult literacy interactive theater groups - composed of adult educators and learners - that perform throughout the state.

  • Music. Music has been used as a social marketing tool probably since the beginning of human history. It has inspired devotion to every major religion, nurtured patriotism, encouraged revolution, spurred the labor movement, and acted as the rock upon which the American Civil Rights Movement was based.

Music is such a powerful tool to influence people's behavior because it bypasses the intellect and speaks directly to the emotions. Many pieces of music still performed today began as, essentially, elements of social marketing. Martin Luther wrote "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God " to spur the Protestant Reformation, while "We Shall Overcome" buoyed the spirits of black and white freedom workers and protesters in the darkest days of the Civil Rights Movement.

Music performance can also be an effective social marketing channel, even when the content of the music is not specific to the issue at hand. Benefit concerts, or concerts aimed explicitly at raising the profile of an issue or behavior, can draw large crowds and spread a message simply by the participation of the performers.

  • Message design. The design of the actual message - what it looks like, what it sounds like - can greatly affect how well it reaches the target audience. Design alone can make a message more or less understandable, accessible, or noticeable, no matter how well you've chosen the channels through which it's offered. As a result, the creativity and attention you expend on the visual and audial elements of your message are crucial.

Visual elements

If your message is in a visual medium - print, TV, movies, the Internet - whether it's moving or stationary, there are particular issues to consider. If you're able to have your messages designed by a graphic artist or filmmaker, she'll probably have lots of ideas about these issues. In order to contribute - or if you're your own designer - it will be helpful to consider:

  • Color. Bright colors tend to attract attention, but sometimes say the wrong thing, clashing with the actual content of your message. You might use bright colors to advertise a health fair or a smoke-out; you probably wouldn't use them to bring people to a memorial service for victims of AIDS.
  • Unusual visual elements. Infrared photography, black-and-white abstract design, distortion, speeded-up or slow-motion film or video, and other interesting visual effects can be engaging, if they're not too jolting.
  • Particularly beautiful or arresting images. The raising of the flag at Iwo Jima, the silent scream of the young woman leaning over a fallen student at Kent State: a photograph -- or film or video image -- can cement a message in a viewer's mind, and symbolize that message long after the exact words that accompanied it are gone.
  • Movement. A still photograph can trap tremendous movement, while a film or video can have virtually none. Movement, whether encapsulated in a photograph or used literally in a film or video, tends to capture attention.
  • Accessibility. The familiarity of the images or print you use, how easily they're understood, and what kind of language they're couched in (in the case of print) all contribute to how accessible they'll be to the target audience.
  • Subliminal or subtle visual messages. Unspoken communication -- the presence or absence of people of color or of people with disabilities, for instance -- makes it possible to use visual images to send complex messages without having to use words
  • Identification. Showing people just like those in the target audience engaging in particular behavior is one way to help convince the target audience to do the same.

Sound elements

If your medium depends upon sound - radio or, often, TV - that presents its own set of issues. Sound is tremendously important in our reactions to the world around us, and a social marketing message can use it, as commercial marketing messages do, as an emotional or other trigger.

  • Music. Depending upon whom you're aiming at and what you're trying to get across, you might use music either as a background or as the message itself. A familiar tune or type of music can help the hearer identify with the message, or can engage him on an emotional level. A loud or unusual musical feature can draw his attention. A particularly catchy jingle or song can make your message impossible to forget.

In the science fiction novel The Demolished Man, by Alfred Bester, a character uses the power of a catchy jingle to keep other telepathic characters from reading his mind. The jingle - composed in the book by a skilled marketer - takes over the character's conscious mind so thoroughly that, not only can he not stop mentally repeating it, but it blocks out his other conscious and subconscious thoughts.

  • Voice quality. If you're using an announcer, a voice-over, or a spokesperson (see below), her voice can convey any number of tones - comforting, authoritative, warm and welcoming, attention-getting, concerned, panicky, superior, realistic, etc. It generally makes sense to be sure that the tone of the voice or voices in your message match the tone of the message itself, or carry the real message you want to get across.

The voice-over of a well-known TV ad depicting "your brain on drugs" as a fried egg, for instance, was very clearly meant to convey toughness and a clear-eyed understanding of the real dangers of drug abuse. Whether the ad was in fact effective or not, there was no question as to its tone or intent.

Use of spokespersons.

Many social marketing campaigns employ one or more spokespersons. They may be famous or not, but they become symbols of the campaign, and - if it penetrates their minds - people come to identify them with it. The choice of a spokesperson is one more element that can help to make a social marketing message successful.

