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What Causes Social Marketing Programs to Fail? A Qualitative Study

Akbar, M. Bilal; Foote, Liz; Soraghan, Clidna; Millard, Rachael; Spotswood, Fiona


M. Bilal Akbar

Liz Foote

Clidna Soraghan

Rachael Millard

Fiona Spotswood


This paper addresses the key factors that cause social marketing programs to fail. It argues that understanding these failures offers greater insight to researchers and practitioners than publications solely focused on successes.
As the majority of practitioner-oriented social marketing research focuses on how to develop a successful program, we identify a tendency to ignore failed programs. We suggest that both researchers and practitioners can arguably learn more useful lessons from failures rather than successes. Thus, this paper contributes to social marketing literature by exploring the key causes of social marketing failures.
We conducted ten semi-structured interviews with social marketing practitioners recruited using a purposive sampling technique. We identify four elements responsible for the failure of social marketing programs, each centered on the planning and implementation stage. Firstly, formative research at the earliest stages of program planning is often neglected, resulting in a limited understanding of the target audience. Relatedly, extant research is frequently overlooked during this early planning stage, and this failure to use available social marketing theory and frameworks can result in program performing poorly. Thirdly, for a program to be successful, it must be congruent with the goals of the wider environment and infrastructure within which it is situated; adopting too narrow a focus can also result in a limited impact or program failure. Lastly, we found a common issue relating of stakeholder mismanagement, specifically around issues of power imbalance and mismanaged expectations resulting in social marketing program failing to launch. Researchers and practitioners must acknowledge that social marketing programs do indeed fail but recognize that in these failings lies insight into how to enhance future practice.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Mar 15, 2021
Online Publication Date Apr 20, 2021
Publication Date Jun 1, 2021
Deposit Date May 12, 2021
Publicly Available Date Apr 21, 2022
Journal Social Marketing Quarterly
Print ISSN 1524-5004
Electronic ISSN 1539-4093
Publisher Routledge
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 27
Issue 2
Pages 99-116
Keywords social marketing, failure factors, mistakes, research, program
Public URL


What Causes Social Marketing Programs To Fail? A Qualitative Study (accepted version) (278 Kb)

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