Social Marketing Primer

Social Marketing Primer

RECYCLEMANIA is all about motivating individuals on college and university campuses to recycle and reduce waste.  Our work starts with recognizing that recycling is a social marketing issue; we are promoting the adoption of a behavior for the well-being of the community and environment.  Social marketing is “the design, implementation, and control of programs calculated to influence the acceptability of social ideas and involving considerations of product planning, pricing, communication, distribution, and marketing research (Kotler & Zaltman, 1971). Compared to traditional marketing, the marketing mix (4 P’s) is a bit different for social marketing:


Traditional Marketing

Social Marketing for Recycling


The behavior of recycling


The cost to the individual (e.g. time, convenience)


Where recycling occurs (e.g. common areas, outdoor receptacles)


The message delivery method (e.g. posters, video)

By integrating the 4P’s of social marketing, it’s possible to motivate recycling behavior, in the right place, at the right time and for the right (minimal) price to the individual.  For decades, social marketing has been a useful approach to affecting behavior change for social good (McKenzie-Mohr et al., 2012).

COMMUNITY-BASED SOCIAL MARKETING - CBSM is a relative new-comer to the social marketing scene with many successes in affecting change.  CBSM joins social marketing with social and environmental psychology for application of behavior change programs at the community level (McKenzie-Mohr & Smith, 1999; McKenzie-Mohr et al., 2012). Five steps comprise the CBSM approach:

  1. Choose the behavior for the target audience
  2. Identify barriers and benefits to the behavior
  3. Produce a strategic program to decrease barriers and increase benefits of the behavior
  4. Pilot-test the program
  5. Evaluate the program    (McKenzie-Mohr et al., 2012)

Barriers and Benefits

Identification of external and internal barriers and benefits affords the CBSM program creator some great insight into why a behavior may be performed or ignored by the target audience.  External barriers may include for example, inconveniently positioned recycling bins (e.g. far from the desk, not next to the trash bin).  Internal barriers include variables such as beliefs or attitudes toward recycling, examples of which may include perceptions of inconvenience, difficulty or insignificance.  And so your task is to find out what’s standing in the way of recycling and how you can decrease these barriers and increase perceived benefits of the behavior.  A great way to gather this important data is to undertake a simple random survey of the target audience (e.g. students or faculty or staff).  In the long run, it pays to do research that is adequately representative of the population, to avoid misdirected messages, time and money.

Developing A Strategic Promotional Program

Once you’re generally informed about your target audience from the survey, it’s time to develop a strategy for your RecycleMania social marketing initiative to reduce campus waste and increase recycling.  Recycling program specifics (i.e. what, when, where, why) are critical information to convey so that your audience knows what to do.  However, informational messages are not enough to motivate people and can be ineffective at behavior change (Schultz & Tabanico, 2008).  Instead, turn to a number of effective behavior change tools such as seeking individuals’ written commitment (e.g. a public pledge sheet) to recycle, positioning behavioral prompts at the points-of-behavior (e.g. by waste and recycling bins), and using norms (McKenzie-Mohr et al., 2012).

It pays to apply social norm-based messages in your communications campaign.  For example, if a majority of students said on the survey that they support recycling, publicly share the news!  Create a RecycleMania poster with photos of student leaders recycling in order to demonstrate that influential peers perform the desired behavior.  Individuals care what others do and often want to undertake the approved behavior.  For added normative impact, enlist the help of a residence hall ‘eco-rep’ to personally communicate with students to introduce and reinforce the behavior (McKenzie-Mohr et al., 2012).  Normative influence is very useful in achieving desired behavior changes (Cialdini, 2003; Nolan et al., 2008).

A word of caution:  Be careful not to present conflicting norms when promoting recycling during RecycleMania.  Trash sorts for example have the potential of showing that lots of recyclable materials are thrown away instead of being deposited in recycling bins.  This sends the message to viewers that the ‘norm’ is not to recycle.  The descriptive norm (i.e. what people are doing) is at odds with the injunctive norm (i.e. what people ought to do), making your recycling message less effective (Cialdini, 2003).

Be sure to create catchy motivational messages that are easy-to-remember and are from credible sources (McKenzie-Mohr et al., 2012).  Message framing is also important.  Research literature shows that loss-framed messages demonstrating costs (e.g. resources lost when materials are thrown away) are more motivational than gain-framed messages that show benefits (e.g. recycling saves natural resources and avoids disposal costs) (McKenzie-Mohr et al., 2012; Pelletier, L.G. & Sharp, E., 2008).

This Primer gives you a snap shot of behavioral approaches that can be used in your RecycleMania social marketing campaign.  We hope that it serves as a launching point for further investigation into tools that you can use to motivate waste minimization and recycling on your campus.

Pilot Test And Evaluate

Try out your RecycleMania social marketing campaign on a small-scale before rolling it out to the broader target audience.  Have a control group that does not receive promotional materials, for example, to compare the groups and see if behavior change has occurred (McKenzie-Mohr et al., 2012).  This will aid in determining if adjustments need to be made before implementing the full program.  Then, evaluate your program at several points during it (McKenzie-Mohr et al., 2012) so that next time around, you’re likely to have an even stronger RecycleMania campaign.

Social Marketing Primer


Cialdini, R.B. (2003). Crafting normative messages to protect the environment. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12(4), 105-109.

Kotler, P. & Zaltman, G. (1971). Social Marketing: An Approach to Planned Social Change.  Journal of Marketing, 35, 3-12. 

McKenzie-Mohr, D. & Smith, W. 1999. Fostering Sustainable Behavior: An Introduction to Community-based Social Marketing. BC, Canada: New Society Publishers.

McKenzie-Mohr, D., Lee, N.R., Schultz, P.W. & Kotler, P. (2012). Social Marketing to Protect the Environment: What Works. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Nolan, J.M., Schultz, P.W., Cialdini, R.B., Goldstein, N.J. & Griskevicius, V. (2008). Normative Social Influence is Underdetected. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(7), 913-923.

Pelletier, L.G. & Sharp, E. (2008). Persuasive Communication and Proenvironmental Behaviours: How Message Tailoring and Message Framing Can Improve the Integration of Behaviours Through Self-Determined Motivation. Canadian Psychology, 49(3), 210-217.

Schultz, P.W. & Tabanico, J. (2008). Community-based Social Marketing. In: Cabaniss, A. (Ed). Handbook on Household Hazardous Waste (p. 134), Lanham, MD: Government Institutes Press.

Additional On-Line Resources

Fostering Sustainable Behavior: Community-based Social Marketing.

Tools of Change:  Proven Methods of Promoting Health, Safety and Environmental Citizenship.