5 skills to be a well-rounded social marketer

By Nedra Weinreich 16 June 2015

Delegates at a development impact event held during the United Nations Climate Forum. What makes for a well-rounded social marketer? Photo by: Ryan Brown / UN Women / CC BY-NC-ND

Changing human behavior is a complex process, and social marketers working to influence people’s actions on health or social issues must possess a wide array of skills.

The field has evolved over the years, drawing on proven methods and tools from other disciplines to create behavior change in individuals and across societies. Students and professionals, too, come to social marketing from a variety of paths.

Because the approach initially came of age in the 1970s and 80s in an international development context to promote behaviors like family planning, immunizations and use of oral rehydration solution, public health tends to be the field that generates the most social marketers. However, the field also draws professionals from the commercial marketing side who are attracted to making a positive impact on social issues, as well as those working on environmental issues, social services and nonprofit management.

If social marketing interests you as a career, the more such skills you acquire, the more attractive you will be to a potential employer. But what is that combination of knowledge and skills you need to pursue to become a well-rounded social marketer?

1. A solid understanding of marketing.

Obviously, a good understanding of how marketing — and specifically social marketing — works is critical. Many from outside the field assume that marketing equals advertising. Communications may be one piece of it, but a marketing approach is about much more than just providing information. We need to know how to create a product that meets the audience’s needs, how to analyze the competition, how to take price and barriers into account, how to utilize distribution systems and more.

You’d be at a disadvantage without that fundamental marketing know-how.

2. Strong research skills.

A key principle of social marketing is using research with your priority audience to better understand their needs and how the desired behavior could fit into their lives. To that end, building your formative research skills will serve you well.

This includes research design, implementation and data analysis for both quantitative methods, like surveys, and qualitative methods like focus groups and interviewing. At a minimum, you need a strong grasp on how research and statistics work.

Program evaluation is another set of research skills that will help you track the progress of your program so you can make adjustments along the way and assess how effective the program is in creating change.

3. Familiarity with behavioral sciences and management.

Familiarity with the behavioral sciences gives you a framework on which to structure your program. Build expertise in health and consumer behavior theory, principles of community organizing, user experience design, behavioral economics and other models of how individual and social change occurs.  

In addition to guidance from theoretical models, social marketers follow a distinct process for designing and implementing programs; skills in project planning and management will help you stay on top of all the moving parts.

4. Production and design knowledge.

Though many social marketers work as part of a team that may include graphic designers, web developers and multimedia producers, you will benefit from having some of those production skills at hand to be able to mock up drafts for quick prototyping and feedback.

This know-how also applies to social media. Build proficiency in using the different social networks and producing short videos and graphics to post on them.

5. A balance of soft skills.

Beyond the types of skills you can learn directly, the best social marketers have particular qualities that can be developed with conscious effort. First of all, internalize the fact that you cannot design an effective program sitting in your office on your own. Your audience members are the experts on their own lives, so you will need to be comfortable setting aside your own assumptions to really listen and be responsive to their needs and desires.

Good social marketers are also flexible and adaptable, making changes to their plans in response to new information. At the same time, you must be willing to stick to your convictions and act as an advocate for your audience, especially when your boss or client wants to disregard the research. A strong dose of curiosity is also a must, along with a passion to change the world for the better.

Most of these skills can be developed through formal academic programs, trainings like my Social Marketing University program and through self-directed learning, which is often available for free online.

Whether you’re a seasoned expert or budding development professional — check out more news, analysis and advice online to guide your career and professional development, and subscribe to Doing Good to receive top international development career and recruitment news every week.

About the author

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Nedra Weinreich

Nedra has over 25 years of experience helping nonprofits and public agencies create positive change on health and social issues. She is the author of the book "Hands-On Social Marketing: A Step-by-Step Guide to Designing Change for Good" and has trained thousands of professionals through Social Marketing University and other workshops. She is president of Weinreich Communications and is on faculty at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.


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