Mistakes to Avoid in Social Marketing (Behaviour Change)

I was recently asked to give a presentation in Toronto to the Canadian Partnership for Responsible Gambling’s (CPRG) symposium, “Social Marketing for Responsible Gambling: Leading the Way to Behavioural Change”. The two-day symposium was organized by member organizations of the Canadian Partnership for Responsible Gambling .

My presentation at the conference was on mistakes I see organizations make when trying to develop and/or implement a social marketing strategy. As a managing partner and senior consultant at the Centre of Excellence for Public Sector Marketing  I keep seeing organizations make the same mistakes over and over again and hopefully this post will help those who are developing and implementing social marketing behaviour change campaigns.



  1. Campaigns being run by people who have no skills or training in social marketing

Most social marketing initiatives we see at our Centre seem to be run by individuals that have no background or training in either marketing or social marketing. Can you imagine someone in the private sector being asked to lead a marketing initiative with no formal training in marketing? Not likely, but frequently management /staff and or outside consultants responsible for managing social marketing campaigns have no basic training in the field of social marketing. Many come from the field of communications, public relations or in some cases advertising which may explain why many campaigns are heavy on communications but lack basic marketing principles (e.g. 4p’s) and techniques. Many of the campaigns we see tend to be social communications, public education/public awareness or advertising campaigns but few are really social marketing.

  1. Absence of a social marketing strategy.

This one is hard to believe, but we see clients spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, not to mention a significant amount of human resources, with out a social marketing strategy. Sometimes they will mistake a communications or advertising strategy for a social marketing strategy but in many cases there actually is no strategy just a bunch a promotional tactics weaved together and called a strategy. In addition, in many cases they have little or no marketing research so marketing decisions are not based on evidence.

  1. Failing to examine the factors that influence the adoption of a behaviour

To be effective in the field of social marketing and influence behaviour change, marketers must understand what their target audiences perceive to be the barriers to change. Good communication is certainly a key to being effective in social marketing but more often than not, simply improving communications doesn’t move the needle much. The most successful behavior change initiatives focus relentlessly on removing barriers to — and facilitating — desired behaviors.

This takes more than a clever communications or an advertising campaign. Barriers are all those things that stop people from adopting a new behaviour. They take many forms but most are either structural or personal. Personal barriers are often psychological and include things like habits, fears and beliefs. Because personal barriers are just that – personal, it’s important not to assume you know what they are.

It is a good idea to ask your target group what’s stopping them from changing their behaviour by using research methods like focus groups, surveys or phone/online interviews.

Most importantly, listen.  Communication is a two-way process. Many campaigns fail because too much time is spent telling people what they should think or do, rather than asking how they can be helped to do it. Structural barriers can also seem obvious, but even the simplest ones can be missed. Most people want to do the right thing so it’s important to remove the barriers that might prevent them from doing so.

It is also not a good idea to assume people will change behavior when presented with compelling facts. Education and Awareness alone does not lead to behavior change; People do not always change their behaviors because it is “the right thing to do”; People tend to change their behaviors when the benefit to them outweighs the barrier.

  1. Underestimating the power of environment to shape behavior.

Failure to consider upstream social marketing, which aims to change the political, social, legal, and physical or public policy environment by giving messages to industry or government. Traditionally social marketing, as a voluntary change mechanism, has targeted individuals and conceptualized social change as being the sum of individual changes, in recent years the targets of social marketing are aimed at legislative and structural changes to force behaviour change

The upstream concept involves influencing decisions makers and facilitating changes in environments so change (individual or systemic) can take place.  Think of social change as a stream. Typically, organizations do a lot of work downstream – working one-on-one on individual behaviour change.  And this is good. But until norms are shifted and the behaviour is seen as acceptable and desirable, the change can be isolated and short-lived. By moving further upstream and also involving community influencers or organizations whose actions are needed to bring about change, you have more of a chance to create widespread and sustained change.

“No matter how good you are at awareness programs; you cannot reduce problem gambling simply by changing the patterns of behaviour of the gambler. You have to look at how gambling is provided.”

  1. Not paying attention to social norms

Social norms are people’s beliefs about the attitudes and behaviours that are normal, acceptable, or even expected in a particular social context. In many situations, people’s perception of these norms greatly influence their behaviour. Therefore, when people misperceive the norms of their group—that is, when they inaccurately think an attitude or behaviour is more (or less) common than is actually the case—they may choose to engage in behaviours that are in sync with those false norms.

