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The Value of Social Marketing in Systems of Care

It's difficult to put a price tag on change. What is one child's mental health worth? How can a community's awareness of children's potential be quantified? What is the dollar value of caring adults who make a difference in the lives of children?

Some of you have been asked these very things and perhaps struggled to articulate an answer. And though there may be no simple answers, there is a business case to be made for social marketing. Consider this fact sheet your "pitch" for social marketing within a System of Care, whether you have to give it to a project director or even just convince yourself.

Think about successful national campaigns like "Friends don't let friends drive drunk." This Ad Council and U.S. Department of Transportation campaign reported an 85 percent recall of the messages among the audience tested. Of these, 80 percent reported they took action to stop a friend from driving and 25 percent said they stopped a friend from driving while intoxicated.1

Campaigns such as this have impact—even if sometimes it's just raising awareness—and are rooted in the tenets of social marketing: 1) a well-defined audience; 2) a clear call to action; and 3) measurable objectives. And like any good effort, there were likely mid-course corrections.

What is social marketing?

Social marketing is a process that applies marketing principles and techniques to create, communicate, and deliver value in order to influence behaviors that benefit society as well as the audience.

— Kotler, Lee, and Rothschild

The social marketing process aligns particularly well within a System of Care because each needs a bit of work, a bit of research, to succeed. You cannot hope to apply the System of Care values—being family-driven, youth-guided, community-based, and culturally and linguistically competent2—to your work without doing the homework required by a social marketing process.

Moving Forward

With any initiative or program, the stakeholders are naturally going to be at different stages of buy-in. This includes your staff, your partners, and particularly your audience.

They say football is a game of inches, but so is behavior change. The key is to keep everyone moving forward so that system of care values and principles can be integrated into children's mental health services and supports.

Social Marketing Continuum

Graphic showing five stages of awareness

Text description of this graphic is available on a separate page.

Think: Sustain!

A decade ago, project directors and others who support children's mental health programs did not see social marketing as a priority. They thought that the process took time away from what they considered their mission: the actual delivery of services. But even programs that offer the world's best services and supports, if done in a vacuum, will find it very difficult to garner support for continuing to deliver those services.

Today, some of these same project directors are lamenting, "I wish I had started social marketing efforts sooner," largely because of social marketing's implications for sustainability. Effective sustainability strategies as documented by Stroul and Blau3 that benefit from social marketing include:

  • Cultivating strong interagency relationships
  • Involving stakeholders
  • Establishing a strong family organization
  • Using evaluation results
  • Creating an ongoing focal point for managing the system of care.4

It's difficult to imagine that the Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk campaign would have had any traction without these strategies. Although the campaign was a great idea, it took partnerships, evaluation, and clear messaging to transform it into actual behavior change.

For systems of care, partnership is likewise critical. Children and youth depend on many entities to meet their emotional and behavioral health challenges, such as agencies, providers, community supports, and funding sources. These groups must work together to achieve effective system building3.

Use Your Verbs

So how do you get from idea to change? Start with the basics: Know what you want and be able to ask for it.

As unique as individuals are, speaking with one voice when it comes to systems of care is essential. Mixed messages never fare well, and particularly when time—and attention spans—are short, you and everyone you work with must be able to communicate your program's vision.

From the project director to the person who answers the phone, social marketing is everyone's job. And it will be most successful when the audience knows what you want them to do and sometimes even why. "Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk"—no ambiguity there, and that's a good thing.

EXERCISE: The Elevator Speech

Step 1:

Pretend you are going into an elevator with Bill and Melinda Gates, and you know they are going to ask you what your System of Care does. You've got 30 seconds—what would you say? Write it down, then say it out loud.

Step 2:

Now self-evaluate. Did you get the points across that would be important to Bill and Melinda Gates in 30 seconds or less? For example, did you introduce terms such as "System of Care" or "family-driven" that may be unfamiliar to them? Even in an elevator you have to consider your audience and deliver messages using terms that will resonate, as you won't have time to provide context or definitions. Consider, too, whether your messages would compel the Gates family, or any other potential partner for that matter, to get involved in your program.

Step 3:

Ask a colleague to listen to your elevator speech as well. Did they take away the same messages you intended to communicate? (And would they have delivered the same ones?)

As a follow-up, ask colleagues to do Step 1 as well, writing down the points they would make. If the messages or tone deviate from one another, there is some work to be done.

Any individual who works with your system of care might have the same opportunity to give that elevator speech as you. Even if staff can talk persuasively about the program, their various perceptions and mindsets about their work can come through in how they talk about it.

Take the time now to streamline messaging around your System of Care so that no matter who you meet in an elevator, they may not remember you, but WILL remember your program.

The Process Continues

As defined earlier, social marketing is a process. The best way to understand any audience is to do the research, learning what tactics and strategies will resonate. Particularly when you need to attract partners—whether they are internal or external—identifying what's "in it for them" and crafting materials that communicate that answer is essential.

Change won't happen overnight; some behavior change takes years to fully seed and grow. But with the help of partnerships, solid messaging, and the collective efforts of your program and its champions, the role of Systems of Care in transforming children's mental health can be a game-changer.


  1. National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. (2006). Designated Driver Safe Ride Program. DOT HS 809 148. Retrieved from http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/people/injury/alcohol/DesignatedDriver/intro1.html
  2. Ibid.
  3. Stroul, B., & Blau, G. B. (2008). The system of care handbook: Transforming mental health services for children, youth, and families. Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.: Baltimore, MD.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs to talk, please call 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).

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