An effective social marketing strategy must be built on the foundation of solid research. Without this, creative ideas may emerge, but like the lost pilot breaking the speed record described by Bill Bernbach, the wrong destination will be reached even more quickly. The purpose of research in this stage is to learn as much about the target audience and market as possible, in order to steer the program in the right direction. This may include both reviewing secondary research sources and conducting primary research, such as surveys, focus groups or in-depth interviews.
Secondary Research Review

When beginning a program, the crucial first step is to find any available information that is applicable to the marketing effort. Secondary data is information that has already been collected for another purpose--in journals, popular media, computer databases or other sources. A secondary research review can help to provide preliminary answers to questions about the scope of the public health or social problem, previous attempts to address the problem, who the probable target audience is, who the "competition" is (non-adoption of the "product" may be the main competitor) and information about potential media vehicles.

In social marketing, key sources of information include technical and professional journals; national public opinion polls, health and consumer surveys; past coverage of the issue in newspapers, trade journals and consumer magazines; census statistics and other demographic surveys; government health departments; radio and television stations and local advertising agencies and market research firms. Each can provide different types of information, so it is desirable to be as thorough as possible in the research review.

This method of information-gathering can be a relatively quick and inexpensive way to become familiar with the market and identify areas requiring further primary research. However, data from these sources may not always be current or accurate. In addition, the questions investigated in someone else's study may not be relevant to the program.

Focus Groups

Focus groups are an excellent method for obtaining information about the target audience's perceptions, beliefs and language regarding a particular topic. It is a qualitative method, which probes into the reasons that people feel and act the way they do. Focus groups give more depth of information than do surveys or other quantitative methods. By bringing together a group of similar people, a forum is provided for them to discuss a particular issue and react to each other's comments in a directed way that is not possible through individual interviews or participant observation.

Focus groups are used often throughout the social marketing process, from the planning stages to development and refinement of the message and materials. In situations where time and cost are important considerations, focus groups may be the most efficient method of data collection. Among their many uses are: generating ideas about services or products, and pretesting product positioning, message concepts or pre finished communication materials.

A focus group generally consists of eight to ten unacquainted participants, who are fairly similar to each other in terms of sex, age, ethnic background, risk factors and other relevant characteristics related to the target audience. The group is led by a trained moderator, who poses open-ended questions from a discussion outline and tries to involve everyone in the discussion. This occurs in a comfortable, non-threatening environment where participants are encouraged to speak what's on their minds, especially if it is different than what other people are saying. The discussion is usually recorded on audio or video tape, and lasts one to two hours.

Although focus groups are an excellent technique for obtaining qualitative information from several respondents at once, there are some disadvantages to the method. First, people may be reticent to discuss sensitive subjects, such as sexual behavior, in front of a group. For certain topics, it may be more appropriate to conduct individual in-depth interviews, which use the qualitative probing questions of focus groups, but afford more privacy to the respondent. Another disadvantage is that focus group results are not directly projectable back to the target population (i.e., one can't report that "2 out of 5 gay men don't want to practice safer sex..."). However, after hearing the same thing from a number of participants, it is likely that their views are common to many in the target audience. The qualitative nature of the research and small sample sizes preclude the use of focus group results as baseline data for program evaluation.

Baseline KAP Study

Based upon the information unearthed by the secondary research review and/or focus groups, it should be possible to narrow down the scope of the problem. Prior to the implementation of a program, data are needed regarding audience awareness, knowledge, attitudes and behaviors related to the program issue. In order to guide the development of the marketing strategy and to provide a baseline from which to determine whether the program accomplishes its goals, a KAP (knowledge, attitudes and practices) study should be conducted. Using the preliminary research, the survey is drafted and pre-tested in order to evaluate its validity, reliability and to identify any other problems with its design. As with any survey, the interviewers must be trained, interviews must be conducted and data must be entered and analyzed. This can be an expensive and time-consuming undertaking. However, this type of survey can be very useful for identifying and understanding the audience better in terms of their demographics, psychographics and behaviors. Depending upon the validity of the technique used, the survey can help estimate how many in the population are "users" of the product (e.g., how many practice safer sex), identify their attitudes toward the product and learn other quantitative information on the attributes of users and non-users.