The social norm process works by collecting data on the actual versus perceived behavioural norms. If there is an over-exaggeration of the norms, then social marketing messages and tactics are developed to communicate the true norms that exist. By continuing to communicate the true norms, the myth that everybody is doing it is slowly eroded away until the group realizes that the majority are doing what’s right. When this positive message is sustained for a year or two, the negative behaviours of the group begin to shift downward to reflect the majority behaviour. For example, if university or college students overestimate how much their peers drink or gamble, this misperception of the norm may drive greater alcohol consumption or gambling by students.

  1. Lack of attention to strategic market segmentation

Segmentation is the key to effective social marketing but many campaigns are not targeted and focused. Very few campaigns know how to use social marketing methods for developing segmentation strategies like TARPARE, MASH analysis or know how to apply the stages of change approach to behaviour change.

Most campaigns use demographics and geographic segmentation but with social marketing you are dealing with behaviour change and very few campaigns use psychographic segmentation to develop campaigns.

You choose and prioritize target audiences by brainstorming all audiences; categorizing them as primary, influencer, or gatekeeper; identifying influencers to inspire people to change their behavior—for instance, children in households can influence parents; and finding out who the gatekeepers are—those who can prevent access to your primary audience.

Every audience has influencers: people that they look to for direction. When celebrities, business leaders, community leaders, and the audience’s most influential and connected role models are participating in the behaviour change, it’s hard to resist joining the fray.

Also most campaigns are too broad It seems obvious that it is important to target a specific audience, but there is always the temptation to broaden and broaden the scope of the campaign to reach more people. For example, in gambling it may make sense to segment the gambling population into even better defined groups—or even to tailor messages to individual gamblers based on how and where they gamble.

  1. Lack of marketing research

One of our major frustrations at our Centre is that many organizations running social marketing campaigns do not do audience research, and when it is done, it is not done well. I cannot tell you how many times we are told by organizations that they cannot afford to do proper research but meanwhile spend tens of thousands on implementing tactics.

Social Marketers conduct research to determine current behaviors, identify target audiences, identify barriers and motivations, test concepts and messages, and set baselines for evaluation.

Marketers don’t assume they know how their audience thinks and feels. They do not simply follow their instincts or let their own ideas about what the audience wants drive their programs. Social marketing requires an investment of both financial and human resources. Organizations cannot afford to try out different marketing options blindly; If their campaigns head in the wrong direction, they will have wasted their money

Also social marketers continue to monitor their campaigns while they are running to see if they are working as you may be running a campaign that is not having the desired effect so doing an evaluation after the campaign is completed is important but ongoing monitoring is as important. Because you may be wasting your money

Finally, in many cases organizations do not ask the right questions and then complain about the research.  That is why we created a marketing research template on how to conduct marketing research which is part of our social marketing workbook.

  1. Going first for big change instead of starting with small, easy successes.

You need to break down big changes into bite-sized chunks for people. Start with baby steps: specific actions that people can sustain over time. Early successes lay a foundation for long-term successes.

It’s really hard to simply stop a negative habit, so replace it with a positive one instead. It’s far more effective than trying to go “cold turkey.” Willpower is a finite resource: sooner or later it will be depleted. Everyone’s motivation ebbs and flows; what people need more than willpower is easier behaviors.

The problem with an abstract goal or objective is that there is no specific call to action. It’s important to translate goals into simple, actionable steps. It’s been shown that people are more likely to try something new if it’s similar to what they’re already doing. The use of nicotine gum as a substitute for cigarettes is an obvious example.

When seeking to discourage a specific behaviour think about what can be offered in its place. This step looks at the potential impact of the behavior change. Our advice for encouraging behavior change is to work on one behavior at a time then add others on and go with behavior change suggestions with the highest probability of change.

Also look for the lowest hanging fruit e.g. for those who use the stages of change approach it makes more sense to start with contemplators (individuals who are willing to consider the possibility that they have a problem, and the possibility offers hope for change.) than precontemplators (who are not even thinking about changing their behavior and may not see it as a problem, or they think that others who point out the problem are exaggerating.)

