The roots of social marketing date back to the 1950s, when one psychologist argued that the more non-profit organizations communicated like for-profit marketers, the better their prospects for success. Then during the 1960s, practitioners in developing countries and marketing academics set the stage for the emerging field. Social marketing was formally launched in the 1970s; searched for an identity in the 1980s; and had found a unique niche by the 1990s. By 2000, social marketing was considered an established field; it now continues to grow and evolve.

social-marketing-growth-cugelman Digital Psychology

As an indication of the field’s growth, the graph below shows the annual number of academic journal articles on social marketing since 1971. The chart demonstrates a rapid increase in the number of journal articles describing social marketing, with an exceptionally sharp rise at the beginning of the millennium. In brief, quick assessment was made of social marketing terms used in PubMed from the years 1971 to 2008. This resulted in a time series of 1,747 articles. After assessing titles and abstracts, 89% were assessed possibly to be about social marketing while 11% were evaluated to be irrelevant or non-assessable. These results were assessed within a +/-10% margin of error at a 95% confidence level (Neuendorf, 2005).

Social Marketing Journal Publications (1971-2008)

As previously mentioned, the roots of social marketing are attributed to the G. D. Wiebe who asked the question, “Why can’t you sell brotherhood and rational thinking like you sell soap?” (Wiebe, 1951). He proposed that marketing could be used to solve social problems and that the more non-profit campaigns resembled commercial marketing campaigns, the better their prospects for success. Twenty years later, Wiebe’s early thinking on the application of commercial marketing to social issues was prominently featured in Kotler and Zaltman’s 1971 article that formally launched the social marketing field.

Though social marketing was not yet a formal concept in the 1960s, international development programmes and academic debates set the stage for the birth of the field one decade later. During this decade, international development agencies conducted family planning activities in developing countries through the distribution of contraceptive products, where marketing principles played a role in their dissemination (Andreasen, 2006). Similarly, commercial marketing was applied to health education campaigns, with some campaigns employing audience segmentation and customer-orientated approaches (MacFadyen, et al., 1999).

Social advertising, a common mass-media approach to social change, had been employed during this decade. Lacking marketing concepts, such as segmentation and exchange, social advertising was considered a precursor to social marketing (Fox & Kotler, 1980). The success of these activities caught the attention of academics who were debating broadening the application of marketing to other fields (Andreasen, 2006). The practitioner successes and academic debates in the marketing community led to the development of social marketing.

During this decade, the cold war triggered the USA military to research decentralized communication networks that could operate in the face of possible nuclear attacks. This security concern prompted research and development that would eventually lead to the Internet (Ruthfield, 1995).

In 1971, the term social marketing was coined in the field’s seminal article, “Social marketing: an approach to planned social change” (Kotler & Zaltman, 1971). The publication outlined how marketing practices could be used to address social issues. It defined social marketing by comparing Wiebe’s (1951) framework to the 4Ps marketing mix.

At the time, Kotler and Zaltman’s (1971) proposal was considered controversial. Some academics objected, arguing marketing should not be applied to other arenas (Andreasen, 2006). Some argued that replacing physical products with values would threaten the exchange concept. While others argued social marketing would be abused as propaganda (MacFadyen, et al., 1999). A review of the first ten years of social marketing showed that popular criticisms included the charge that social marketing was not real marketing, but was manipulative, self-serving, and threatened to damage the reputation of marketing (Fox & Kotler, 1980).

These debates did not stop communicators from applying social marketing principles. The practice was primarily applied in developing countries, and to a lesser extent in developed nations. Within developing countries, social marketing campaigns primarily addressed family planning while in America the focus was on healthy lifestyles linked to heart disease (Fox & Kotler, 1980).

