On August 5th I wrote a post about the confusion surrounding the traditional meaning of the term “social marketing” and the varying ways that it is currently being used in many circles. The idea for the post came from Mike Kujawski’s post entitled, “The Difference Between Social Marketing and Social Media Marketing,” so here again I give him a proverbial shout out. (NOTE: for any who want to read a fantastic post on the traditional meaning of social marketing, check this out.)


The reactions to my post were astounding, not because of their number, but because of their quality. I feel honored to be a part of this discussion, and even though it appears that I have angered some people, I think the discussion is something that should be taking place.

There were many great points made in the comments, and I have spent a good bit of time on the blogs/sites of those who commented. So that you all don’t have to go back and filter through the comments, I will list some of those sites here:

I have decided to write this post as a follow-up because it really is just too long to be a comment on the last post. There were many great points made in the discussion of the previous post. and also I think my initial post could use some further clarification. I would like to clarify my point here, and continue the discussion with all involved.

My point in the last post was that the term “social marketing” is starting to be used by some to refer to marketing that uses social methods like social media, events, street teams, and even 24/7 customer assistance to achieve its goals. Meant only as examples, certainly not proof, the following two sites appear in the top 11 results for “social marketing” on Google:

Of course Google search results are not proof of taxonomic change, I merely point to these sites as examples that “social marketing” has (rightly or wrongly) started to be used to mean something other than what it has in the past.

The problem here is that the term “social marketing” already refers to something else…and it has been around for quite some time. As Craig Lefebvre notes in his comment:

When one of the most respected academic marketers-Phillip Kotler-decided that we needed to think about applying marketing concepts to social problems in the early 1970s, he coined the term [social marketing] to describe a BIG idea. Thirty years later social marketing is being used around the world to address major health and social issues.”

Before moving on, let me be crystal clear about one thing. I understand that the term “social marketing” has been in use for nearly four decades and I also understand and support the work that has been done in the field since that time. I am in no way indicting or minimizing the field of work which “social marketing” traditionally refers to. It is well established both academically and professionally, and I myself, have worked on social marketing efforts with non-profits in Boston. For any who thought I was saying that field of “marketing for social good” does not exist, I apologize. That is certainly not what I meant.


Now we come to the areas of confusion where I either did not adequately make my point or my point was misunderstood. Let’s look at some of the comments:

Bill Smith:

Listen social marketing is a exactly what it used to be. I’m sorry we got there 40 years before you did – actually I’m not really all that sorry – but there’s books, a peer reviewed journal, an Institute and yes a Wikipedia definition. There are also thousands of caring men and women in countries all over the world who know that social marketing means using the technology of marketing to make a positive difference in the world. They are marketing condoms to prevent HIV in Africa, helping kids wash their hands to avoid diarrhea, promoting breastfeeding, fighting against the environmental footprint of bottled water and helping families in America deal with early on-set diabetes. They don’t deserve to be treated as though they never existed because you think social marketing “isn’t what it used to be”. And they sure don’t care about your linguistic games.

Jim Mintz:

I have taught social marketing in the USA, Canada, Japan, Australia/New Zealand and through out Europe since the mid eighties. It is an established field of marketing study. Along comes web 2.0 and thinks it can steal the name of a legitimate field. Now that is chutzpa .. Oh yes after close to 40 years we in the field of social marketing should change our name. Fat chance that will happen.”

First, I would make clear that if people begin using the term “social marketing” to refer to marketing using social methods, it would certainly not “treat [thousands of caring men and women] as though they never existed” as Bill describes. The crucial work he describes in his comment would have the exact same benefit regardless of how people referred to it. Furthermore, I did not say that “social marketing isn’t what it used to be.” I was very careful to be clear that I was talking about the term, not the field of work. I said, “I’m not so sure social marketing means what it used to.” I fear that there is confusion entering this discussion because I am talking about nomenclature and labels while others are talking about the fields those labels apply to. If one renames a folder on their computer, they do not change, diminish, or otherwise affect the files contained in that folder. I reiterate that this is a taxonomy issue.