  1. Failure to develop monitoring and evaluation strategies upfront

Marketers start with what they want to accomplish and how they will measure it. Goals are long-term and broad while objectives are measurable ways to reach goals. Be as specific as possible with your objectives, but the process is not rigid. You may need to revise your objectives as you move through the steps.

Use research to determine current behaviors, identify your target audience, identify barriers and motivations as well as baselines for evaluation.

Create a plan before starting implementation of the campaign. You should start thinking about this at step one. i.e. at the beginning of the process. The ideal here is to measure actual behavior change. Decide how you will measure against each objective, set both monitoring and evaluation timelines, and set SMART objectives to measure impact on knowledge, beliefs/attitudes and behaviour.

If you have measureable objectives, evaluation should not be difficult. The one approach that works well for social marketers is the tracking approach. Benchmark surveys are conducted before a campaign to determine knowledge, behaviours, beliefs and attitudes of the target audience. At various junctures, the same questions are asked to the same target audience in a tracking survey. The results of these studies are compared to determine whether the campaign is having effect on the target audience(s).

At our Centre we use a logic model that organizes program evaluative measures into categories that can be measured and reported on using a “logical” flow, beginning with program inputs and outputs, moving on to program effects in terms of outcomes and impact, and ending with (ideally) reporting on returns on investment.

  1. Failure to identify and enlist partners

When developing your tactical plans, it is a good idea to consider how you can expand the reach of your campaign through strategic alliances and partnerships. You may wish to identify specific organizations or simply the types of organizations with whom you will develop alliances.

Clearly, partnerships need to be considered as an integral tool for delivering cost-effective messages to the audience(s) identified for a social marketing campaign.

Look for partners with complementary goals, audience overlap, and a history of collaboration and community involvement. Partners bring new communications channels, money and in-kind resources or incentives, data and/or data analysis, and credibility with your target audience.

When looking for partners, consider those in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors and make sure you have something to offer them. Also look for media partners.

Look for partners with:

  • Complementary mission/goals
  • Audience overlap
  • History of collaboration/community involvement
  • Things that partners can bring to the table
  • Communications channels to the target audience
  • Money/in-kind resources/incentives
  • Data and/or data analysis
  • Credibility with target audience
  1. Seeking approval by committee.

If you can’t agree with your family on what you want to watch on TV this evening, how can you expect a roomful of managers to agree on something as subjective as social marketing? Everyone’s views on entertainment is unique, and the fewer people involved in the creative approval chain, the better. If you try to please everyone, you’ll end up pleasing no one. In a perfect world (which we do not live in) the best source of approval is the target audience you are trying to influence.

So that’s it, I hope you found the information in this article useful.

 Welcome to the Social Marketing Association of North America

Over the past year, social marketers from Canada and the U.S. have been organizing the Social Marketing Association of North America (SMANA). Yes, THE TIME HAS COME for a membership organization serving the professional needs of social marketers in Canada, the United States, Mexico, and the Caribbean/Central America! Get involved and join now!



Two workbooks ideal for marketers and communicators working for government departments/agencies, non-profit/volunteer organizations, associations and social enterprises who are responsible for:

  • Marketing programs, products, programs and/or services
  • Social marketing, community outreach and public education programs

1. Social Marketing Planning to Change Attitudes and Behaviours Workbook

This workbook provides users with an end-to-end planning tool that lays the groundwork for a successful social marketing program to change attitudes and behaviours. The content is the result of more than 30 years of direct experience in the social marketing arena.  It will assist public sector, non-profit organizations and associations involved in marketing, communications, public awareness/education and outreach.

To purchase workbook, go to https://cepsm.ca/product/social_marketing_workbook/

Order Now and You’ll receive a PDF download immediately!

Alternatively, you can register on our MARCOM Conference site to attend an upcoming Introduction to Social Marketing Planning for Behaviour Change Workshop where we offer the workbook as part of 1-day interactive workshop

2.  Marketing 101 for Marketers and Non-Marketers Workbook

This workbook provides users with an end-to-end planning tool that lays the groundwork for developing a successful public sector or non-profit marketing program.

It also will provide you with an overview of public sector and non-profit marketing and highlight the importance of market research to support a decision-making framework.

To purchase workbook, go to https://cepsm.ca/product/marketing-101-for-marketers-and-non-marketers-workbook/

Order Now and you will receive a PDF download immediately!


