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In a nutshell: 2-minute summary of the 2013 Toronto Social Marketing Conference -By Charissa Feng, MPH, BA (hons.) AASM Member

[This blog post is an excerpt from an AASM presentation, presented in Melbourne on 1 July 2013]

From a practitioner’s point of the view, three interesting themes emerged from the Toronto Social Marketing Conference. While I did not physically attend the conference, I trawled through over 60 papers with Lelde McCoy from The Reputation Group to learn what was trending in the international social marketing space, and which themes would be of most use to practitioners developing social marketing programs to solve Australia’s most complex social problems.

1)    Content is commodity; context is king

Where practitioners traditionally looked at reach of a campaign to measure its effectiveness, the over-saturation of messages (and the mediums they are carried by) in the market place means that reach is no longer an indication of acceptance. With over 571 new websites and 100,000 tweets sent out every minute, we are almost over-communicated to! Think about the number of times you delete an e-newsletter from a well-meaning organisation, or walk past an advertisement without stopping to read it. From the sender’s point of view, you were “reached” by the message. From your point of view, you never received the content.

Social marketers have to move beyond just focusing on the content to focusing on ensuring the content gets absorbed to have an impact.  Delivering the message in the right context increases the chances of that happening. Context considers how relevant the content is to the receiver and the experience he or she is having while receiving the content. It asks the question: Is the right message going to the right person at the right time while using the right medium?

2)    Changing behaviour before changing attitude

The ‘Promotion’ part of the 4Ps in marketing is often seen as the most exciting part of a behaviour change campaign – marketers (myself included) sometimes get caught up in how we can design the messages to change attitude and belief. However, social marketing is ultimately about behaviour change, and presentations at the conference showed how practitioners need to take a step back and consider how small changes in the environment can cause a direct change in behaviour. A notable case study is the Smarter Lunchroom Movement by the Cornell Center for Behavioural Economics in Child Nutrition Program. In order to increase the amount of vegetables and fruits consumed and reduce the amount of junk food eaten, the program made subtle changes to the lunchroom. This includes moving the salad bar from against the wall to right next to the cashier, placing dishes high in vegetables at the beginning of the lunch line and having an express check out line for students who did not buy desserts or junk food. The results were stunningly positive – for subtle changes that only cost $34 per school, there was a 102% increase in fruit consumption, 40 – 70% increase in vegetable consumption and reduction in sales of ice cream by 28%! To find out more about the Smarter Lunchroom Movement, visit

3)    Campaign co-creation

A bit of the buzzword for 2013, co-creation emerged as one of the key themes for this year’s conference. There has been quite a bit of misunderstanding about what the term co-creation means. Contrary to popular belief, it is not about running a range of focus groups to test acceptability of an advert, neither is it about giving up control of the entire process to the target audience.

Co-creation is a participatory approach to behaviour change based on a simple principle that long-term sustainable change must come from the individual, community or organisation that we are trying to change.

The target audience is involved from the very beginning to shape the process and throughout the process to develop the campaign or program. This allows program designers to understand the full complexities of human behaviour and it moves the question from “Why won’t these people understand what we want them to do?” to “What do we not understand about our target audience?”

At the end, the ownership of the program or campaign is transferred to the participants. This is an important part of the co-creation process as it is connected to the empowerment of participants, empowerment to take control of the social issue for their community. As Wallenstein (2006) noted, empowerment is recognised as both an outcome in itself and as an intermediate step to long-term health status and disparity outcomes.

To see more examples of co-creation projects implemented overseas, visit Collaborative Change.

This blog post was written by Charissa Feng, a former board member in the Australian Association of Social Marketing and an Account Director at The Reputation Group. 

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