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Social marketing
Social marketing

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5 The role of communications and branding in social marketing programmes

5.1 The linear model of communications

One of the key tasks of social marketers is to develop effective messages which provide individuals and organisations with the information required to achieve behavioural change. Communication represents the ‘transmission of information, ideas, attitudes, or emotion from one person or group to another’ (Fill, 2002, p. 31). There are many models and frameworks available to help with communications planning. First, an understanding of how communication works is illustrated in Figure 5.

The communication process involves:

  • the sender

  • the message itself

  • encoding the message into a form which can be transmitted, e.g. written, oral

  • transmitting the message

  • the receiver

  • decoding the message

  • action.

Figure 5
Figure 5 A linear model of communication

Evidently, effective communication involves the ‘sender’ of the message in encoding and transmitting the information in a way which is relevant to the target audience. Secondly, the receiver must have the ability to decode the message and to recognise the intended meaning. There should also be:

  • feedback, which should ensure that the receiver has decoded the message effectively by responding to the message in some way.

A final element is:

  • noise, anything in the environment which impedes the transmission and decoding of the message, e.g. conflicting interests, pressure of work, too many other messages.

Activity 6

Using the elements in Figure 5, list the factors which you consider may prevent effective social marketing communications.


Barriers to effective social marketing communication may include:

  • Lack of understanding of the target audience by the sender. Consequently the message may be encoded using language or symbols which fail to transfer the intended ‘meaning’ to the audience. Hastings (2007) uses the illustration of an anti-heroin campaign where young people's interpretation of the results of heroin addiction were favourable, rather than as intended, because of a lack of understanding of youth culture by the advertising agency.

  • Inadequate definition of required feedback. The effectiveness of communications needs to be evaluated by the sender (campaign sponsors, etc.). Feedback may be defined in terms of actions, e.g. visiting a website or telephoning a smoking quit line. If no specific feedback is required then research may be conducted to assess, for example, awareness of the message.

  • Incorrect choice of medium/media. Possibly because of funding constraints, or again because of lack of knowledge of the consumers' media habits, the incorrect medium or media may be chosen. Media may include impersonal sources such as television, newspapers, magazines, etc. and personal sources such as professional services (doctors, teachers, etc.) and peer group members, family, etc. An important issue here is one of source credibility, i.e. ‘the extent to which a source is perceived as having knowledge, skill or experience relevant to a communication topic and can be trusted to give an unbiased opinion or present objective information on the issue’ (Belch and Belch, 2001, p. GL3).

  • Consistency of messages. In view of the many potential sources of communication it is vital that there is a consistency of message across the various channels. This is illustrated in the next model, which emphasises the need for integrated marketing communications.