Knowledge Translation or Just Better Marketing?

How Much Marketing Can We Take?

This week at the CoNEKTR Lunch and Learn at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, the focus of discussion was on knowledge translation and the theme I discussed in a previous post. It was a lively discussion and one that emphasized the limits that one hour and many great minds presents for exploring a big topic like KT.

The discussion around the room focused on the challenges of taking what it is we know and transforming it into practice, policy and research innovations that work in the everyday. While the subtext of the presentation was initially focused on systems issues, building on Russell Ackoff‘s phrase about “doing the wrong things righter”, the bulk of the conversation was on whether or not we are dealing with issues that have to do with marketing and simply being better at it.

That is, if health sciences just got better at packaging the materials they produce, delivering them more effectively (or more often) and doing so by understanding the user better, things would get done. One could view this argument as proof positive that as a field, we are so wedded to the idea of shoveling content that we no longer see that this is just doing different versions of the same thing over again. But a closer look suggests that social marketing might provide us with a middle ground between the largely content-driven approach that dominates the literature (which suggests that if we just package the best content better, people will listen to what we say because it is, after all, the best content) and a systems change approach that looks at redesigning the way we interact with knowledge and produce it in the first place.

A finer look at marketing suggests that there is something different from the traditional view. A marketing perspective is less concerned with the quality of the product (i.e., content) and more about process of how to get this content to people and get them to use it. The crassest example of this can be seen in episodes of Mad Men and how they brazenly craft messages around toxic substances like cigarettes to seduce people, fictional representations of the very real world work of the tobacco industry does to reach youth , racial minorities and women alike. But unlike the callous marketers who don’t care about their audience’s health, health professionals very much do. And so do some marketers.

By focusing on the process of getting information to the intended audience, a marketing perspective gets closer to the spirit of what knowledge translation is intended by some definitions. What it fails to do is question or even challenge the underlying structures that create the barriers to knowledge application in the first place. Emphasis on clever, creative means of getting around these barriers is a start, but just a start. The supposition here is that people are simply distracted or busy and that they are not able to attend to the messages around them due to volume. This has some merit. As anyone active in social media use, spent time in front the TV, visited a “free” website, or having visited public places like Times Square (pictured) can attest, the volume of information we get exposed to on a daily basis is enormous. It sounds good, but as any marketer can tell you, today’s effective and innovative strategy is tomorrow’s overused, ignored delivery system. Once widely adopted, a marketing strategy often loses its lustre and something new must replace it, which is why marketing is such a dynamic field.

A systems-oriented approach is also dynamic, but one that aims to transform the structure of the relationships and processes within the system rather than work around the existing ones.

Perhaps the question is less about whether social marketing is knowledge translation, but whether social marketing is enough given the information climate most health professionals and consumers exist.

1 thought on “Knowledge Translation or Just Better Marketing?”

  1. Hi Cameron:

    Couple of thoughts about this post. To take it from the bottom up: No, social marketing is not knowledge translation, IMHO; social marketing is a tool that can come in to play in the appropriate context. And, no, social marketing is not enough.

    At our knowledge translation site, we’re working on a model which attempts to illustrate the many different contexts which engage knowledge translation activities, and which ones require which different tools to be successful. The model is in draft form right now, and will be posted in the near future. In our view, social marketing comes out of the toolbox when analysis indicates that your gap between knowledge production and uptake is sufficiently wide to merit that level of activity.

    Which brings me to my other thought. I think you’re viewing “marketing” a little too narrowly. An effective social marketer is going to go way beyond “clever, creative means of getting around these barriers…” An upfront market analysis asks: Who is the potential audience? Where do they live? How much money do they make? How much education do they have? What do they view as credible sources of information? Who or what is competing for their time and attention?

    Without this analysis, clever strategies will miss the mark, or, your analysis may reveal that you don’t need clever strategies at all. For example, your analysis may uncover that the hypothetical residents of a string of small, rural communities with no broadband access and lousy cell coverage tend to swing by the bulletin board outside the sheriff’s office for community news. If the sheriff’s office endorses it, people listen. Who knew? A clever Facebook campaign ain’t serving these folks, but an 8 ½ X 11 flyer is.

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