What Marketers Need to Know About Generation Z

Many readers of my blog are developing marketing initiatives aimed at youth, especially adolescents. If you thought that understanding and marketing to millennials was a big challenge, wait until you have to market to Generation Z

generation Z 1

Over the past few years, marketers across all industries and categories have been obsessed with millennials — how to reach them and build meaningful connections with their brands. This captivating generation has a unique sense of self and a nontraditional approach to life stages, which has made marketing to them a challenge.

But perhaps even more challenging is the next generation on the rise — Gen Z. If marketers thought they threw out the playbook with millennials, they need to know that Gen Zers aren’t even playing on the same field. They are in a very different world. I have done a fair bit of research on this group and have read quite a few studies and articles. So here is the latest information on Gen Zers.

Gen Z consumers range from ages 2 to 19, though the target range for marketers lies from ages 11 to 16. Gen Z is the most diverse and multicultural of any generation. For example, in the U.S. — 55% are Caucasian, 24% are Hispanic, 14% are African-American and 4% are Asian. Canada with its very multicultural society has similar situation albeit with some different demographics.

Here is some information  from a terrific article in  Advertising Age. There are a few key beliefs native to Gen Z that marketers must understand. First, Gen Zers are the least likely to believe there is such a thing as the “American Dream.” They look for products and messaging that reflect a reality rather than a perfect life. Gen Zers simply don’t respond to traditional notions of beauty or a projected image of perfection like past generations have. They respond to independence and entrepreneurialism, self-direction and a spirit of ingenuity.

Millennials are the generation of customer service — such as the creation of the Apple Genius Bar — to solve problems at any moment. They design their own, unconventional paths, yet they anticipate consistent success (and hand-holding) along the way. Gen Z is a generation of highly-educated, technologically-savvy, innovative thinkers. They look for solutions on their own. They set out to make things on their own.

hp group shot

Marketers must create products/services and marketing that empower this group to be their best selves. They must also create places — locations, websites, online communities — where Gen Zers feel welcome walking in and logging in, and feel just as wonderful walking out and checking out. Organizations  that offer programs and services and an experience that help Gen Zers define and express their individuality and lifestyle will succeed with this group.

Millennials grew up with computers in their homes. But Gen Z is the first generation born into a digital world. They don’t know a world without PCs, mobile phones, gaming devices and MP3 players.

They live online, sharing details of their lives across dozens of platforms and dictating what they like and dislike with a tweet, post or status. And Gen Zers expects to virtually engage with their favorite products in doing so. So products can’t simply “embrace technology” as millennials have. They must act digitally native, too, creating a seamless and strong overarching brand experience across digital and mobile. To reach Gen Zers, it is paramount to reach them through two-way conversations, which are initiated online. An authentic digital and social presence as well as a slew of complimentary digital experiences in which Gen Z fans can engage with and share their brand allegiance is perhaps the best currency a marketer could generate.

Generation Z is open-minded and adaptable, not a group known for fixed opinions or inflexibility. Organizations that build careful marketing strategies that connect with the values of the younger set and offer a better digital experience online will be successful among this new, young, powerful generation.

Here is some important marketing intelligence on Gen Zers from CMO.com.  Gen Zers are entrepreneurial and resourceful, courtesy of growing up during a recession. Marketers will need to take all of this into account when shaping their strategies for this group. Note these are US stats but are applicable to the Canadian market.

  1. Consumers 19 and younger prefer social networks like Snapchat, Secret, and Whisper, and a quarter of 13- to 17-year-olds have left Facebook this year.
  2. Gen Z are adept researchers. They know how to self-educate and find information. 33% watch lessons online, 20% read textbooks on tablets, and 32% work with classmates online.
  3. Whereas Millennials use three screens on average, Gen Zers use five: a smartphone, TV, laptop, desktop, and iPod/iPad.
  4. The average Gen Zer has the attention span of about eight seconds. They have grown up at a time when they’re being served media and messaging from all angles, and have adapted to quickly sorting through and assessing enormous amounts of information.
  5. Gen Z shares the entrepreneurial spirit of Millennial innovators: About 72% of current high-schoolers want to own their own businesses, and 76% hope they can turn their hobbies into full-time jobs.
  6. Gen Zers are do-gooders; they want to make a difference in the world. 60% want their jobs to impact the world, 26% of 16- to 19-year-olds currently volunteer, and 76% are concerned about humanity’s impact on the planet.
  7. 58 % of Gen Zs are either somewhat or very worried about the future.
  8. 79% of Generation Z consumers display symptoms of emotional distress when kept away from their personal electronic devices.
  9. 55% of those 18 years of age and younger would rather buy clothes online, and 53% would rather buy books and electronics online.
  10. 42% of Gen Zers follow their parents influence, compared to just 36% of Millennials.
  11. Generation Z consumers spend 7.6 hours per day on average socializing with friends and family.