On that note, I want to discuss Jim’s statement that, “Along comes web 2.0 and thinks it can steal the name of a legitimate field.” That makes it sound like there is a person or group of people that are making the conscious choice to hijack a term. However, language change is an organic process, often with little or no active input. Sure there are people who make the mistake — they say “social” when they really mean “social media” — but there are also people for whom “social marketing” means something different. They are not making a mistake, nor did they actively and purposefully sit down and decide to steal a name from another field.

I have had numerous discussions with other marketers and representatives of companies who use the term “social marketing” as an umbrella term to refer to marketing using social methods, not simply as a shortened stand-in for “social media marketing.” If one uses the term that way in a group of five other people and everyone understands it to mean the same thing, are they all wrong? I cannot correct them and say that they mean “social media marketing” because that is not what they mean. They are speaking of a larger marketing ideology of which “social media marketing” is only a component (albeit a large and popular one). These people use the term (rightly or wrongly) to encompass the branch of their marketing plan that focuses on consumer interaction and conversation, both online and offline. These “social methods” can be anything from blogs and other social media, to sponsored events and street teams.

Lexicons change all the time, and there is always the interesting problem of when a new change stops being wrong and starts being the right use of the new meaning. No one is ever sure where to draw the line. “Fast” is now both an adjective and adverb. But a couple hundred years ago “Fastly” was the adverb form of the word. One would “run fastly” just as they would “walk slowly.” When did the change happen? It’s hard to say. Was it when 51% of the population stared using “fast” as an adverb that it finally became right?

While not perfectly analogous to our current taxonomical discussion, I feel that the “fastly” example presents an interesting way of viewing this discussion. For the purposes of this example, I am using the idea of a “traditional meaning” and a “new meaning.” If, let’s say, 10% of the population uses the term “social marketing” in its new meaning, we could likely all say that they are making a mistake. But what if it takes off and in a year 30% of the population uses the term “social marketing” in its new meaning. Are they all still wrong? What if 80% of the population used “social marketing” in its new meaning? Are they all wrong? Do they all need to be corrected? Or has the meaning of the term changed? Obviously we can’t measure word usage with this sort of accuracy, but lexicographical shift can happen in this way.


Please note that I am not advocating a change in meaning. I am not taking a side, nor am I actively trying to change the meaning of the term. I am commenting on an organic shift that I am observing which may or may not pan out. As M4CHANGE put it, “Ultimately, the marketplace will decide this debate.” I couldn’t agree more. It will sort it self out organically and there is very little we can do to affect the outcome. Perhaps a new term will be coined soon that encompasses the idea of “marketing using social methods.” Perhaps not. Perhaps (for better or worse) the masses will re-adopt the term “social marketing” under their new definition and it will take off like wildfire. Perhaps not.

I would also argue that those who have taken to using the term “social marketing” as an umbrella term for “marketing using social methods” are not thumbing their noses at the field traditionally referred to by that label. There is no malice nor disrespect.

Last but not least, I reiterate that not everyone who uses the term “social marketing” means “social media marketing.” There seems to be a belief that people are talking about one or the other. But, the term has taken on a new meaning (what I keep referring to as the umbrella meaning) and I see it used in many circles.

In conclusion, I say that as a marketer and a man with an interest in linguistics, I watch the current taxonomic and folksonomic environment with great interest. To my knowledge there has has never been a time before where the maelstrom of new terms was so chaotic and moved so fast. I do not have an answer, nor can I even come close to predicting the way it will shake out. I can only watch and opine.

Again, I thank all those who commented on the last post. I invite you all to subscribe to our RSS feed so that you can catch further updates. Perhaps we will even be able to secure a guest post on this topic from one of our commentors.

Written by Matt Peters
Matt is the Co-Founder and CEO of Pandemic Labs, and enjoys thinking about, writing about, and talking about social media marketing whenever someone will let him.