Health Communication Basics

Bright yellow background with  red, yellow, and blue ABC blocks and tv in the background representing basics.

What is Health Communication?

Health Communication is the study and use of communication strategies to inform and influence decisions and actions to improve health.

The health communication and social marketing practices at CDC draw on the work of scholars and practitioners in a wide range of sciences and disciplines. Having a science-based strategic communication process helps us address public health challenges. The process includes using multiple behavioral and social learning theories and models, then identifying steps to influence audience attitudes and behavior.

How do I do it?

Describe the Problem

Describe the main goal of your social marketing effort. It should clarify what the public health problem is, who is affected, and what you propose to do to address it. A full, clear problem description and analysis will help you decide whether to undertake a social marketing effort.

Perform Market Research

Market research (also called consumer or audience research) enhances your understanding of the target audience’s characteristics, attitudes, beliefs, values, behaviors, determinants, benefits, and barriers to behavior change in order to create a strategy for social marketing programs.

Define Market Strategy

A market strategy is a plan of action for your entire social marketing program. Market strategy encompasses the specific target audience segment(s), the desired behavior change goal, the benefits to the audience, and the interventions that will influence or support the goal.

Develop Interventions

Interventions are methods and actions used to influence, facilitate or promote behavior change such as holding training classes to help seniors start their own walking clubs, developing a website to promote drug-free activities to youth, expanding clinic hours to improve working mothers’ access to HIV testing.

Evaluate Your Plan

It is important to evaluate your program as you develop your communication plan. You need to know both whether the program was implemented as you intended (process measures) and whether changes took place (outcome measures).

Implement Your Plan

Implementation is the point at which all your planning and preparation come together. Some activities critical to your program’s success may include the following:

  • planning the program’s launch
  • holding a news event to publicize your messages
  • taking advantage of unexpected opportunities
  • eliminating potential threats to your efforts

How do I know it works?

Effective program evaluation is a systematic way to improve and account for public health actions by involving procedures that are useful, feasible, ethical, and accurate. You need to know both whether the program was implemented as you intended (process measures) and whether change took place (outcome measures). Evaluation – what can be measured – should be done at the planning stage as it can bring your overall goals more clearly into focus. Constant assessment during your campaign allows you to see what is working and to make mid-course adjustments.

Here are the broad areas for evaluation:

  • Identify program elements to monitor. Monitoring is often called process evaluation. You will always need to track process variables. To decide which components of the program to monitor, ask yourself who will use the information and how, what resources are available, and whether the data can be collected in a technically sound and ethical manner.
  • Select the key evaluation questions and engage stakeholders. Trim your list of potential questions by asking who will use the information and what they care most about. Stakeholders want various kinds of input into evaluation plans, depending on their levels of investment in the program and their interest and experience in program evaluation.
  • Determine how the information will be gathered: Choose the data collection method best suited to answering each evaluation question. Bear in mind that good data collection plans often integrate qualitative methods (those that produce descriptive information) with quantitative methods (those that generate numerical data such as frequencies, percentages or rates).
  • Develop a data analysis-timetable and budget. The reporting plan should outline how the data for each monitoring and evaluation question will be coded, summarized, and analyzed. Describe how the monitoring and evaluation data will be reported. You also should develop a timetable and budget. Your timeline should cover evaluation activities and program activities.

What is health marketing?

Poster board with drawings of colorful pie charts, flow charts, post-it notes and the words “Big Project”

Health Marketing is a multidisciplinary area of public health practice. It draws from traditional marketing theories and principles and adds science-based strategies to prevention, health promotion and health protection. Health marketing provides a framework of theories, strategies and techniques that can be used to guide work in public health research, interventions, and communication campaigns.

Health Marketing Basics

Women standing in front of black board with the words Target in large white letters and vision, strategy in small white letter.

Health Marketing and communication draws from traditional marketing theories and principles. Health Marketing is defined as creating communication, and delivering health information and interventions using customer-centered and science based strategies to protect and promote the health of diverse populations. Read on for some basic marketing terms.


