It’s one thing to study social marketing, and it’s another thing to actually be the target of a social marketing campaign. Here at Brown∙Miller Communications we create many public health campaigns aimed at encouraging people to modify their behavior. I have a new appreciation for our approach due to my experience with breastfeeding my daughter Savannah.
Even before I got pregnant, I knew I wanted to breastfeed my children. Working in the public health arena, I’ve seen countless messages celebrating the benefits of breastfeeding over the years and the “breast is best” mantra has been burned into my brain. When preparing for the arrival of my daughter, I attended a Kaiser breastfeeding basics class, read through La Leche League’s “breastfeeding bible” and blogs documenting other moms’ experiences, and stocked up on all the supplies to make the job easier.
I had heard that breastfeeding can be difficult for some, but I figured if I educated myself enough and worked at it then there would be no reason it wouldn’t work for me. Well, to make a long story short, it didn’t.
My daughter was born with tongue and lip ties (that weren’t diagnosed until she was two months old) that make it impossible for her to get enough to eat at the breast, no matter how hard we both tried. My emotional and physical struggle taught me a lot about myself and being a parent. It also taught me a lot about social marketing – so that was a nice bonus that I can laugh about now.
So what did my experience teach me?
1. A simple message is powerful – I can’t tell you how ingrained in me the “breast is best” message is. Why? Because it is simple, direct, concise and easy to remember. Develop a message that quickly and effectively communicates what you want your target audience to know. Don’t try to say too much at once because you’ll just lose your audience. Once you catch someone’s attention with the key message you can give them more information later.
2. Identify your audience and tailor your message – Just because my friend and I are new moms doesn’t mean we necessarily have anything else in common. Every fact about the benefits of breastfeeding I heard had merit. While the health benefits for my little one may have motivated me, the cost savings may be what really resonated with a different mother. As social marketers, we need to really drill down as much as possible and consider all of the benefits and challenges of a particular behavior change for each audience we are working with. Put yourself in their shoes and consider what matters to them.
3. Develop campaigns using a socioecological model – We do not live in a vacuum. The world around us – the people we spend our time with and places where we spend our time – can either make it easier or harder to change behaviors. Once you develop a message directed at the individual level, you also have to consider what changes need to be made in the world around them to support behavior change. A good social marketing campaign considers and addresses the parties that influence the individual. You can tell someone to do something, but you better have thought about the supports in place to help make that happen. In my case, I received a lot of support from my immediate circle of family and friends, but the institutional support was lacking. My partner and family were very supportive of me breastfeeding and did everything they could to give me the logistical and emotional support to keep trying. On the flip side, the lack of support can make it really hard to modify behavior even if the individual wants to. I received mixed support from the hospital staff at Kaiser after my daughter was born. We were obviously struggling from the get go, but the lactation consultant on staff wasn’t able to see us until 24 hours after my daughter was born and wasn’t very compassionate or helpful because she was spread so thin. It would have been nice to have this specialized support available right away, instead of struggling on our own. If I were given the opportunity to work with Kaiser to improve breastfeeding rates, the number and training of lactation consultants is one of the first things I would look at.
4. Research, research, research. Talk to people, test out your messages, listen to and learn from the experiences of your target audiences before, during and after your campaign. Every individual has a lot to share, and the collection of knowledge can help social marketers refine and strengthen their campaigns. There is power in both quantitative and qualitative feedback.
5. Not all or nothing. It’s important to celebrate the small victories and small steps that people take, especially when it comes to health improvements. You may want women to exclusively breastfeed, but if they are able to provide their baby with some breast milk every day in addition to formula, that’s still something to celebrate. A small step in the right direction is still a step in the right direction. Don’t alienate or shun people who aren’t able to get to the end goal you have in mind right away.