Social marketing is playing a growing role in strategies to improve population health. In the first of two articles Stuart Shepherd examines the National Social Marketing Centre’s social marketing planning guide and toolbox

There is a growing awareness, especially among people working in health improvement, of the connection between understanding what drives behaviour and the ability to influence change. Consequently, social marketing is playing an increasingly central role in organisational strategies to improve population health and, at neighbourhood level, to tackle factors associated with health inequality.

Those new to social marketing can follow a step by step approach to designing and implementing correctly what will be a good intervention

Launched earlier this year by the National Social Marketing Centre, the social marketing planning guide and toolbox has been designed as the single online port of call to support health commissioners and professionals in developing and implementing these behaviour influencing interventions.

“The guide has a drop down menu of sections, each split into activities and containing 49 downloadable tools in all,” says NSMC communications manager Patrick Ladbury. “The sections cover each stage of the process from identifying the issue, scoping and development to implementation, monitoring and evaluation.”

“It can be used in two ways,” he explains. “Those new to social marketing can follow a step by step approach to designing and implementing correctly what will be a good intervention. Those practitioners and commissioners with more experience of behaviour change programmes can simply dip in and out, following guidance or using the tools as they need them. They might want to look, for instance, at tools for segmenting target audiences or some of the guidance on overcoming barriers to behavioural change. There is also a link to an online NSMC case study database that provides examples of a range of intervention programmes.”

Better commissioning

A social marketing approach developed with the planning guide can, the NSMC believes, help drive effective commissioning, especially as it promotes such strong links with the public and patients.

“There is a clear fit for social marketing when it comes to understanding the health needs of local communities. Primary and strategic organisations have been good at collecting ethnographic data and understanding inequalities. Now they can research and better appreciate the factors that, for instance, motivate some groups of people to smoke and how cessation services can be redesigned to help them stop.”

A breast cancer awareness project (see box) jointly funded by NHS Tameside and Glossop and Tameside council has used methodology, tools and techniques from the NSMC planning guide to ensure commissioning activity reflects the needs and views of local communities.

“Informed by engagement, we developed and implemented a targeted campaign with posters showing real women from our target group,” says Debbie Bishop, head of health and wellbeing for both the PCT and council. “Community based initiatives, such as community champions and Well Woman events strengthened the message and are influencing local aspirations about what to expect from a breast awareness service.”

Furthermore, in communicating the outcomes of a social marketing intervention to funders and stakeholders, organisations can also share important research on segments of the population.

“Insight into behaviour from, as an example, a teenage sexual health programme could be of significant benefit and help improve the commissioning of other interventions aimed at a teenage audience,” suggests Mr Ladbury.

NHS Tameside and Glossop social marketing case study

The NHS Tameside and Glossop and Tameside Council breast awareness social marketing project is one of 10 NSMC learning demonstration programme sites. Its long term aims are to increase early cancer diagnosis and reduce late presentations and death rates. The target group are women aged 35-50 from Ashton Hurst, a deprived community where breast cancer survival rates are low.

The project is helping the primary care trust deliver on a number of world class commissioning competencies:

  • Competency two: The project was agreed as part of a shared PCT and local authority function for public health commissioning.
  • Competency three: Scoping and development stages have involved extensive engagement and communication with the target group.
  • Competency five: Assessment insights helped determine the most effective media channels for marketing and for targeting neighbourhood initiatives.
  • Competency 11: The PCT and the local authority aligned their respective social marketing and health improvement budgets to provide a project scope, design and implementation budget of £55,000.

The project will be independently evaluated later in the year by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

“It is difficult to prove the economic case for a preventative approach like this,” says Ms Bishop. “However, the NSMC planning guide gives us a systematic framework that includes an evaluation stage. The community certainly perceives a result and feels involved, but it isn’t easy trying to put a price on the benefits of that engagement.”