Marketing is a process to meet human or social needs. The fundamental aspects of marketing are the same whether they meet the need for a commercial product or a public health service. Therefore, health marketing is a form of traditional marketing.

For both traditional marketing and health marketing, the end user of a product or service is called a ‘consumer’ and a group of consumers is referred to as a ‘market’. Characteristics of the market are considered at every stage in the marketing process, including the initial development of a product.

A white background with words Marketing mix, 4P and place, price, promotion, and product in colorful letters

Marketing Mix

Marketing mix is a term used to describe the integration of four fundamental marketing elements, which are sometimes called the ‘four Ps’:
• Product: the item, good or service that is being provided that delivers benefits to those who consume it; includes quality, packaging, design and brand name
• Price: monetary and non-monetary costs to the market
• Place: channels and locations where the product can be obtained
• Promotion: direct communication, publicity and advertising

Each of these four components should be present in a marketing plan. The science of correctly using these elements in combination with one another that provides the effective ‘marketing mix’. To be effective a “product must be tailored to customer needs, priced realistically, distributed through convenient channels, and actively promoted to customers.”

What Are Health Communication & Social Marketing?

A paper cutout of people made of green construction paper holding up the word Health over their heads

Health communication and social marketing may have some differences, but they share a common goal: creating social change by changing people’s attitudes, and/or modifying or eliminating certain behaviors.

Generally, a person in social marketing or health communications will create and use products, programs, or interventions as means to the same end: to promote health changes in individuals and communities. Sometimes you may hear the term “Health Marketing.” In this context, health marketing is a blending of multiple disciplines: the theoretical underpinnings of social marketing with the outreach communication strategies found in health communications.

CDC uses both social marketing and health communication practices, which are both overlapping and complementary, in its approach to promoting or “marketing” healthy behaviors to the public.

Health Communication

A close-up dictionary photo of the word communication.

As stated, Health Communication is the study and use of communication strategies to inform and influence decisions and actions to improve health. It can take on many forms: written, verbal, and visual. Here are some essential strategic planning steps for effective health communication and social:

• Review background information to define the problem (What’s out there?)
• Set communication objectives (What do we want to accomplish?)
• Analyze and segment target audiences (Who do we want to reach?)
• Develop and pretest message concepts (What do we want to say?)
• Select communication channels (Where do we want to say it?)
• Select, create and pretest messages and products (How do we want to say it?)
• Develop promotion plan/production (How do we get it used?)
• Implement communication strategies and conduct process evaluation (Getting it out there)
• Conduct outcome and impact evaluation (How well did we do?)

Social Marketing

A photo of the words social marketing written in Scrabble letters on a desk. An office telephone is in the background.

Take a look at these sentences. What do the bold words have in common?
• Fasten your seat belt.
• Eat more fruit.
• Pull over to use your cell phone.
• Don’t litter.
• Get a mammogram.
• Talk to your doctor

These are action words describing problems to be addressed by changing behavior. Research may help describe what your audience is currently doing or thinking. Then, based on research findings, communicators can develop realistic goals for behavior change. Social marketing is about identifying the specific target audience segment(s), describing the potential benefits, and then creating interventions that will influence or support the desired behavior change.

It is important for health communicators to understand and incorporate the “The Four ‘P’s of Marketing,” into our program planning. Social marketing is critical because it looks at the “Four P’s” from the viewpoint of the consumer. The “Four P’s of Marketing” are:

1. PRODUCT represents the desired behavior you are asking your audience to do, and the associated benefits, tangible objects, and/or services that support behavior change.
2. PRICE is the cost (financial, emotional, psychological, or time-related) of overcoming the barriers the audience faces in making the desired behavior change.
3. PLACE is where the audience will perform the desired behavior, where they will access the program products and services, or where they are thinking about your issue.
4. PROMOTION stands for communication messages, materials, channels, and activities that will effectively reach your audience.

Sometimes there is a fifth “P” – Policy. POLICY is the laws and regulations that influence the desired behavior, such as requiring sidewalks to make communities more walkable, or prohibiting smoking in shared public spaces.

Page last reviewed: January 22, 2020