If the spokesperson is to contribute to, rather than detract from, your message's effectiveness, she has to be chosen carefully. As with any area of social marketing, you can find out whom people will respond to by asking them. Some suggestions:

  • Familiar figures. If the target audience seems to prefer to hear messages from someone they already know and trust, you can capitalize on that by employing spokespeople from the community, or who have connections to the community. Clergy, local business people, youth leaders, or respected elected officials could all be good (or bad) choices. Another possibility is simply to use members of the target population itself. They share experience with the mass of the audience, and are assumed trustworthy because their point of view is likely to be the same as that of the rest of the audience.

Your choice of spokespersons may vary depending upon which segment of your audience you're aiming at. As mentioned elsewhere in this chapter, for instance, it has long been known in the adult literacy community that authorities talking about the breadth and severity of the problem attract volunteers; current and former learners talking about their successes attract new learners.

  • Celebrities. Just as Nike recruited Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods to lend credibility to their products, a social marketing campaign might recruit a celebrity (usually for free as a public service, rather than for the millions paid to Jordan and Woods) to represent its message. While you'd want someone who's nationally known for a national campaign, for a local campaign, a local celebrity might serve just as well. Sports or other heroes (astronauts, for instance), musicians, actors, and elected officials (right up to Congresspersons and Senators and beyond - Barbara Bush sponsored an adult literacy campaign) are all possibilities in this category.

The celebrity should be someone who actually has some connection with and knows about the issue in question, or people will have no reason to believe him. The actor Michael J. Fox, who is himself a Parkinson's sufferer, sponsors and speaks for research into Parkinson's disease.

  • Authority figures. Some audiences are more comfortable hearing from people who either embody authority (CEOs, police chiefs, the President, the mayor), or are authorities in the field the campaign covers (doctors, college professors, environmental scientists).

Links to familiar themes and values.

A final design element that can help attract people to your message is to grab them with something familiar and interesting in order to lead them into the unfamiliar territory of the message. An example is to use images or discussions about school - an interest of most parents - as an introduction to approaching parenting or youth violence issues. Starting out with a familiar scenario, or with an appeal to a strongly held value of the target population ("We all want our kids to grow up safe... ") can attract attention where a direct reference to an unfamiliar issue ("Are your walls covered with lead paint?") may not.

How to approach common barriers to effective social marketing communication

In addition to the obvious - you ignore the basic rules of good communication; your message is badly presented or just plain wrong - there are a number of reasons why messages can go astray or not be heard. It's important to be aware of these before you create a communications strategy and individual messages, so that you can plan for getting around them.

Ignorance. If people in the target audience have no awareness of the issue, it may be hard to get their attention. To counter this potential problem, you can focus both on making sure the target audience gets information about the issue and on seeing to it that they are aware of your message.

  • Work up to awareness. You don't have to beat people over the head with the issue for them to become aware of it. There's a difference between "You are going to die of AIDS if you don´t read this!!!" and "Did you know that women get AIDS, too?" Starting with awareness may make the ultimate message ("Always use a condom") easier for people to hear and act on.
  • Place your message carefully. We've already discussed the importance of channels. Using channels where people will see the message repeatedly and without effort (the Mexican soap opera, e.g.), or making sure your message is everywhere in the local area, will make the audience aware at least that the issue exists.
  • Enlist trusted informants first. Doctors, pharmacists, therapists, bartenders, beauticians, and teachers are all in positions where they can pass on information. Natural helpers - those people to whom others in a neighborhood turn when they need help or advice - can also be enlisted. In some cases, it may make sense to train members of the target audience to spread the word.

In Boston, groups of teens were trained as AIDS prevention workers. They roamed their neighborhoods equipped with information and supplies of condoms, and were very successful in convincing their peers to practice safe sex and to get tested if they had any question about their HIV status.

Selective inattention. All of us are bombarded with thousands of messages every day. Commercial and social marketers, the government, individual merchants, institutions, performing arts organizations, and municipal services, among others, all vie for our attention. As a matter of pure survival, we learn to screen out anything that isn't directly or immediately relevant: it becomes background noise.

Especially if your target audience is ill-informed about your issue, they are likely to screen out your message. It is, after all, only one of many telling them that a behavior change will, in some way improve their lives. How can you convince them to notice and listen to your message amidst all the others to which they're subjected?

There is no one answer to this question, but using the four aspects of the message discussed previously - channels, design, spokespersons, and familiar themes - can help to bring your message to people's consciousness.