Many other important facts can be determined from the results of the KAP study. A crucial issue is the consumer's readiness to adopt the product. Within the population, there are many segments of people who have different levels of awareness, knowledge or adoption of the behavior. In Prochaska's "Stages of Change" model, consumers are thought to move along a "readiness continuum," consisting of different stages--from being unaware to aware, to knowledgeable, interested, motivated, ready-to-try, users, and then possibly non-users. The strategy that will be used for the program depends upon the point on the continuum at which the majority of the target audience is located. For example, gay males in San Francisco who may need help in maintaining their safer sex behavior would merit a much different approach than that used to create awareness among heterosexual females in the midwest. Depending upon the extensiveness of the study, other factors which can be identified may include the level of consumer demand for the social marketing product, insight into how to position the product, benefits and barriers to use of the product and the media habits of the target audience.

A thorough qualitative analysis of the potential target audience should be conducted either as part of the development of the KAP survey or to further explore issues that arose from the survey. Once the target audience has been identified, the next step is to learn as much about them as possible. If this is done before the KAP questionnaire is developed, the information can be used to make the survey even more useful by giving insight into the consumers' lives, determining the language used by the target audience about the topic and identifying key issues which the researchers might not have recognized themselves. The most common methods used to gather this qualitative information are focus groups and marketing databases.

Marketing Databases

In addition to information about attitudes and behaviors related to a particular topic, social marketers need to know about their target audience's other habits in order to reach them most effectively and efficiently. Major marketing surveys, such as the DDB Needham Lifestyle Study, MRI (Mediamark Research, Inc.), Simmons Market Research Bureau's Study of Media and Markets (SMRB) and the Mendelsohn Research Survey of Adults and Markets of Affluence, provide a more in-depth understanding of target markets than standard demographic or consumer surveys. They provide extensive information on demographics, consumer buying habits and use of media. Another database, PRIZM, clusters similar types of consumers demographically, based upon their zip codes. Once the target audience has been identified, the database can be used to provide additional information about those people.

In some cases, social marketers may want to better understand other groups who may influence those in the target audience. These may include spouses, parents, in-laws, doctors, policymakers or other influentials in their lives. For example, the parents of asthmatic children or husbands of women with breast cancer may be just as important to understand and target. This can be done through any of the methodologies described above.
Media Analysis

If the social marketing campaign will be using mass media to promote the message (as most will), it is crucial to identify the optimal media channels for placement efforts. Media planning and analysis are an important investment, even if relying upon stations to run public service announcements. If messages miss the target audience, the effort is wasted and will not be successful. Two ways to increase the chances of reaching the target audience are: first, identifying the appropriate media vehicles and second, understanding the media "gatekeepers" who control the content and flow of information that reaches the target audience.

In order to plan a successful media campaign, social marketers must know how best to reach the target audience. There are many sources of information on consumer media habits. Among these are the aforementioned marketing databases, along with the Scarborough Ratings Study and Arbitron/Nielsen Ratings. These databases provide information on demographics and media habits: television viewing (types of shows, dayparts, networks), radio listening (networks, formats and dayparts), magazines and newspapers read. These services can help to compare which types of media, and specifically which vehicles, are used most by the target audience. Based upon the cost of each, and the estimated gross impressions for the target audience (how many people it will reach), the most effective and efficient vehicles for the campaign can be determined.

All of these databases vary, however, in terms of geographic breakdown, income levels sampled and information beyond bare demographics. For example, the Mendelsohn Research Survey of Adults and Markets of Influence samples only people with household incomes above $60,000. These databases may not be a very good source of information on lower-SES audiences, for they are difficult to reach through phone surveys, and are not of much interest to marketers because of their low amount of expendable income. There are a couple of sources that focus on minority media habits, such as the US Hispanic Market, from Strategy Research Corporation.

After identifying the key media vehicles for the campaign, social marketers must research and understand the media gatekeepers at these vehicles who are most important to their program. These people include editors, producers, writers, talk show hosts, public service directors and other influentials in associations and organizations. Ideally, a survey should be conducted to determine their awareness, knowledge and attitudes on the issue, their interest in the topic and their perceptions of how their audience views the topic. A gatekeeper audit aids in predicting how these influential people will react to the social marketing program, allowing proactive strategizing. Combining the information gleaned from all of the sources in the planning stages will produce a strong foundation for building an effective program.

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Weinreich Communications 2006