Use social marketing to reach at-risk teens

[Editor's note: Look to the July 2010 issue for the second of this two-part series for information on SWAP, an online database developed by the California STD/HIV Prevention Training Center.]

How can you reach at-risk teens with health information on sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) or other reproductive health issues? Look to the Youth Social Marketing Toolkit, an online resource developed by the California STD/HIV Prevention Training Center (CAPTC) in Oakland and the California Family Health Council in Los Angeles to help reproductive health providers develop cost-effective social marketing campaigns.

The toolkit is a one-stop free resource for providers, complete with planning materials, campaign samples, and links to related resources. (See resource listing on p. 69 on how to access the online site.) It was developed in response to requests from local health providers for technical assistance in developing social marketing campaigns, says Amy Smith, MPH, health promotion and health education unit chief in the STD Control Branch of the California Department of Public Health and the CAPTC. There are no costs to other facilities who wish to use the toolkit's resources, says Smith.

Social marketing uses the same collection of tools to "sell" healthy behaviors, just as marketers strive to sell commodities such as blue jeans to the public. The Youth Social Marketing Toolkit site explains how social marketing incorporates the four basic principles of commercial marketing, known as the "4 P's":

  • Product. The product is a behavior change or a shift in attitude. For example, your clinic might want to develop a program to increase condom use among teens.
  • Price. Price is defined as the cost of changing behaviors. The goal of social marketing is to reframe the recommended behavior change so that the consumer realizes that the benefits of change outweigh the efforts or costs.
  • Place. Place represents all efforts to make the behavior change as easy as possible to a consumer. For example, if your facility is developing a condom program for teens, it might mean offering free or inexpensive condoms at convenient locations or changing your clinic's schedule to accommodate busy students.
  • Promotion. How do you get the word out to the public on the program? Advertising is just one method. A promotional campaign includes incorporating messages about the recommended behavior change into all existing programs to reinforce the message on multiple levels.

Social marketing employs a fifth "P" -- policy -- which is not included in commercial campaigns. Efforts are made to influence policy that will promote positive behavior change.

Why use social marketing to reach adolescents? When messaging is designed with youth input and there is creative use of appropriate media for the audience, social marketing for sexual health messages can be particularly effective in "spreading the word," increasing awareness, and influencing behavior, says Joyce Lisbin, EdD, health communication coordinator at the STD Control Branch and the CAPTC.

Evaluation activities to determine the effectiveness of social marketing approaches have resulted in increased awareness and positive changes in attitude toward healthy behavior change, Lisbin says. Research indicates that social marketing interventions adopting social marketing principles can form an effective framework for behavior change interventions.1

Feedback indicates that most providers would be highly likely to use the resource to develop a social marketing campaign, says Smith. From its launch on Dec. 2, 2009, there have been 9,554 page views and 7,548 unique page views. Reviews of the site note its attractiveness, user-friendly features and its value as a resource for public health professionals.

About 300 hours of staff time were devoted to the development, distribution, and evaluation of the online resource, says Lisbin.


  1. Stead M, Gordon R, Angus K, et al. A systematic review of social marketing effectiveness. Health Education2007; 107:125-191.


To access the Youth Social Marketing Toolkit, visit the California STD/HIV Preventio3n Training Center web site, Click on "Resources" on the menu bar to access link.