  • Channels. Obviously, you need to get your audience's attention. Put your message where they can't miss it. Smaller organizations with fewer resources might try, in addition to normal postings everywhere in target areas, looking for places where there aren't a lot of competing messages. The community bulletin board at the supermarket is probably overflowing: there may be far fewer postings in the pharmacy or the kids' clothing store. In addition, speaking at community events and on local radio or cable TV talk shows can also help you highlight your message and set it apart.
  • Design. Besides the obvious - bright colors, catchy music - the design elements that might be most important here are those which will convince your audience that the message is one that's relevant specifically to them. The use of images that mirror the target population, for instance, and of situations that reflect those in their own lives, might help to catch their attention. A message in their native language, if they belong to a language minority, or one that approaches the issue through concerns prominent in their culture might also serve to draw them in.
  • Spokespersons. Just as the images in the ad should mirror the target audience and their experiences, the spokespersons you choose should do the same. They should either be people who are part of, or could be part of, the audience itself, or celebrities who come out of the same experience as the target audience.

Kobe Bryant is certainly a legitimate black sports hero, but he grew up in relative affluence, lived in Europe for many years in his childhood, and speaks three languages fluently. His experience is obviously not similar to that of a black youth growing up in poverty on the streets of Chicago or Los Angeles. A better spokesperson would be a player who's come out of those same streets and knows what his audience's lives are like.

  • Familiar themes. Another way to catch the attention of your target audience is to introduce the unfamiliar with the familiar, as discussed above.

Selective inexposure. Not only do we screen messages to keep things manageable: we actively avoid messages that we think of as "not for us" or frightening or annoying or uncomfortable. People who dislike or are intimidated by classical music don't tend to listen to public radio, for instance, or to look at newspaper ads for symphony concerts.

  • Use channels that "belong" to the target audience. Place messages in venues that the target audience sees as their own - local sports clubs and churches, for instance, stores and other places that they frequent, or non-English-language radio stations.
  • Help the target audience identify with the message. Employ images, spokespeople, or vignettes that clearly show other members of the target population engaging in or concerned with the activity or issue in question.
  • Demonstrate how the issue is relevant to the target audience. Through the content or other facets of your message, show how the issue affects members of the audience directly, and exactly how the proposed change can serve them.

Studies have shown that too frightening a message will cause people to tune out. They either ignore it entirely, or externalize it ("That won't happen to me - it only happens to others.")

Principles. Often, social marketing campaigns concern issues that people see through the filter of moral, religious, or cultural values. (Many people object to homosexuality on religious or cultural grounds, and so may object to the defense of the basic rights of gay citizens.) This is a particularly difficult barrier to overcome. There are really only two approaches that you can take:

  • Show the target population that they've misunderstood the principle involved. In some cases, people may simply misinterpret the meaning of the principle they're following. In that situation, it may be relatively easy to present the right interpretation, perhaps through a clergyman or other trusted informant. Once the misunderstanding has been cleared up, the problem is solved.
  • Convince the target population that, even though they've understood the principle correctly, another, more important, principle takes precedence in this case. This may mean either that the second principle is more important within the same tradition (in most religions, the sanctity of life outweighs the sanctity of property, for example), or that you need to elevate the standing of a principle that the audience doesn't currently consider as important as the one that presents a barrier. It may be possible to convince some people who favor the death penalty that upholding the principle of the sanctity of life is more important than punishment or revenge.

How to develop effective messages: eight steps from Alan Andreasen

In Marketing Social Change, Alan Andreasen suggests an eight-step process for effective communication:

  • Set up outcome-linked, measurable objectives for your communication strategy. What exactly does your message aim to accomplish? Increased awareness? Actual behavior change? Maintenance of a particular behavior? A certain amount more or less of a particular behavior?

You need to set your objective in terms that can be measured in some way. Some examples are the decrease in the number of packs of cigarettes bought in your area over a particular period of time; the number of students using a new peer mediation program. By setting measurable objectives, you'll be able to gauge whether your message is having an effect.

  • Develop messages that emerge from the target audience, recognizing message competition. This step is about listening to the target audience.
    • The message should be one that the target audience has already indicated it will listen to. From focus groups, interviews, and other market research, you can find out and act on what members of the target audience think will get their attention.
    • Recognize message competition. If you're conducting an anti-smoking effort, for instance, your audience will encounter several kinds of messages different from yours: tobacco ads; the pleasure of smoking itself; fear of weight gain; peer pressure to smoke; and the fear that if they admit smoking is dangerous, they might actually suffer its consequences. Your communication strategy needs to acknowledge the existence of these messages, and try to counter them with arguments or messages that engage the target audience. (Some counters might be the fact that tobacco companies have been lying to the public for years about smoking's ill effects; the cost of smoking; the advantages to overall health of a good diet and exercise; the need to think independently; and the dangers to loved ones of secondhand smoke.)
  • Select appropriate channels. See the discussion of channels earlier in this section.
  • Develop different communications for different segments. Use market research to create a specific message for each segment of the target audience.
  • Pretest every message. Once you've developed messages, go back to the target population - in the form of focus groups and interviews, or even informally - and get their feedback. If the messages aren't effective, change them in the ways the feedback tells you to. Don't be tied to something you think is great if the target audience doesn't respond to it.
  • Integrate your communications program internally. Make sure that each communication sends the same message: don't confuse people with a barrage of issues, or with messages that might be seen as contradictory.
  • Integrate your communications program with everything else in the marketing mix. Personal presentations, ads, news stories, lobbying, and anything else that you do should carry the same message. Again, don't confuse people: be clear and consistent.
  • Evaluate outcomes by your original criteria. How effective did your communication seem to be? If the answer seems to be very little or not at all, get back to the drawing board.

