Social Marketing Ultimate Guide: Tips and Resources for Modern Marketers

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Social marketing represents a fundamental change from more conventional approaches to brand outreach or product advocacy. Traditional marketing responds to consumer behavior, while social marketing tries to influence consumer behavior. Social marketing, for the most part, seeks to improve individual lives and inspire positive social change rather than just sell a product or service.

To effectively implement this new paradigm, marketing professionals may require a new set of skills and perspectives. This guide will detail some of the foundational elements required for successful social marketing.

What is Social Marketing?

Social marketing is an approach that seeks to change people’s everyday behaviors in a way that benefits them as individuals and leads to widespread, positive changes throughout a community or a population. Concepts used in social marketing come from social science, as well as from conventional marketing and advertising.

Examples of Social Marketing

Whether they know it or not, most consumers have seen many social marketing campaigns. Ads warning about the ill effects of cigarettes and encouraging smokers to develop healthier habits are prime examples of social marketing. Likewise, consider ads or promotional messages that encourage people to recycle or make environmentally conscious decisions. These ads aren’t selling a product. Instead, they are “selling” direct change to personal behavior.

Social Marketing vs. Social Media Marketing

To understand social marketing, we must understand the difference between social marketing and social media marketing. Though the concepts sometimes overlap, social marketing refers to a campaign with a specific goal of changing behavior; social media marketing refers to any marketing campaign that is conducted via social media channels. Social media may be part of a comprehensive social marketing campaign, but the terms are not synonymous.

Components of an Effective Social Marketing Strategy

Any campaign that is designed to influence human behavior must have a few core components.

  • A goal—What types of behavioral changes are being sought?
  • An audience—Who are the people we’re seeking to influence? In the example of an anti-smoking ad, the audience would be cigarette smokers or individuals who are thinking about taking up that behavior.
  • Programs or channels—How will the messaging be delivered? For example, anti-smoking messaging may be delivered through YouTube videos, through banners and signs, or through social media.
  • Clearly defined message—What are the benefits of the behavioral changes being proposed? Why should people consider them?
  • A way to track results—How can evidence of the proposed behavioral changes be observed or quantified?

Additional Resources

To more fully understand the basic concepts of social marketing, these additional resources may prove valuable:

What Marketers Should Consider in their Social Marketing Strategy

To launch an effective social marketing initiative, consider the following fundamental components and strategies.

Understand the Target Audience

Before changing anyone’s behavior, determine whose behavior must be changed. Formative research is required to understand the target audience, including their wants and needs, pain points, and daily routines. For example, when shaping an anti-smoking ad, social marketers may want to know why people start smoking, at what intervals they smoke, what benefits they derive from smoking, and what obstacles prevent them from stopping.

Choose How to Advocate

The next step is deciding how to advocate a social cause or behavior. Research on the target audience is invaluable here, as it helps marketers decide what kind of messaging is most effective.

Consider the example of a pro-recycling campaign. Based on the needs, wants, and values of a target audience, a marketer may decide to advocate in any of the following ways:

  • Appealing to concerns about keeping the Earth clean
  • Appealing to concerns over how current behaviors may impact generations to come
  • Explaining the economic value of recycling
  • Championing the beautification of the particular city or community

Develop Goals and Plans

The next step in a social marketing campaign is to set goals and develop plans for achieving those goals.

In setting goals, marketers must determine the specific type of behavioral change that is desired. Social marketers also should set benchmarks to help determine the campaign’s success. In a campaign that is designed to motivate local businesses to “go green,” goals may include getting a certain number of businesses to adopt sustainable strategies, achieving a measurable reduction in carbon emissions, or enlisting a number of entrepreneurs to sign a statement pledging their support of environmental sustainability.

Media plans for achieving these goals may include anything from billboards, to TV ads, to online social  platforms. Here again, understanding the target audience is vital. An effective campaign will place its messaging and its resources where they are most likely to reach the intended people.

Analyze Success

Another important consideration is determining the level of success of a social marketing campaign. This means evaluating the progress made toward the established goals and benchmarks. In some cases, the same tools used for audience research can be used to evaluate a campaigns’ success, such as surveys and questionnaires.

Additional Tips for Social Marketing

To implement the aforementioned tips and strategies, some additional resources may be helpful.

Social Marketing Strategy

A number of resources, platforms, and tools can assist in the development of a robust social marketing campaign. These include tools that help with disseminating information, as well as with learning about a target audience.

Social Media Promotion and Advertising

One of the most effective ways of spreading a message is through social media. However, given the sheer volume of social media activity, marketers can encounter challenges in getting their messages seen by the intended audience. A couple of tools can help.

  • Facebook Ads—While anyone can post content for free on Facebook, the social platform’s algorithms can make it challenging for organizations to reach their intended audience through organic content sharing. Facebook Ads, a paid advertising platform, enables marketers to more tightly define their audience, set a specific budget, and ensure their content is shown only to the target demographics. Additionally, ads can be tracked and evaluated for their success.
  • Hootsuite—A common example of a social media automation platform, Hootsuite allows posts to be scheduled in advance, minimizing the day-to-day work of managing a social media campaign. Additionally, Hootsuite generates data and reports that can help assess a campaign’s efficacy.

Tools for Audience Research

A number of audience research tools can be implemented, including the following.

  • Sending out surveys, whether by mail or through an email newsletter
  • Accessing relevant Reddit subcommunities that pertain to a given topic or demographic
  • Soliciting direct feedback through Quora, an online question and answer tool

Harvesting data from online search activity via Google Analytics and Google Keyword Planner.

  • Receiving information about relevant consumer purchasing patterns through searches
  • Using Focus groups for a more in-depth approach to audience research

Additional Resources for Social Marketing

Additional resources that may be helpful include the following.

Resources for Learning More About Social Causes

Where can individuals and organizations learn more about social causes? Options include advocacy groups, academic journals, and government websites.

Advocacy Groups and Organizations

One key resource for learning more about social marketing and causes involves existing advocacy groups or nonprofit organizations that have laid the groundwork for a social marketing campaign. These are entities that are raising awareness and coalescing resources related to a particular topic, concern, or cause. Such groups can often be found with a simple Google search, and their representatives often will be more than eager to provide additional information related to the proposed marketing campaign. For example, many anti-smoking and anti-drug groups will be able to provide literature about how to persuade their target audiences to rethink their habits.

Research and Academic Journals

Academic research, which often can provide solid support for a social marketing effort, may be obtained via an online search, or with the assistance of a public or academic reference librarian. Published studies are excellent resources for discovering science- or data-based information, such as what doctors have discovered about the effects of smoking, or what environmental researchers have found about the benefits of recycling.

Government Websites and Resources

Government websites and publications may provide helpful information about federally-funded studies and surveys. Government agencies such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for instance, may provide insights into statistics about smoking habits. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is a good place to turn for details about pro-recycling policies.

Change Minds, and Change Behavior, with Social Marketing

The differences between social marketing and traditional marketing cannot be overstated. While marketing is generally associated with the selling of products or services, social marketing sets its sights on positively influencing how people live their lives. Social marketing can be an extremely rewarding choice for professionals who are looking to directly contribute to true cultural change.


Additional Resources:, “What are the Four Components of Social Marketing Theory?”

National Sign & Marketing, What is social marketing?Richtopia, “What Is Social Marketing? And How Does It Work?”Selected Issues in Global Health Communications, “Social Marketing for Health: Theoretical and Conceptual Considerations”

Unite for Sight, “What is Social Marketing?”