Social Marketing Ultimate Guide: Tips and Resources for Modern Marketers

Two marketing professionals talking while looking at a laptop at a desk.

Working toward the greater good is a noble pursuit. After all, it seeks to make society better on a large scale such as on a community or a more personalized, individual level. Social marketing is one of the ways to achieve this goal.

This concept is a departure from the more traditional means that companies may use to spread the word about their brands or products. While it’s a form of marketing, its purpose is significantly different from that of traditional marketing. Instead of being used to promote a good or service, its purpose is to influence consumer and community behavior for the benefit and betterment of society.

Social marketing has been around since the 1970s, yet its presence is arguably more visible than ever, thanks in part to millennials and Generation Zers using their influence to push for change through consumer choice, donations, and other means. To effectively implement this increasingly important paradigm, marketing professionals may require a new set of skills and perspectives.

What Is Social Marketing?

Social marketing encourages people to make positive changes to their daily behaviors and habits. These changes may not only benefit them but also be the impetus for positive change within populations of various sizes.

Unlike traditional marketing, which responds to consumer behavior, much of what social marketing involves trying to influence consumer behavior. While social marketing draws from traditional advertising and marketing concepts, it fortifies these conventional elements with elements associated with social science.

Examples of Social Marketing

The average consumer encounters numerous social marketing campaigns, ranging from obvious to nuanced. Ads detailing the dangers of cigarettes and encouraging smoking cessation are clear examples of social marketing in action. Conversely, ads that encourage recycling or other eco-friendly habits may come across as a little more nuanced in their approach. Regardless of approach, they’re connected with each other because they aren’t selling a good or service, but rather advocating for the adoption of improved personal habits and behaviors.

Social Marketing vs. Social Media Marketing

It’s important to understand the difference between social marketing and social media marketing. Though the concepts sometimes overlap, the term “social marketing” refers to a campaign with a specific goal of changing behavior, whereas the term “social media marketing” refers to any marketing campaign conducted via social media channels. Social media may be part of a comprehensive social marketing campaign, but the terms aren’t synonymous.

Components of an Effective Social Marketing Strategy

A social marketing strategy must contain several elements to optimize its chances to influence consumer habits. First, it must establish a clear-cut goal that defines its desired behavioral change. It must also fully determine its proper audience. Next, it’s important to determine what media (TV ads, billboards, social media posts) will be used to get the message out to the masses.

Regardless of the media, it’s crucial that the message being delivered is clear. Finally, it’s important to have a way to track the campaign’s effectiveness through observable or quantifiable data.

Gamification in Marketing

A 2021 report published by the data aggregate site Statista noted that there are more than 2.6 billion active mobile gamers worldwide. While this statistic proves people love to play games on their mobile devices, it also demonstrates a fertile, captive market for traditional and social marketers to reach. As such, the concept of gamification in marketing has become an increasingly utilized and effective tool for social marketing.

The gaming techniques behind this unique form of marketing, such as scoring, incentivizing, and competition, enable companies to attract and engage customers in a fun way that can ultimately build brand loyalty. While this may look different from traditional forms of marketing, the primary goal — to increase sales and meet profitability goals — remains constant.

Along the way, these gamification strategies can also help businesses collect consumer data; this can then lead to even more hyper engaging marketing campaigns. Here’s how some major companies have deployed gamification techniques to their advantage throughout the years.

My Starbucks Rewards

Starbucks’ loyalty program, My Starbucks Rewards, utilizes gamification techniques to award customers with incentives, such as free food and drinks. When they purchase goods, customers also accumulate points, which they can redeem for various prizes and to unlock perks, such as free birthday beverages.

These points, also known as “stars,” function as a tiered system that encourages people to achieve “gold” status — and unlock even more rewards — by consistently purchasing products. What Starbucks’ gamification model ultimately does is use incentivization to reinforce brand loyalty in a way that makes customers feel like they’ve accomplished something great.

Nike Run Club

Nike Run Club’s gamification tactics encourage participation in various fitness-related challenges from its users, incentivizing the experience via badges and trophies. The app’s design also features personalized customization, allowing its customers to set specific training objectives and track training performance via data collection — data they can also choose to share with their friends on social media. The app also grants its users access to a community of other users, giving it a unique experiential element.


Duolingo’s business model revolves around gamification. Users accessing this language learning company’s app can earn points, badges, rewards, and other incentives as they try to learn a new language. By deploying incentivization methods, users can theoretically associate learning a language with playing a new game, something that can potentially make it easier for them to retain information.

McDonald’s Monopoly Game

The Monopoly promotion at McDonald’s debuted in 1987 when the world’s largest fast-food chain introduced their own version of the popular board game in which customers collect tickets by purchasing certain products. The right combination of tickets made people eligible for numerous prizes. The game, which is run annually, can be used to entice people to make more expensive purchases. It can also be used to lure people to the chain who otherwise wouldn’t stop by as customers.