The Hamilton Spectator  had an excellent article on Gen Zers with some very interesting information . With the oldest members of this cohort barely out of high school, these tweens and teens of today are primed to become the dominant youth influencers of tomorrow. Flush with billions in spending power, they promise untold riches to marketers who can find the master key to their psyche. Lucie Greene, the worldwide director of the Innovation Group at J. Walter Thompson, calls them “millennials on steroids.”

While it is easy to mock the efforts of marketers to shoehorn tens of millions of adolescents into a generational archetype, à la the baby boomers, it is also clear that a 14-year-old now really does inhabit a substantially different world than one of 2005.

Millennials, after all, were raised during the boom times and relative peace of the 1990s, only to see their sunny world dashed by the Sept. 11 attacks and two economic crashes, in 2000 and 2008. Theirs is a story of innocence lost. Generation Z, by contrast, has had its eyes open from the beginning, coming along in the aftermath of those cataclysms in the era of the war on terror and the Great Recession, Greene said.

No question Millennials were digital; their teenage years were defined by iPods and MySpace. But Generation Z is the first generation to be raised in the era of smartphones. Many do not remember a time before social media. They are the first true digital natives, they can almost simultaneously create a document, edit it, post a photo on Instagram and talk on the phone, all from the user-friendly interface of their iPhone.” “Generation Z takes in information instantaneously, and loses interest just as fast.” “We tell our advertising partners that if they don’t communicate in five words and a big picture, they will not reach this generation,” said Dan Schnabel, the managing partner of Millennial Branding, a New York consultancy.

So far, they sound pretty much like millennials. But those who study youth trends are starting to discern big differences in how the two generations view their online personas, starting with privacy.

Generation Z tends to be the product of Generation X, a relatively small, jaded generation that came of age in the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam funk of the 1970s, when horizons seemed limited. Those former latchkey kids, who grew up on Nirvana records and slasher movies, have tried to give their children the safe, secure childhood that they never had, said Neil Howe, an economist and the coauthor of more than a dozen books about U.S. generations.

Generation Z 3

Finally, a very informative article comes from Canada’s Macleans Magazine . Much of the current chatter surrounding Gen Z has been generated by the 56-slide presentation “Meet Generation Z: Forget everything you learned about Millennials,” produced by New York City advertising agency Sparks & Honey. It found that 60 % of Gen Zers want jobs that had a social impact, compared with 31 % of Gen Ys. It deemed them “entrepreneurial” (72 % want to start their own businesses), community-oriented (26 % already volunteer) and prudent (56 % said they were savers, not spenders). Gen Z is also seen to be more tolerant than Gen Y of racial, sexual and generational diversity, and less likely to subscribe to traditional gender roles.

Other studies paint them as the new conservatives. A Centers for Disease Control survey of 13,000 high school students released in June reported that teens smoke, drink and fight far less than previous generations (though they’re more likely to text while driving). “Overall, young people have healthier behaviours than they did 20 years ago,” reported study coordinator Dr. Stephanie Zaza, who noted that use of drugs and weapons and risky sex have declined since the study began in 1991.

The influential author and consultant Don Tapscott is a Gen Z optimist. His 2008 book, Grown Up Digital, features a study of 11,000 kids who were asked whether they’d rather be smarter or better looking: 69 % chose “smarter.” So is social researcher Mark McCrindle, of Sydney-based McCrindle Research, who has been looking at Gen Z for seven years. “They are the most connected, educated and sophisticated generation in history,” he says. “They don’t just represent the future; they are creating it.”

Their defining characteristic, so far, is that they’re a new species— “screenagers,” the first tribe of “digital natives.” The result could well be the most profound generation gap ever: a digital divide between parents who see the Internet as disrupting society as we know it (and making them feel obsolete) and their kids, who are not only at home with the technology— “it’s like air to them,” Tapscott says—but are already driving many of the shifts happening in how we communicate, the way we access information and the culture we consume.

