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Latest Trends in Social Marketing from the WSMC in Washington DC May 2017

I was recently fortunate to be able to attend the World Social Marketing Conference held in Washington D.C in May 2017. The event goes from strength to strength and it was really exciting to see, hear and learn about all the great work going on in social marketing and social change around the world.

The AASM was well represented at the conference and our photo booth stall was very popular and went down a storm on the conference Twitter stream#wsmc17.

Reflecting back on the event, I wanted to share some of the key themes that I think were featured at the conference, and consider how these may influence how social marketing theory and practice develops into the future.

My observations relate to three key themes that were discussed at the event: 1. Systems thinking, 2. Broadening cultural and gender perspective on socialmarketing and social change, and 3. New research methods and intervention tools.

Systems thinking has emerged in recent years as a big theme in social marketing. Essentially, systems thinking considers us to acknowledge that social and health behaviours are not just down to the individual – they are also a product of the interaction of complex systems influences including social norms, public policy and culture. Therefore, if we wish to tackle social problems such as climate change and obesity – we need to recognise that systems influence these problems and therefore systems need to be understood and influenced for change.

Professor John Sterman from MIT gave a keynote on systems thinking, talking about how understanding how systems operate, interact, and influence social events can help us change to a better world.

He gave the example of climate change and shared some work he does at MIT where researchers and students use systems simulation games to predict effects on climate change by making changes to different variables such as carbon emission targets, or national energy policy. The development of systems simulation software enables can enable us to test out different outcomes from making changes to different parts of a social system and I think this is very useful and exiting for people working in social change. Examples of systems simulation games can be found on the MIT website:

However, systems thinking also requires us to think differently about social problems. Rather than focusing on the micro level, systems thinking encourages us to see the big picture, surface and test different assumptions, and recognise that a system’ structure generates its behaviour – not individual components of the system. Engaging in the habits of a systems thinker can allow social marketers to start thinking in a different way about the cause and effect of social problems and how we can achieve social change – see Chapter 7 of the book Strategic Social Marketing for more info.

The 2nd key theme I observed at the conference was a broadening of cultural and gender perspectives towards social marketing and social change. Social marketing has traditionally been a very Western, male dominated discipline. Most of the textbooks, conference speakers, and case studies tend to come from the West and have not always engaged with different cultural, social, political, or gender perspectives.

However, at WSMC  2017 we saw evidence that this is starting to change. One great presentation was offered by Nathaly Ayala Pastrana who is from Columbia. Nathaly pointed out that in South America there is much more of a focus on collective rather than individual goals – meaning that Western models for motivation behaviour change through individual incentives might not be appropriate in the South American context. Furthermore, people in South America tend to live for the moment, rather than plan or rely on politics and finance to take care of things. Again, these observations are important for re-thinking about how social marketing can tackle social problems – especially in an increasingly multi-cultural and globalised world. Gender was also a theme that emerged during the conference, with increasing recognition that female perspectives and ideas about social problems and social change have often not been heard and acknowledged in the past. For example, a number of presentations at the conference pointed out that when designing social marketing interventions we must account for gender differences in access to, and control of  resources such as finance, housing, education, healthcare or even social freedoms.

The 3rd and final theme I wanted to talk about relates to new(er) research methods and intervention tools in social marketing.

One example of new research methods being use in social marketing was cognitive neuroscience – where brain wave measurements are taken from people as they view social marketing stimulus such as a campaign advert. A study presented by Nielsen discussed how they used an EEG study to test consumers responses to an advertising campaign for the Shelter Pet Project. Research insights helped to optimize the balance between high emotional engagement with the pets depicted in the advert, and effective communication of brand and key messages.

New(er) intervention tools were also featured at the conference, with an increasing focus on how gamification can be used to influence behaviour and social change. A good example of this was the Reduce Your Juice programme that aimed to reduce domestic energy consumption among young adults in Queensland. The project used a mobile phone game to encourage young adults to learn about energy saving practices while enjoying playing the game. Competition among game players including a leaderboard and prizes further encouraged engagement. Storytelling was also discussed at the conference, with one example being the Energy+Illawarra programme which used stories that low income older people told about their issues and concerns around using energy being used to create narrative videos that then provided facts and advice on how best to save energy in the home.

The key takeaway here is that there are an increasing number of different research methods, and behaviour/social change intervention tools now available to us in social marketing and we should be creative and expansive in how we use these.

So, in summary the 3 key takeaways I took away from the 2017 World Social Marketing Conference were that we:

  1. need to engage in systems thinking and use systems tools to help us understand, predict and change social outcomes
  2. should acknowledge broader cultural and gender perspective in social change and integrate these ideas into how we think about and do social marketing
  3. be creative and expansive in our use of the various research methods and intervention tools available to us in social marketing.

I hope some of these observations are useful and encourage AASM members to reflect upon how they think about and practice social marketing into the future.

Ross Gordon – AASM President






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