Counting the Cost: Social Marketing in Credit Crunch Times

cost-savingProbably the most frequently asked question at our social marketing workshops, at network events and free lectures  (some coming up soon!) is about what evidence there is that Social Marketing is cost effective. In times of decreasing budgets, spending squeezes and cost savings this is bound to become a more pertinent point then ever before. The problem is – as with commercial marketing, there isn’t an easy answer. It all depends on how well designed your social marketing campaign is – if it is a well designed campaign, the cost savings (and hence the return on investment) can be impressive; and we are talking “just” in terms of money here – not even measuring the feel good factor of making people healthier and living longer.

One stumbling block to calculating overall cost savings is that many social marketing campaigns have an effect on a variety of outcomes. Take for example obesity: Reducing obesity has multiple effects:

  • on overall health care costs – by reducing sickness, chances of developing cancer, diabetes …
  • on individuals – by reducing sickness, increasing earning potential, making people more productive, by increasing quality of life…
  • on employers – by reducing sickness costs
  • on the society as a whole – by increasing productivity of individuals, and thus leading to higher net contribution to society
  • and all sorts of other costs I can’t think of at the moment….

If you want to have a go – there is a really cool “obesity cost calculator” for companies available from the CDC here . As an other cool feature, the tool also calculates the ROI of running an obesity prevention campaign at organisational level, which is where it all get’s tricky.

Sure, it is (relatively!) easy to say that the overall cost of preventable illness is roughly 20% of the GDP in England, or £187 billion (don’t trust me, the figure comes from here) – which coincidentally makes the bank bail out look like peanuts and the cost cutting proposed by the new coalition a total joke. Any small reduction will make a massive difference, and free up massive amounts of money elsewhere. But, unfortunately, there isn’t a way of saying that £1,000 spend on preventing illness will deliver £10,000 in terms of benefits. There are, however, multiple studies and evaluations around which show great effectiveness. A few examples: the Mpowerment intervention project among young gay males in San Francisco achieved up to $900,000 of net savings from a societal perspective. The Road Crew anti-drink & drive campaign in Wisconsin achieved a cost-effective 17% reduction in drunk driving accidents – and net total savings of $31 million. And many more cases (also from the UK) are of course available from the National Social Marketing Centre website. However, as marketing is no exact science, there isn’t a magic formula that can determine how effective any campaign will be.

So how can you ensure that a Social Marketing intervention is going to be a good investment? The answer is trying making sure the campaign is well designed, and driven by target audience insight – rather than quick fixes. A hard message to sell in times of reduced budgets, but the customer insight itself – together with an experienced team who really understand  Social Marketing, have a good understanding of health behaviour as well as consumer behaviour, understand how to create an effective intervention that makes use of the full marketing mix, rather than solely relying on  promotion – and importantly understand how to obtain, evaluate and interpret insights and turn insights into strategy. In other words, people who can effectively work with theories, learn from insights and synergise all into actions focusing on behaviour change.

What do you think are good arguments for the cost effectiveness of Social Marketing? Let me know!

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