Commercial marketing (often just called marketing) is all about persuading people to purchase your product or sign up for your service. But a social marketing strategy is a different ballgame. You’ve likely come across this term and assumed it’s directly tied to social media or offers another strategy for customer acquisition. However, this form of marketing is fundamentally different from commercial marketing in that it drives people to change their behavior in a way that benefits society.

In this guide, we’ll walk you through our social marketing definition and explain how the strategy relates to social media (they can connect, but each has a different goal). We’ll also offer examples of social marketing campaigns and how they incorporate social media strategies. Plus, we’ll share how you can use a mix of ideas and other word-of-mouth possibilities to inform your own marketing strategies

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What is social marketing?

Also known as behavior change marketing, social marketing promotes and advertises specific messages with the aim of changing people’s behavior for the betterment of society. 

While the primary focus of commercial marketing efforts is to increase sales by encouraging a target audience to buy a product or service, the mission of social marketing is not financial—it’s to create social change that benefits the general welfare and public health

If you’ve seen a public service announcement (PSA) with a message about not smoking, not littering, or wearing your seatbelt, then you’ve been on the receiving end of social marketing.

Social marketing spans a variety of causes, such as:

  • Anti-smoking
  • Anti-drug use
  • Safe driving
  • Healthy eating and exercise
  • Environmental awareness (e.g., recycling, endangered species)
  • Anti-bullying
  • Racial justice
  • Gender equality

Channels for social marketing

Much like commercial marketing that aims to gain new customers, social marketing uses various media channels to spread a particular message. These channels include:

  • Television: TV ads between local, regional, or national programming 
  • Radio: Commercial spots on local and national radio stations as well as satellite radio
  • Print: Promotions and advertisements in print publications such as magazines and newspapers
  • Billboards: Large outdoor advertisements that can reach drivers and pedestrians 
  • Social media: Platforms like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and LinkedIn
  • Email marketing: Promotional materials sent to customers and clients who provided their email address
  • Content marketing: Original, SEO-driven content to improve Google rankings
  • Referral programs: Word-of-mouth advertising that offers incentives for current customers to refer new customers

Social marketing vs. social media marketing

Social marketing is commonly mistaken for social media marketing, but these are two distinct strategies. As noted earlier, social marketing doesn’t sell any product or service. Rather, it persuades people to change their attitudes and behaviors for societal safety and other benefits. That said, social marketing techniques often include social media as one strategy to reach a broad audience. 

Similar to commercial marketers, many social marketers create social media marketing campaigns to spread their message, generate buzz, and improve their chances of going viral. To help illustrate this point, here are some examples of social marketing campaigns that also include social media tactics.

Tobacco-Free California 

Part of the California Department of Public Health, the Tobacco-Free California program is the longest-running anti-smoking projects of its kind in the United States. The organization shares information on the dangers of smoking, secondhand smoke, and cigarette waste in the environment, as well as how people can give up smoking cigarettes and vaping e-cigs. 

Along with its website, which serves as an online hub for information related to the cause, the organization actively uses social media. It even created its own YouTube channel, and its commercials garnered millions of views.

Let’s Move!

One of the most well-known social marketing campaigns was Let’s Move! by former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. This social marketing campaign was created to spur national awareness and spark a conversation about childhood obesity and the overall health and well-being of citizens in the United States

As part of this crusade to educate young people and their parents, the White House Kitchen Garden was planted to model how citizens could grow nutritious food at home. Numerous educational programs and a massive social media campaign were also created to encourage children to eat healthy foods and engage in more physical activity. 

Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Every October, major breast cancer charities combine their efforts to increase breast cancer awareness and raise money to research its cause, prevention measures, and treatments.

To help public health professionals, community organizations, and other interested parties help raise awareness, the George Washington University Cancer Center created a social media toolkit for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. This marketing tool includes a detailed outline of best practices for sharing relevant messages across social media channels including Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Snapchat, and Pinterest.

