What Causes Social Marketing Programmes to Fail? A Qualitative Study

Bilal Akbar, Liz Foote, Rachael Millard, Clidna Soraghan, Fiona Spotswood

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review


Background: This paper addresses the key factors that cause social marketing programmes (typically consisting of discrete programmes or interventions, but also including broader-scale initiatives) to fail. It argues that understanding these failures offers greater insight to researchers and practitioners than publications solely focused on successes.
Focus: Our paper discusses the causes of the failure of social marketing programmes, an area that has largely been ignored in extant research.
Research Question: What causes social marketing programmes to fail?
Importance: As the majority of practitioner-oriented social marketing research focuses on how to develop a successful programme, we identify a tendency to ignore failed programmes. 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.
Methods: We conducted ten semi-structured interviews with social marketing practitioners recruited using a purposive sampling technique.
Results: We identify four elements responsible for the failure of social marketing programmes, each centred around the planning and implementation stage. Firstly, formative research at the earliest stages of programme 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 programme performing poorly. Thirdly, for a programme 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 programme failure. Lastly, we found a common issue relating of stakeholder mismanagement, specifically around issues of power imbalance and mismanaged expectations resulting in social marketing programme failing to launch. Researchers and practitioners must acknowledge that social marketing programmes do indeed fail but recognise that in these failings lies insight into how to enhance future practice.
Original languageEnglish
JournalSocial Marketing Quarterly
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 25 Mar 2021


  • social marketing
  • Failure Factors
  • Mistakes
  • Research
  • Programme

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