Gen Z are bellwethers, says McCrindle: “Where Gen Z goes, our world goes.” What that portends is seismic social disruption and the commensurate anxiety. “This is the first time in history kids know more than adults about something really important to society—maybe the most important thing,” says Tapscott. “[It’s] a formula for fear.” Despite this tension—or perhaps because of it—expectations for a generation have never been higher. Forbes has dubbed Gen Z “Rebels with a cause.” The Financial Times posed the question: “Generation Z, the world’s saviours?” Tapscott says Gen Z doesn’t have a choice: “My generation is leaving them with a mess. These kids are going to have to save the world literally.”

Gen Z is “a global experiment,” says McCrindle. “A magazine is an iPad that doesn’t work.” One experiment showed a little girl sliding her finger in frustration over a glossy fashion magazine as if it’s an iPad.

Sparks & Honey reports that reliance on mobile devices has led to kids having poor spatial skills and trouble navigating streets without GPS; hours spent in front of screens puts them at increased risk for obesity.  If you define a generation too early, “you’re really looking at the way their parents are operating, not who they are,” says Robert Barnard, CEO of Toronto-based Decode, a company that provides data on youth. Still, he argues that the older end of any demographic tends to be an early influencer or indicator of a generation’s values. He also makes a distinction between broad “generational traits” and “life-stage traits” consistent across generations.

Entrepreneurship is also a big buzzword: in a world where full-time jobs and pensions are in decline, it’s a glossy way of saying Gen Z is on its own. According to the Sparks & Honey survey, this cohort places less value on higher education (64 per cent want advanced degrees, compared to 71 of Gen Y). In response, universities have replaced the emphasis on the now-dated corporate M.B.A. with “entrepreneurial hubs.” Technology is seen as the great generational divide here, but if there is a pan-generational leveler, paradoxically, it’s technology, and the fact we’re all equally hooked; adults are just addicted to older, in some cases obsolete, technologies.

The most active people on Facebook, Barnard notes, are 30- to 40-year-old women; their children use Slingshot or Tumblr. (Sparks & Honey noted Gen Z places greater value on privacy than Gen Y, because it chooses anonymous, ephemeral communication tools such as SnapChat, Secret and Whisper, although the bigger appeal of these technologies may just be that they’re newer.)


They “don’t trust anyone over 30” mantra espoused by youth in the 1960s has gone full circle: now no one trusts anyone over 20.

Let me know what you think and good luck marketing to this illusive group.

For more information on the Canadian perspective on Generation Z click here



Two workbooks ideal for marketers and communicators working for government departments/agencies, non-profit/volunteer organizations, associations and social enterprises who are responsible for:

  • Marketing programs, products, programs and/or services
  • Social marketing, community outreach and public education programs

Social Marketing Planning to Change Attitudes and Behaviours Workbook

This workbook provides users with an end-to-end planning tool that lays the groundwork for a successful social marketing program to change attitudes and behaviours. The content is the result of more than 30 years of direct experience in the social marketing arena.  It will assist public sector, non-profit organizations and associations involved in marketing, communications, public awareness/education and outreach.

To purchase workbook, go to https://cepsm.ca/product/social_marketing_workbook/

Order Now and You’ll receive a PDF download immediately!


Alternatively, you can register on our MARCOM Conference site to attend an upcoming Introduction to Social Marketing Planning for Behaviour Change Workshop where we offer the workbook as part of 1-day interactive workshop


Marketing 101 for Marketers and Non-Marketers Workbook

This workbook provides users with an end-to-end planning tool that lays the groundwork for developing a successful public sector or non-profit marketing program.

It also will provide you with an overview of public sector and non-profit marketing and highlight the importance of market research to support a decision-making framework.

To purchase workbook, go to https://cepsm.ca/product/marketing-101-for-marketers-and-non-marketers-workbook/

Order Now and you will receive a PDF download immediately!



“Strategy before Tactics” is key to Marketing Success

Strategy is doing the right things. Tactics is doing things right.” 

One of the most costly mistakes most organizations make is to start rolling out individual marketing tactics without a strong strategic foundation in place. Social media, blogging, website design, email marketing, advertising, proactive public relations … if you don’t combine these individual tactics into a cohesive strategy and develop the right marketing strategy, you won’t get the results that you hope to obtain.

