Making social marketing count: engaging your audience by (almost) any means possible

4 years, 3 months ago

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People are at varying stages of readiness for accepting something new. To foster engagement, social marketing must be built on a model of profound communications. By Sandra Wills Hannon.



Brace yourself.  Building and executing campaigns to engage people to change their lifestyle, beliefs or decisions is not for the faint-hearted.  As most people in the business of engaging people know, you have to be prepared for a multi-year, highly strategic effort if you really want to impact change.  
 
Of course, there are many approaches to try to engage audiences.  Branding, messaging, provocative advertising, and public information campaigns are but a few.  
 
However, in my 20+ years’ experience I have observed a consistency of components in campaigns that successfully engaged audiences, no matter whether the topic was on energy saving, workplace safety or healthy living.  Over and over again, I noted that effective campaigns use a mix of two specific behavior change theories, as well as measurable goals and strong research.  It’s the gold standard that sets you up for true engagement.
 
Blending two theories
 
Here’s what I’ve seen work.  You incorporate the guidelines from two theories – the diffusion of innovations theory and the social marketing theory – as your foundation for strategic planning. Then you add exploratory research to understand where the audience is, what they need and how they need to hear about it, creating profound communications that meaningfully alter perceptions, beliefs and behaviors.
 
In this essay, I share how the mix of theory and research leads to profound communications that effectively engage audiences.
 
A Model for Establishing Foundations of Profound Communications for Engagement
 
 
Diffusion of innovations theory
 
The diffusion of innovations theory explains how, why and how quickly individuals accept or are engaged by new ideas and technology.  Popularized in his book, Diffusion of Innovations, Everett Rogers argued that people are at different levels of readiness to accept what is new (Rogers, 2003).  In fact, he proposed that people fell more or less into 5 categories:  the innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards.  
 
We see these categories come to life, for example, when we look at the release of new Apple products.  The innovators are the individuals who participate in beta testing of the new product or who sleep outside an Apple store so that they are the first to buy a new product upon its release to the consumer market.  The early adopters buy the product the first weekend the product is released.  The early majority buy the new product the first few weeks that the product is on sale.  The late majority buy the product months or 1 or 2 years after the product is released.  By the time the laggards buy the product 2 or 3 years later, another product has been released.   
 
The concept that people are at different stages of acceptance of an idea or product is applied to behavior change campaigns that try to engage audiences.  Whether it is to encourage individuals to conserve energy or to get a flu shot, we know that they are at different stages of readiness to engage individuals and alter their behaviors.
 
For example, we have conducted numerous research studies to explore people’s perceptions of and willingness to take flu vaccinations.  We have found that there are generational and racial correlations to individuals’ willingness to get a flu vaccination.
 
Generally, theory indicates that it can take several years to engage audiences for behavior change and it’s been my experience working on behavior change campaigns that this is generally the case.
 
Usually, the first step in designing your campaign starts with determining where your audiences are on the diffusion continuum because your messaging and overall approach is going to be quite dependent on where the audiences fall.  
 
This is where the research comes in!  
 
Exploratory research
 
You may have an idea as to where your audience falls on the acceptance/engagement continuum with your topic, whether it is taking the proper precautions for working safely on construction sites to eating more fruits and vegetables.  I hope you would consider double checking your assumption by conducting some research.  I cannot count the number of clients who have been surprised by the gap between what they thought they knew about their audience and what research revealed about their audience.
 
Exploratory research, whether using qualitative research such as focus groups and/or quantitative research such as online or intercept surveys, provides the insights to know where your audience falls and, importantly, what your audience needs to know or have or believe to move them along the continuum.  Subsequently, the research indicates the messaging and branding that you and your team need to develop to address your audience’s needs.  
 
In addition to getting insights to their degree of readiness for acceptance and engagement, the exploratory research enables you to gain insights into your audience’s preferred sources of communication and what your audience considers to be credible sources of information.  This information will enable you to plan and execute what I like to call "profound communications." 
 
Communications becomes profound and rises above the cacophony of messages and brands we are all bombarded with every minute of every day. It gives your audience what they need to hear, from a source they respect and in a manner they prefer. 
 
Social marketing
 
Social marketing is the merging of behavior change science with marketing strategies.  The big difference is that instead of getting consumers to buy products, you are getting consumers to engage in behaviors or accept ideas. 
 
In marketing, you have the "Ps" of product, placement, promotion and price.  In social marketing, your product is the desired behavior (e.g. get vaccinated, eat fruits and vegetables, save money to buy a home), the placement is how you engage the audience (e.g. sending messages via churches, clinics, barber shops), the promotion is your messaging and branding (via a slew of collateral materials such as brochures, posters, stickers, print ads, web banners, smart phone apps) and the price is what your audience has to give up to change (e.g. reducing the consumption of fatty foods in exchange for more fruits and vegetables).  
 
