What Causes Social Marketing Programs to Fail? A Qualitative Study

Akbar, M.B., Foote, L., Soraghan, C., Millard, R. and Spotswood, F. 2021. What Causes Social Marketing Programs to Fail? A Qualitative Study. Social Marketing Quarterly. 27 (2), pp. 99-116. https://doi.org/10.1177/15245004211010202

TitleWhat Causes Social Marketing Programs to Fail? A Qualitative Study
TypeJournal article
AuthorsAkbar, M.B., Foote, L., Soraghan, C., Millard, R. and Spotswood, F.

This paper addresses the key factors that cause social marketing programs (typically consisting of discrete programs or interventions, but also including broader-scale initiatives) to fail. It argues that understanding these failures offers greater insight to researchers and practitioners than publications solely focused on successes.

Our paper discusses the causes of the failure of social marketing programs, an area that has largely been ignored in extant research.

Research Question:
What causes social marketing programs to fail?

As the majority of practitioner-oriented social marketing research focuses on how to develop a successful program, we identify a tendency to ignore failed programs. We suggest that both researchers and practitioners can arguably learn more useful lessons from failures rather than successes. Thus, this paper contributes to social marketing literature by exploring the key causes of social marketing failures.

We conducted ten semi-structured interviews with social marketing practitioners recruited using a purposive sampling technique.

We identify four elements responsible for the failure of social marketing programs, each centered on the planning and implementation stage. Firstly, formative research at the earliest stages of program planning is often neglected, resulting in a limited understanding of the target audience. Relatedly, extant research is frequently overlooked during this early planning stage, and this failure to use available social marketing theory and frameworks can result in program performing poorly. Thirdly, for a program to be successful, it must be congruent with the goals of the wider environment and infrastructure within which it is situated; adopting too narrow a focus can also result in a limited impact or program failure. Lastly, we found a common issue relating of stakeholder mismanagement, specifically around issues of power imbalance and mismanaged expectations resulting in social marketing program failing to launch. Researchers and practitioners must acknowledge that social marketing programs do indeed fail but recognize that in these failings lies insight into how to enhance future practice.

We suggest that more attention is required from social marketing practitioners during the early design stage into understanding the target audience in detail. We suggest drawing upon extant social marketing frameworks and research to inform the planning and development of social marketing programs. We demonstrate how implementing these changes in the earliest stages of program designs would reduce the chance of program failure. Further, we suggest that adopting a more systems-level approach or critical approach would additionally benefit program outcomes.

A relatively small sample size could be considered a limitation of the study. Similarly, our focus on practitioner insights may limit the scope of the findings. Future research could advance the current findings by incorporating the views of a broader range of stakeholders, including the target audience themselves. We also suggest future research consider integrating the analysis of failure into the social marketing process to encourage practitioner reflection and inform and improve future practice.

Keywordssocial marketing
failure factors
JournalSocial Marketing Quarterly
Journal citation27 (2), pp. 99-116
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)https://doi.org/10.1177/15245004211010202
Web address (URL)https://doi.org/10.1177/15245004211010202
Publication dates
Published20 Jun 2021

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