Social marketing, often confused with social media marketing, is a marketing discipline that uses communications theories, behavioral economics, psychology, and neuroscience to develop programs, strategies, and campaigns that raise public awareness and education about specific issues to change behavior.  It can have a significant impact on making the planet a healthier, more peaceful, and more sustainable place for all.

Last week, I traveled down to our nation’s capital for the 2017 World Social Marketing Conference. The event is held every other year, bringing together the best and brightest behavior change experts from across the world. These professionals work for nonprofits, governments, agencies, and corporations, with the goal of influencing behavior to tackle public health, environment, and social issues that impact every corner of the globe.

For social marketing to be effective, marketers need to carefully segment their audiences, identify the audience’s barriers to the desired behavior, align their messages with the audience’s values, and partner with effective messengers.

1. Define Your Audience

When developing a social marketing campaign or plan, it can be tempting to target  a large section of the population as your market. For example, if you’re trying to decrease the energy use of residents in your town, then you might think that every resident in your town is the audience since that’s who you’re looking to influence, right?

Unfortunately, your campaign will never be successful if you are talking to that large of an audience. Instead, break down that audience into segments and focus on the most the section that seems most important.

To reduce energy use in your town, you may choose to focus on young professionals and homeowners. Creating specific personas for each segment can also be a valuable exercise. Once you’ve identified your core audiences, it’s important to understand why these populations haven’t yet changed their behavior.

2. Understand the Barriers

Dr. Doug McKenzie-Mohr, author of Fostering Sustainable Behavior: An Introduction to Community-Based Social Marketing, underscored the importance of understanding why the desired behavior has yet to be adopted. During his presentation, he used biking to work as his example.

If we’re looking to convert commuters from drivers to cyclists in our city, we may assume the only barrier to this conversion is the lack of owning a bike or having an unsafe route to take. However, owning a working bike, owning biking gear, having the necessary skill and fitness level to ride are all additional one-time barriers to entry when deciding to bike to work. Repetitive barriers, or barriers that will pop up each day the person is considering biking to work, include the weather, what clothes they have available to wear, and whether they will need to shower after the bike ride.

These granular details are often overlooked by social marketers, and offering solutions to overcome each obstacle will be key to successful behavior change.

3. Speak to Their Values

Each audience requires a different message that is aligned with their values. For example, homeowners may respond well to a message touting how energy efficiency is a way to save money on utility bills, while millennials may respond better to the environmental benefits of energy efficiency.

Having a strong understanding of your audience’s values will allow you to craft effective, engaging, and meaningful messages that will inspire lasting behavior change.

4. Tap into Influencers

Choosing relevant, trustworthy messengers to spread a campaign is imperative, experts say. Customers acquired through influencers have a 37 percent higher retention rate than those who were not. Fresh Empire, an initiative by Rescue Agency (a B Corp) and the Food and Drug Administration to prevent teen tobacco use, tapped into hip hop icons who are tobacco-free. Teenagers in their target demographic look up to these influencers, and their involvement helps the message resonate with an audience that may not be unlikely to listen to a public service announcement from the government.

Social marketers who work to bring positive change to the world are an encouraging addition to the marcomm community.

To learn more about social marketing, visit the International Social Marketing Association’s website, full of resources and information about how to create a successful campaign.