The first step in realigning your marketing approach and establishing a strategic marketing plan for your business is taking the time to really understand your audience.

Once you have identified the audience you’re ready to start uncovering the key issues you face – the pains and problems your audience have when purchasing your products, programs or services. If you understand what “pains” people have and offer a “remarkable solution”, it becomes a lot easier to get them to do buy your products programs and services. They feel connected to you and trust that you understand their specific challenges.

Most organizations think marketing and immediately think web sites, email, advertising, social media and promotions – you know, tactics. Hate to say it but most marketers think that way too!

I’ve been working for and with organizations for many years and I can tell you that none of the tactics matter until you are crystal clear about which direction you are going. Strategy before tactics is the simple road to success.

This does not mean that I am opposed to systematically and consistently rolling out tactics, but only those that support a strategy that you can commit to. Once you nail the strategy part you can confidently go to work on a strategy with tactics, but no matter what you hear or think you can’t have one before the other.

Strategy and tactics are so intertwined; perhaps it is no wonder that people so often confuse them. Still, it drives marketing consultants like me “nuts” that strategies and tactics are too often interchangeably used.

Strategy and tactics are not one and the same. However, before a campaign can have either, you must first identify your overall goals and objectives.

“Great tactics will win you a battle, but great strategy is what wins you the war.”

Goals are the basis of any marketing initiative. An objective is exactly what you are seeking to accomplish. The more specific you define the goals, the better off you will be. This level of detail sets expectations and creates a commonality that everyone works towards. Establishing a goal sets expectations, and it enables you to begin working on a strategic plan. Only after a goal has been codified, does strategy enter the picture.

Strategy offers a high level plan to achieve an objective. The strategy springs from the very origins of the goal creation. The strategy offers an organizational approach on how to achieve a goal. Not only does the strategy reflect the broader goal, it outlines a scheme to achieve it. In this manner, strategy is a methodology, a train of thought that guides all future actions. The strategy is a platform upon which the tactics will rest or, to throw the analogy, the umbrella under which the tactics will lie.

strategies before tactics

A strategic marketing strategy sets up a framework to achieve a particular goal. Within this blueprint are key performance indicators. These indicators are yardsticks to measure progress. In most cases, however, they are not actually the goal. Rather, they tend to serve as proxies for behaviour. Next, the marketing communications strategy outlines what type of tactic to utilize and to what degree. It defines how much to invest in each tactic. The strategy further defines the markets. The strategy supports the goal, organizes the approach, and advances a plan to achieve those measures.

In essence, the strategy establishes the topological map. Once the topography has been defined, the tactics will create a more particular road map. Here is where some people begin to confuse strategy and tactics. The strategic point of view sets the campaign direction, the philosophical underpinnings. The tactics translate those ideas into reality. For this reason, strategy does not change very often, but tactics can (and do!). The strategy represents principles that will guide the tactical execution.

In a nutshell, strategy is about picking the right goals or objectives and tactics is about how you go about achieving those goals or objectives. The role of a tactician is much simpler once you have a strategy, because the objective and the direction are already defined. Strategy is as much about deciding what NOT to do as much as what to do.

The biggest way this applies to marketing is “segmentation” and “positioning’. While marketing tactics are focused on how to interact with your potential audience, marketing strategy is more about picking the right audience to go after. There may be many organizations out there doing what you do, and picking the right “niche” to call your own is the most important thing you can do to ensure success or guarantee failure.

When organizations contact our organization for marketing help, they are often looking for assistance with tactical projects. For instance, they want us to develop marketing communications tactics or help them get started with social media.

Although those tactics can be very beneficial to organizations, what most public sector and non-profit organizations really need is a marketing strategy. Strategy is not just a fancy word. It’s a process that defines your approach to reach your organizations goals. Without a strategy, it’s easy for organizations to get caught up in chasing the latest marketing trends or switching tactics every week or month. Not only is that an exhausting way to do things, it also means you could be wasting time and money on tactics that will produce little results.

What happens when tactics trump strategy?

