TORONTO — The perception of social marketing and the benefits of integrating regional issues are expected to be key topics at this month's World Social Marketing Conference, held April 21 to 23 in Toronto.

Jeff French, the event’s chair, said the term social marketing is loaded with misconceptions, including that it consists primarily of public service announcements or simply applying social media techniques to, for instance, health or environmental issues. 

“If you Google 'social marketing,' you get the impression that social marketing is about social media marketing, which is creating a community around your product or cause,” French said. “We view that as one aspect -- a tool -- but that’s not what social marketing is...The conference is about applying the disciplines of marketing, such as customer development and delivery, to social issues, like HIV/AIDS, smoking, obesity or the overuse of energy.”

Social marketing ultimately aims to increase awareness and change behavior around social issues. French expects the role of digital and mobile, as well as integration to play heavily at this month's conference, which is being held in North America for the first time. 

“In the past, people would break up social issues into categories, like environmental or health,” he said. But an emerging trend is looking at issues through an integrated lens. For instance, water access and domestic violence in the Horn of Africa would be approached holistically rather than as one-off causes. The same applies to lifestyle diseases in the West, French added.

Chinese environmentalist and director of the Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs, Ma Jun will be the event’s keynote speaker discussing how he informed and motivated the public for his pollution clean-up efforts in China.  

“Ma Jun has literally taken on one of the world’s largest environmental challenges, showcasing that to improve global issues and embrace society’s needs, there must be collaboration between commercial, corporate, academia and the general public,” said Tom Beall, managing director, Ogilvy PR’s global social marketing practice. 

Learnings in the fields of health, environment, criminal justice, transport and finance will be shared at the conference. More than 500 people from government organizations, NGOs and private sector social marketing programs are expected to attend.