Social Marketing/ Social Media Blowback And eHealth Communication Etiquette


Those of us working at that interface between the professional and public worlds of health have to wear many hats. We need to be good at communicating in ways that gain respect within our professional worlds. This position means writing scholarly manuscripts, using technical language (but not always), and synthesizing the work of our peers on one hand, while being able to work within the world of most marketers, which includes reaching the public. That means working within the realm of (social) marketing.

Social marketing is described as:

Social Marketing is a planned process for influencing change. Social Marketing is a modified term of conventional Product and Service Marketing. With its components of marketing and consumer research, advertising and promotion (including positioning, segmentation, creative strategy, message design and testing, media strategy and planning, and effective tracking), Social Marketing can play a central role in topics like health, environment, and other important issues.

In its most general sense, Social Marketing is a new way of thinking about some very old human endeavours. As long as there have been social systems, there have been attempts to inform, persuade, influence, motivate, to gain acceptance for new adherents to certain sets of ideas, to promote causes and to win over particular groups, to reinforce behaviour or to change it — whether by favour, argument or force. Social Marketing has deep roots in religion, in politics, in education, and even, to a degree, in military strategy. It also has intellectual roots in disciplines such as psychology, sociology, political science, communication theory and anthropology. Its practical roots stem from disciplines such as advertising, public relations and market research, as well as to the work and experience of social activists, advocacy groups and community organizers.

Social marketing is about getting ideas out there and in use and within the realm of public health and social welfare programming, we often presume that what we’re “selling” is good in its quality, intent, potential use, and social benefit.

The problem is that most of what passes for social marketing in the health sector is not done by marketers, or even those skilled in health communications, but rather everyday researchers, clinicians and administrators. Certainly there are many large organizations where such skilled professionals do reside, but in the decentralized web of social media, those are drops in the bucket of content.

The result is that many well-intentioned messages get poorly developed and distributed, creating something akin to blowback, a hostile and aggressive form of resistance to the message. I’ve just been witnessing such a case of this with a an organization seeking to promote social innovation that is getting messages sent by people on its online mailing list asking to be removed from it. One of the big reasons for these messages is that these people were never asked to be put on the mailing list in the first place.

I get almost as much spam (or, in some cases, bacn) from well-meaning organizations and individuals hoping to get their message out than I do the usual snake-oil salesmen peddling natural male enhancements, Rolex watches, and “investment opportunities”. The senders of these messages, well intentioned for the most part, are hoping to you’ll “buy” their product, which means adopting their findings into your practice, register for the conference they are organizing, visit their website, or donate to their cause.

This reflects a fundamental lack of knowledge about social media, social marketing and knowledge translation in the modern age. Effective messages are a matter of content shaping and distribution, but also relationship development. When you send out messages unsolicited asking for something — time, mindspace, referrrals, whatever — you are hoping to develop a relationship, even a superficial one, with that person. Treating them with the disdain that comes from throwing content at people without their consent is violating that relationship. It is no surprise that miniscule things like one simple thing like an unsolicited email can unleash some fury among its recipients.

And for those people and organizations who think putting a tiny statement on their registration form or website in 8pt font saying that you must opt out of communications or presuming people want this, I’m sorry but that doesn’t cut it.

Building social marketing on relationships is something that our field needs to build literacy and competence in quickly as the number of these unsolicited campaigns seems to be growing. If we don’t improve our messaging, we’re going to have a lot harder time getting the right people to attend to the right messages or risk having them treat all of what we send with the same care as those messages from some Nigerian Prince in exile.

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