What Marketers Should Consider in Their Social Marketing Strategy

A social marketing campaign has a few unique layers that make it successful. Those constructing such a strategy could consider incorporating the following into their plans:

Understand the Target Audience

Knowing your audience is fundamental to any marketing campaign. In the case of social marketing, however, it’s also important to understand the specific behavior that the campaign wants to change. Research is key to this understanding, as it can reveal information on a target audience’s habits, needs, desires, and struggles. For instance, knowing when, how often, and why a person smokes, as well as what may prevent the person from quitting can help build a more comprehensive, targeted smoking cessation campaign.

Choose How to Advocate

Once the target audience gets properly defined, it’s important to determine the way to advocate for the specific behavior or social cause anchoring the campaign. Research is also a big component of this step, as it helps those building the campaign understand what may be the most effective means to reach their desired audience.

For example, a recycling campaign aimed at an audience wanting a cleaner neighborhood may focus on the importance of communal beautification. A campaign targeting people concerned about Earth’s future may focus on how today’s behaviors impact tomorrow’s generations or highlight the connection between recycling and fighting climate change.

Develop Goals and Plans

Once the target audience and the means of advocacy have been determined, social marketers will then need to establish the campaign’s goals, including the strategy needed to achieve them. This can include reiterating the desired change being pursued and establishing benchmarks to track progress toward achieving this goal. These benchmarks can highlight the smaller steps that can ultimately support a bigger, more noble goal, such as marking the adaptation of smaller sustainable strategies in an overarching effort to build a holistic “green” community.

Different forms of media can be deployed to achieve these set goals. What type of media is ultimately used depends on the target audience, making it important to understand the audience being pursued before building a campaign.

Analyze Success

It’s crucial to track the impact of a campaign as it unfolds. Doing so allows social marketers to tweak their strategies on the fly to improve results and better the chances of achieving a goal. Social marketers can use various tools to gather the data needed for analysis, like questionnaires and surveys.

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 few 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 that their content is shown only to the target demographics. Additionally, ads can be tracked and evaluated for their success.


An 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, it generates data and reports that can help assess a campaign’s efficacy.


The emergence of Instagram and TikTok have made social media an increasingly visual landscape. Biteable’s platform allows users to create visual content through short informative videos that can be posted across multiple platforms. Users can access a wide range of footage, templates, animated scenes, and music to help build these videos.

Tools for Audience Research

Social marketers have a host of audience research tools they can access to build an effective strategy. Mailed or emailed surveys can be effective direct research tools, while accessing an online communal board like a Reddit subgroup can help social marketers take the pulse of a specific demographic’s attitudes.

Additionally, utilizing an online Q&A tool such as Quora can encourage direct feedback to be produced for a specific topic. Gathering online search data from a tool like Google Keyword Planner or Google Analytics can also provide insight on market tendencies, as can gathering data on purchase patterns via searches. Finally, building focus groups can provide social marketers with more in-depth insight into their audience.

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

Key resources for learning more about social marketing and causes are advocacy groups and nonprofit organizations that have laid the groundwork for campaigns. These entities are raising awareness and combining 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 support for social marketing efforts, may be found via an online search or with the assistance of a public or an 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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), may provide insights into statistics about smoking habits. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is a good place to turn for details about recycling policies.

Change Minds and Behavior with Social Marketing

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

Earning an advanced business degree can help professionals gain a deeper understanding of marketing principles and their impacts. Ohio University’s Online Master of Business Administration features nine concentrations to choose from, as well as a core course in Strategic Marketing, to help students apply business and marketing expertise to their chosen specialization. Explore the curriculum and find out how Ohio University can help you pursue a successful career in business.

Recommended Readings

Exploring Types of Corporate Social Responsibility in Business

How Data Driven Marketing Is Changing the Shape of Business

Social Media Impact on Businesses



Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Quit Smoking

Deloitte, The Deloitte Global 2021 Millennial and Gen Z Survey


Forbes, “For Millennials and Gen Zs, Social Issues Are Top of Mind — Here’s How Organizations Can Drive Meaningful Change”

Hootsuite, Publish

Houston Chronicle, “What Are the Four Components of the Social Marketing Theory?”

IntechOpen, “Social Marketing for Health: Theoretical and Conceptual Considerations”

Investopedia, Gamification

Investopedia, “Social Media Marketing (SMM)”

Investopedia, “Why Is Social Responsibility Important in Marketing?”

Nike, Nike Run Club

NSMC, What Is Social Marketing?

Starbucks, Starbucks Rewards

Statista, Number of Mobile Gaming Users in 2021, by Region

Talon.One, “McDonald’s Monopoly: A Masterclass in Promotions”

Unite For Sight, Module 1: What Is Social Marketing?

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

UXCam, “Gamification Examples 2021: Introducing Game Elements to Your App”