  • Lack of clear and consistent messaging. For marketing to be effective, you must create a consistent brand message that communicates what makes you different and why someone should buy your products, programs and services. Without a strategy in place, it makes it much harder to determine compelling messages that will speak to your audience.
  • Difficulty achieving goals. Surprisingly, most organizations don’t have well defined goals. But, even if you DO have specific goals and objectives, it will be difficult to accomplish them without a strategy. What we find in our work is that organizations often see where they want to go, but have trouble connecting the dots on how to get there. It takes research, creativity and strategic thinking to build an effective strategy. But once you do your likelihood of success is that much greater.
  • Wasted budget. If you don’t take time to build a strategy, you could be wasting time and money on the wrong tactics because you’re just guessing about what will work. Taking the time to build a marketing strategy and tactical implementation plan on the front end will ensure your budget is being spent most effectively.
  • Unfocused efforts. All of your marketing tactics should flow out of a marketing strategy. It helps guide your decisions and makes it easier to determine where to spend your time. Without it, your efforts will be weak and unfocused. And, it’s a whole lot easier to get caught up in the marketing tactic du jour.

So, how do you formulate a strategy? Answer these three questions and get everyone on your team aligned around the answers. If you don’t know the answers to these questions, you’re not ready to start implementing tactics. Doing so can cause all sorts of problems:

1) Why do we do what we do?

This is the age old mission question. Until you can get very clear about the one overarching purpose for your organization, things will always seem a bit muddy. When you can grab onto your “why” you have the basis for every decision you make and a thread that can define your branding and positioning and you will be successful in building a vibrant group of clients around your organization.

Ponder this question for a moment as it might help bring some clarity: What is joyful to you about the result your organization brings a client? There are many variations on this one, but it might help your get started. Perhaps the greatest challenge with purpose and mission is that it can’t be faked. You can’t copy it; it simply is what you stand for – so dig deep on this one!

2) Who do we do it for?

The tricky part about this one is that the answer should be as narrow as possible. If you nailed the first answer above, know that some percentage of the world out there won’t be attracted to your why – and that’s okay. Now your job as a marketer is to go even narrower and start really understanding who you can help and who gets the most value from your unique approach.

Look to your best clients. Find the commonality in this group and you should be able to develop a very narrow ideal client profile that entails both physical description and ideal behavior.

A secondary element of this answer applies to your team. Who fits your why, your culture? Who can come to your organization with the mindset to serve your mission?

3) What do we do that’s both unique and remarkable?

The last piece of the puzzle is about what you do. But, it’s not simply about defining what business you are in. That’s important to understand, but more important is to find and communicate how what you do is unique in a way that your ideal client finds remarkable. In a way, that allows you to stand apart from everyone else that say they do the same things as you do. i.e your unique selling proposition (USP)

This isn’t as simple as it might sound. Most organizations don’t fully understand what their audience truly value. It’s not necessarily a better product or good service. Those fall under the category of expectation and everyone can and usually claim them. The difference is in the details, the little things you do, the way you do it, how you treat your clients, how you make them feel. It’s in the surprises, the things that exceed their expectations.

Go talk to your clients, they know what you do that’s unique. Listen carefully and don’t be afraid to embrace the little things you do, that’s where you are different in a way that matters. Source


As you are reading this blog you may be asking why you would want to contract someone to help you with your marketing strategy. Good question! But I would ask why hire an architect or engineer to help design a building or bridge, why not just hire the construction crew and start building. You save a lot of money and you can get your building or bridge up quickly.

Now can you imagine anyone building a bridge or building without a plan? Of course not, but in our world of marketing and communications we see organizations spending thousands (sometimes millions) of dollars on marketing and communications without a proper marketing strategy or plan. Frankly the best investment a marketer or communicator can make is working with someone who understands the marketing and communications business and can craft a strategy so that your tactics fit into a plan with measurable objectives, segmentation plan, etc.

Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.

Most marketing firms are tactics-focused. They will sell you new tactics for attracting clients or “‘increasing conversions.” Those things are great, but only if you already feel like your marketing is in the right place, and just needs more fuel. If you experiencing that “sinking feeling,” and you know what I am talking about if you are, then you need something more than some new tactics. The Centre of Excellence for Public Sector Marketing is a strategy focused marketing firm who work with government, non-profit and member based organizations and we would love to help you with your marketing challenges.

One of the hardest things to do is pulling back to objectively look at your organization and build a strategy that will help you get results. If this is something you need help with contact us. This is what we do every day for organizations just like yours and we would be happy to help you.