Social marketing specialists know that social marketing often requires non-traditional means to access audiences in a profound way such that they see the message, understand the message and resonate with the message.  The adage – the medium is the message – applies here.  Here are examples of how social marketing planners have reached out to highly targeted audiences by almost any means necessary.
 
Driving mobile hospital units into neighborhoods to encourage African American audiences to get tested for high blood pressure and diabetes, medical conditions that are prominent among African Americans.
 
Distributing soap opera vines, short 15 – 20 second videos of friends, to encourage college students to get flu vaccinations.
 
Distributing free safety materials at paint stores to create safety awareness among construction workers.
 
Training African American barbers as health advocates to encourage African Americans to get tested for colorectal cancer, as, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African Americans have the highest rate of colorectal cancer deaths in the U.S.
 
Putting nurses in churches to hold Kidney Sundays to give church members health screening for high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes and to discuss the connection diabetes has to kidney disease.
 
The core of social marketing is meeting people where they are by incorporating credible sources of information in a context that is profound because the message is heard, understood and accepted.
 
Research: evaluation
 
Evaluating your efforts using scientific research methods helps you to know the degree of success of the campaign.  As usual, the success will depend on how well the measurable goals of the campaign were accomplished.  Ideally, your evaluations will include pre and post testing so that you can see if "the needle was moved" in terms of behavior change.  For example, you can conduct a survey to establish baseline information on how often your audience exercises and then conduct similar surveys over the course of 3 – 5 years after the launch of your campaign to see if people exercised more.   
 
Pre and post evaluation can be costly.  If your budget does not allow you to establish baseline data prior to your campaign, there are other ways you can measure engagement.  
 
One of the best ways of measurement is to establish and track metrics that are indicators of engagement.  For example, if you established a website to help people with chronic medical conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure or asthma more effectively manage their conditions, you can measure engagement in any number of cost-efficient ways.  Over 2 – 5 years after the launch of your campaign you can:
  • Track, record and analyze how many people participate in the chat rooms over the course of 24 months to see if there is an increase in participation.
  • Track, record and analyze how many downloads there are of materials to help people manage their conditions such as a recipe booklet for cooking healthy, low-fat meals.
  • Track how many people submit questions to the online health expert.
  • Document and analyze the nature of the questions submitted to the online health experts.
  • Conduct some website analytics to record the site visits, which pages are the most popular and how long people stay on a page.
The possibilities continue.
 
Engaging people by almost any means necessary is possible but requires great thinking and great planning founded on long-established theories that set the stage for successfully engaging audiences.  It requires considerable time, energy and resources but the outcomes of a successful campaign alter lives, sometimes save lives and almost always improve the quality of lives for individuals, especially in areas such as health, work safety and energy.  
 
Clearly. A good thing.
 
 
Author’s Details
Sandra Wills Hannon, Ph.D., APR, founder of The Hannon Group, LLC, a company that helps clients communicate to and engage audiences and consumers using research-based public communications campaigns. Sandra has more than 20 years of experience in the areas of public relations, health communications, internal communications and community outreach. A nationally respected communicator, she has designed, managed and executed public information campaigns for a variety of state, regional and national government campaigns and initiatives.  
 
Highly recognized as a communications expert, Sandra is quoted often in such venues as on PR Tactics, PRSA’s award-winning newspaper reporting the latest news and trends in the public relations industry. In addition, her and her team’s ground breaking projects have been included in academic journals such as the American Journal for Industrial Medicine serving as a resource for communication strategists.  In her consulting, Sandra has managed public information campaigns and market research for clients such as the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). She also provided counsel to the Clinton, Bush and Obama Administrations in creating advertising concepts and strategies targeting youth and adults for ONDCP´s National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign. 
 
Prior to forming The Hannon Group, Sandra was a vice president at Fleishman-Hillard, one of the top-ranked public relations firm in the United States.  She managed teams that developed award-winning community relations and media relations for clients including the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. 
 
Sandra is a member of the Public Relations Society of America, the largest association for public relations professionals. She served as President of PRSA’s National Capital Chapter, the largest chapter in the country, with 1400 members. 
 
She has a Doctorate of Philosophy in communications from Howard University and was the first in the School of Communications to graduate with a 4.0 at the doctoral level. She has a Master of Arts in educational studies from Concordia University and a Bachelor of Arts in public relations from Mount Saint Vincent University. She is accredited in public relations from PRSA and is fluent in French.  She lives in Maryland with her husband and their daughters.
 
References 
Rogers E. 2003.  Diffusion of Innovations, 5th Edition.  Simon and Schuster.
 
 

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The Author

Sandra Wills Hannon

Sandra Wills Hannon, Ph.D., APR, founder of The Hannon Group, LLC, a company that helps clients communicate to and engage audiences and consumers using research-based public communications campaigns.

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