Coronavirus disease 2019

When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) team created a social media toolkit for local governments to use to provide current and correct messaging from a trusted source.

As part of its social marketing approach, the CDC included a social media strategy consisting of graphics illustrating the actions people can take to stop the spread of the disease. Sample messages and the graphics were created for social networks including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn

The CDC also maintains a health communications page as a way to easily share relevant public health information.

The value of social marketing for businesses

Unlike traditional marketing campaigns that are run by for-profit businesses, social marketing campaigns are typically led by nonprofits, charities, and government organizations. But just because you’re a business owner doesn’t mean you can’t include elements of social marketing in your marketing plan

As it turns out, research shows that 63% of U.S. consumers prefer brands with purpose. That figure jumps to 71% for millennial consumers. Furthermore, Generation Z consumers are three times more likely to prefer businesses that “serve communities and society” rather than those that only “make good products and services,” according to a national survey by BBMG and GlobeScan. 

Regardless of which generation your customers belong to, it’s clear that people support companies that encourage positive social and environmental change.

How to use elements of social marketing for your business

As a business owner, you can adopt some social marketing principles to draw potential customers to your brand and boost customer loyalty. Then, depending on your budget, you can determine which media channels will best get the word out. 

Bear in mind that some of the simplest approaches are the most memorable: Think of the iconic pink ribbon for breast cancer awareness or Smokey the Bear for forest fire prevention.

Below are some purposeful brands whose strategies can inspire your marketing approach and expand your word-of-mouth possibilities.

Toms: charitable donations

Toms has given away almost 100 million shoes to people in need. It eventually expanded its giving model to donate $1 for every $3 the company makes. While giving away a third of your profits to charity might be a tall order, you could try donating in smaller doses.

For example, inform customers that during the holidays or another specified time, you will donate a certain percentage of sales to a cause that both matters to you and relates to your brand. You could also encourage people to use a certain hashtag on social media by promising for every post that uses it, you’ll donate $1 to charity. 

Warby Parker: one-for-one giving

With its “Buy a Pair, Give a Pair” program, Warby Parker has donated more than seven million pairs of glasses. Other businesses have also adopted this one-for-one model for products that range from chewing gum and soccer ball companies to sock and toothbrush brands. This might not be the most practical approach for you, but it’s certainly worth looking at. 

Plus, you can read about the company’s social media success to mine other ideas for your brand. Their strategies include reposting and commenting on customer Instagram posts and sharing behind-the-scenes content that makes customers feel more emotionally connected to the company.

Dove: inclusive language

Although it’s a soap and personal care brand, Dove has evolved as a major force in building the self-esteem of girls and women everywhere. From the “Real Beauty Pledge” to its Dove Self-Esteem Program and #RealBeauty campaign, the brand has become synonymous with body acceptance messaging. 

Part of this is achieved through TV, print, and digital marketing promotions that only feature real women (of all shapes, colors, sizes, and ages), not models. Regardless of what industry you’re in, it’s worth noting how an authentic, inclusive message can draw in customers and encourage them to talk about your brand.

Social marketing: It’s time for the good stuff

As you now know, social marketing is inherently different from commercial marketing. While the former focuses solely on changing people’s behavior for the common good, the latter aims to influence buying decisions for financial gain. Furthermore, social marketing is not the same as social media marketing, which promotes your product or service through social networks like Facebook or LinkedIn.

Consumers increasingly gravitate to brands with purpose, so remember this when you plan your marketing strategy and outline your marketing objectives. Regardless of what type of business you have, it’s essential to connect with customers and give them something to feel good about beyond your product or service. After all, happy customers are at the heart of any business—and business with a heart is hard to resist.

Matt Boyce
Matt Boyce Head of SMB Marketing

Matt Boyce is a marketing and business professional at Podium, the premiere messaging platform that connects local businesses with their customers.

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