National Social Marketing Centre

Criteria for success

The NSMC has reviewed behaviour change programmes to discover the secrets of success.

Interventions with real impact featured all or many of the following: 

  1. Clear behavioural goals 
  2. Customer orientation 
  3. Theory 
  4. Insight 
  5. Exchange 
  6. Competition 
  7. Segmentation 
  8. Methods mix 

These benchmark criteria are not just a tick-box checklist, but concepts that work together to make social marketing programmes more effective. For more information, download our Big pocket guide to social marketing.

1: Behaviour 

 Change people’s actual behaviour. 

  • Influence specific behaviours, not just knowledge, attitudes and beliefs. 
  • Set clear, specific, measurable and time-bound behavioural goals.
  • Establish baselines and key indicators. 

Behaviour is a pattern of actions over time; the action or reaction of something under specific circumstances. It is dynamic – that is, subject to change and variation in different contexts and at different times. 

Much routine daily behaviour is about habit, so people may not be thinking consciously about what they do. Start by thinking about an audience’s attitudes, hopes, wishes, desires and other motivations. This is generally more productive than trying to identify and fill information gaps. Understanding people’s emotional engagement is critical. 

2: Customer orientation

Focus on the audience. 

  • Fully understand their lives, attitudes and current behaviour using a mix of data sources and research methods. 
  • Go beyond interviews and focus groups – use ethnographic techniques too. 
  • Use a range of research analyses and combine data from different sources (qualitative and quantitative). 
  • Gain key stakeholder understanding and feed it into methods mix development. 
  • Pre-test interventions with the audience. 
  • Involve people – don’t treat them as research subjects.

 3: Theory

Use behavioural theories to understand behaviour and inform the intervention.

Human behaviour is complex. However a theory can offer you a greater understanding of your target audience and the factors that influence them and their actions. 

Eg The ‘Time to Change’ programme on attitudes to mental health problems, run in partnership by MIND and Rethink, used Social Contact Theory: discriminatory attitudes and behaviours can be challenged by bringing people in direct contact with each other.

Details of how different theories have been used in social marketing projects can be found on ShowCase, our online resource of benchmarked social marketing case studies.

  • Identify theories after conducting customer orientation research. 
  • Use theory to inform and guide the methods mix. 
  • Test theoretical assumptions as part of the intervention pre-testing. 

4: Insight

Customer orientation lets you identify ‘actionable insights’ – pieces of understanding that will lead the development of  an effective intervention.

Insight is more than just pieces of data. It is what the data can tell us about people’s feelings, motivations and current behaviour 

  • Gain a deep understanding of what moves and motivates the target audience and influences the behaviour. 
  • Identify emotional barriers (such as fear of testing positive for a disease) as well as physical barriers (such as service opening hours). 
  • Use insight to develop an attractive exchange and suitable methods mix. 

 Insights include two types of barrier: 

Tangible barriers These are barriers that can be addressed through changes to the physical environment. For example, a current service may be underused because it is not open after 5pm, preventing many working people from attending. It is important to try and reduce these barriers through your methods mix (for example, longer opening hours for those who work, or services provided in the workplace). 

Emotional barriers Addressing just the tangible barriers may not bring about the behaviour change. Social marketers are often trying to change complex behaviours which are the ‘social norm’. Barriers to the behaviour change are often emotional. For example, women may not attend their mammogram appointment because they fear finding a lump. Changing service opening times but ignoring the emotional reasons is unlikely to lead to behaviour change. It is important that both types of barriers are addressed.

5. Exchange

Consider benefits and costs of adopting and maintaining a new behaviour; maximise the benefits and minimise the costs. 

Exchange is ‘the exchange of resources or values between two or more parties with the expectation of some benefits’. Whether consciously or sub-consciously, people go through a cost-benefit analysis at some level before they decide to act. The social marketer’s task is to ensure that the benefits associated with the desired behaviour are equal to or greater than the costs. 

  • Analyse the perceived/actual costs versus perceived/actual benefits 
  • Consider what the target audience values: offer incentives and rewards based on customer orientation and insight findings 
  • Replace benefits the audience derives from the problem behaviour and competition. The exchange you offer is clearly linked to ‘price’ in the methods mix 

Exchange concept illustration. promote incentives and rewards and reduce barriers and blocks for the desired behaviour, and vice versa for problem behaviour.

When offering an exchange, don’t just look to reduce the barriers. Are there incentives and benefits you can offer the target audience based on what they value?

Try to identify and replace the benefits people currently receive from a problem behaviour. For example, drinking alcohol gives young people a sense of confidence, making them feel sexy and ‘part of the gang’. If you want them to stop drinking, or reduce the amount they drink, your intervention must look to replace the benefits they currently receive from drinking alcohol. 

6: Competition 

Our messages compete for a person's attention and engagement with many other calls on them in every day life.Understand what competes for the audience’s time, attention, and inclination to behave in a particular way.

  • Address direct and external factors that compete for the audience’s time and attention. 
  • Develop strategies to minimise the impact of competition, clearly linked to the exchange offered. 
  • Work with, or learn from, the competing factors.  

7: Segmentation

Avoid a ‘one size fits all’ approach: identify audience ‘segments’, which have common characteristics, and tailor interventions appropriately 

  • Customer orientation and insight work make segmentation possible.
  • Don’t only rely on traditional demographic, geographic or epidemiological targeting. 
  • Draw on behavioural and psychographic data.
  • Identify the size of your segments. 
  • Prioritise and select segments according to clear criteria, such as size and readiness to change. 
  • Directly tailor interventions in the methods mix to specific audience segments. 

8: Methods mix

Use a combination of approaches to bring about behaviour change. Don’t just rely on raising awareness

  • Use all four Ps (product, price, place and promotion) or primary intervention methods (inform and educate, support, design and control).
  • Use promotion to ‘sell’ the product, price, place and benefits to the target audience, not just to communicate a message.
  • Consider existing interventions to avoid duplication. 
  • Create a new brand, or leverage existing brands that the target audience value. 
  • Keep your methods and approaches financially and practically sustainable. 

These benchmark criteria form part of a range of resources that The NSMC has developed to promote best practice in social marketing, including a Planning guide and toolkit, and a Value for Money tool. See our Resources section for details.

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  • Want more?

    Download The NSMC's introductory Big pocket guide to social marketing

  • Improving effectiveness...

    The NSMC continues to play an important role in improving the effectiveness of governments' and national organisations' behaviour change programmes.

    Mary Newman, Head of clinical strategies, Department of Health


  • Training

    The NSMC has trained over 10,000 people in social marketing. Find out about our world-class social marketing training and e-learning.

  • Case studies

    See The NSMC's ShowCase database for fully benchmarked social marketing case studies.


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