During the 1970s, pro-social marketing academics continued debating the practice and advancing thinking. Internal criticism focused on the challenges faced when trying to apply commercial marketing principles to social situations where the concepts did not quite fit (Rothschild, 1979). Additional ambiguities emerged, as it was not always clear what distinguished social marketing from other social change practices. Consequently, the ten year review of social marketing discussed practical problems in applying the field’s concepts while striving to contrast it with other social influence practices (Fox & Kotler, 1980).

ARPAnet, the precursor to the Internet, was publicly displayed for the first time in the USA at the International Conference on Computers and Communications in 1972 (Ruthfield, 1995). Another important technical innovation this decade was the development of computer-based health risk assessments, which took patient data and provided personal risk assessments (Kreuter, et al., 2000).

The 1980s has been described as the time when the field searched for an identity among other social influence practices (Andreasen, 2006). During this decade, the academic debate shifted from the question “Should marketing be applied to social issues?” to the question “How can marketing be applied to social issues?” At the same time, the health community began embracing the practice (MacFadyen, et al., 1999). The first social marketing textbook was distributed in 1989 (Kotler & Roberto, 1989).

By the 1990s, the field had overcome many of the earlier conceptual ambiguities and started to better define itself. A major advancement in the field came when researchers clarified social marketing’s niche as the change of behaviours. This shift helped contrast social marketing against other social influence practices. The newly defined niche also provided space to integrate other behavioural change fields into social marketing. Finally, it helped define the field’s limits (Andreasen, 2006). This focus helped to clarify when social marketing was appropriate to a particular problem, as opposed to other practices.

In this decade, notable contributions to the field included launching the Social Marketing Quarterly academic journal in 1994. One year later, Andreasen’s (1995) textbook, which integrated stages of change thinking into the social marketing process, is considered to have made a significant contribution to advancing the field (Kotler, et al., 2002).

Building on top of the Internet, which was primarily used to network educational and research institutions, the World Wide Web was invented in 1993. It was developed by Tim Berners-Lee, who was seeking a solution to decentralized knowledge management problems at the CERN particle accelerator research centre in Switzerland (Berners-Lee, 2000). Since this time, the web has been fuelling the rapid expansion of the Internet around the planet.

Since the term social marketing was coined in 1971, the field has grown and diffused across the planet. Social marketing is now seen as an effective way of improving public health, safety, the environment and community development (Kotler, et al., 2002).

The field has produced several books, chapters within books, its own academic journal (Social Marketing Quarterly), and numerous conferences. The first World Social Marketing Conference occurred in 2008. Then in 2009, an initiative was launched to develop a global social marketing institute. Social marketing is practiced by numerous United Nations agencies, USA Government agencies, consulting and communication firms (Andreasen, 2006).

Social marketing is well established in North America and has a long tradition with international development agencies (Andreasen, 2006). It is slowly penetrating into Europe where, for example, in 2006 the UK Government called for a National Social Marketing Strategy for Health (National Consumer Council, 2006). One systematic review of social marketing interventions showed the majority of reported interventions came from North America, with a small number from Australia, the Netherlands, Finland, and one from Brazil (Stead, et al., 2007).

Although the field is established to some degree, academic debates continue. At the beginning of the millennium, one major debate included advocates who argued that the field needed to focus on up-stream change, to influence policy makers, as well as down-stream change, to influence citizens (Andreasen, 2006). Another debate raged about whether social marketing needed to cut its marketing roots and develop its own distinctive intellectual basis (Peattie & Peattie, 2003).

The World Wide Web popularized the Internet in the 1990s. However, it was not until around 2005 when social marketing academics began seriously discussing the potential of this new media. Additionally, the successful 2008 election of USA President Barack Obama drew heavily on grassroots campaigning linked by social media. This successful Web 2.0 campaign appears to have delivered a wake-up call to campaigners who had previously disregarded the value of online engagement.

If you wish to quote this document, cite the original source, published January 2010:
CUGELMAN, B. (2010) Online social marketing: Website factors in behavioural change. PhD thesis, University of Wolverhampton, Wolverhampton.

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