A ninth step from the Community Tool Box

In addition to Andreasen's eight steps, there's really a ninth: after you've made whatever changes were indicated by your evaluation,

  • Start the whole process over again. Even effective communications need to be changed to keep your message fresh (How long, after all, does it take for your reaction to a TV commercial to turn from "That's really clever!" to "Oh, no... not this again"?), or to respond to changes in conditions or in the target audience. If your campaign has been successful in changing people's behavior, for instance, your message needs to change from "Why don't you try this?" to "Look at what you've accomplished ! Keep up the good work!"

In Summary

Communication is really the core of any social marketing campaign. Your communication has to convey your ideas and message clearly; has to be accessible by the people it's aimed at; and has to be noticeable. If people don't understand, aren't exposed to, or don't pay any attention to your message, they won't respond by changing their behavior.

Therefore, you have to pay attention to four aspects of the message in order to make sure it will be effective:

  • The channels through which the communication is delivered. The message has to be delivered in language that assures that the target audience can understand it, and has to be available in places where the target audience will come in contact with it.
  • The design of the message. How the communication looks, sounds, and reads will do much to determine whether the target audience will notice and pay attention to it.
  • The use and choice of spokespersons. Choosing a credible spokesperson - someone whom the target audience respects and believes - can contribute hugely to the effectiveness of your message. Choosing the wrong spokesperson - someone the target audience has no reason to pay attention to, or whom they view as actively hostile - can assure that your communication will fall flat.
  • The use of familiar themes and values. Using a familiar situation or idea or appealing to the values of the target audience can help to smooth the way for a new concept or a suggestion for a behavior change they hadn't considered.

You can use these four aspects of the message individually and in combination to over come the most common barriers to social marketing communication:

  • Ignorance. Often, members of the target population know little or nothing about the issue, and therefore don't see it as relevant.
  • Selective inattention. Your issue is just one of the thousands of messages to which the target audience is subjected every day. If it doesn't have a "hook" to draw them in, they'll screen it out.
  • Selective inexposure. People make it their business to stay out of the way of messages that they see as meant for groups other than theirs, or that they find frightening, discomfiting, or annoying.
  • Principle. If your message contradicts the religious, moral, or cultural values of the target audience, they'll see it as hostile and wrong unless you can either convince them that another principle takes precedence in this case.

Alan Andreasen, one of the gurus of social marketing, suggests eight steps to effective social marketing communication:

  • Set up outcome-linked, measurable objectives for your communication strategy.
  • Develop messages that emerge from the target population, recognizing message competition.
  • Select appropriate channels.
  • Develop different communications for different market segments.
  • Pretest every message.
  • Integrate your communications program internally (make sure that your communications all say the same thing).
  • Integrate your communications program with everything in the marketing mix.
  • Evaluate outcomes by your original criteria.

The Tool Box adds a ninth step: Make adjustments guided by your evaluation, then go through the process again, for as long as your campaign lasts.

Online Resources

Australian Department of the Environment and Energy

Crosby Marketing Communications, a commercial firm, has examples of its social marketing work linked to its website, including Smoking Stinks!, an anti-smoking campaign in the Ann Arundel County (MD) schools, and Catholic Campaign for Human Development, an anti-poverty campaign for the National Council of Catholic Bishops.

Information on social marketing communications and a bibliography on the subject from Health Canada.

Join Together is a collaboration of the Boston University School of Public Health and The Partnership at, dedicated to advancing effective drug and alcohol policy, prevention and treatment.

Print Resources

Andreasen, A. (1995). Marketing Social Change. San Francisco: Jossey Bass Publishers.

Kotler, P., & Alan, R. (1987). Strategic Marketing for Nonprofit Organizations. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

"Making Health Communications Work: A Planner's Guide," 1992. From the US Dept. of Health and Human Services and the National Institutes of Health.