Nothing about us without us: participatory design application in social marketing

Submission deadline date: 4 May 2023



Social marketing has long been hailed as a consumer centric alternative to the expert-led, top-down approaches that have traditionally dominated health promotion and public policy (Lefebvre & Flora, 1988). Indeed, social marketing, when applied to its fullest extent, has demonstrated effectiveness in achieving behavioural objectives set (Carins & Rundle-Thiele, 2014; Dietrich et al., 2016; Firestone et al., 2017; Kubacki et al., 2015; Schmidtke et al., 2021; Truong, 2014; Xia et al., 2016). The field has, however, been criticised for its ethicality (Kennedy & Santos, 2019). Specifically, concerns have been raised regarding the use of fear appeals (Hastings et al., 2004), harmful awareness raising (Pettigrew et al., 2010), tokenistic use of empowerment (Kamin et al., 2022), promotion of othering (Skinner, 2017), and exacerbating health inequities (Langford & Panter-Brick, 2013). While social marketers are not intentionally unethical, unintended consequences still occur (Kennedy & Santos, 2019). The concepts of value and exchange are at the core of social marketing practice. To enhance the output value of a desirable behaviour, social marketers may ‘co-create’ value with the target audience in the form of dialogue, interaction, communication, and collaboration (Domegan et al., 2013). In some cases, however, value may not be created or may even be destroyed (Leo & Zainuddin, 2017). Thus, understanding value creation in context is important for avoiding inadvertent destruction (Zainnuddin & Ross, 2020). Transformative social marketers believe real social change emerges from participatory actions and community learning that are meaningful and deliver value to all (Saunders et al., 2015). By drawing on participatory principles, mindsets, frames, and behaviours, social marketers can work with and for people to identify strategies and solutions that are most likely to contribute to changes benefiting individuals, communities, and broader society (Rundle-Thiele et al., 2021).

To shape the future of social marketing toward a more participatory approach, the field must look beyond its traditional disciplinary bounds. Participatory design (PD) is an umbrella term that encompasses a broad range of human-centred (see also citizen, consumer, person, user-centred) approaches and methods (Cargo & Mercer, 2008; Halskov & Hansen, 2015), all varying in their extent of participant involvement. Broadly, PD refers to the involvement of designers and users (participants) in a cooperative design process (Halskov & Hansen, 2015). PD is considered a useful method for engaging those affected by a given problem at the grass-roots level and ensuring user context forms the fundamental starting point of the design process (Halskov & Hansen, 2015). Although evaluations are limited, PD has demonstrated potential for improving outcomes such as program adoption, engagement, satisfaction, and retention (DeSmet et al., 2016; Willmott et al., 2022). However, several issues have been raised with the application of PD within social and behavioural change contexts.

Although participation is a fundamental human right (United Nations, 2019), evidence suggests current definitions of ‘participation’ and its application vary considerably. A recent systematic review of PD application in youth sexual violence and abuse prevention found a lack of studies explicitly defining the method of PD applied (Willmott et al., 2022). PD application was found to encompass a broad range of approaches including formative research (e.g., ethnography, interviews, and focus groups), stakeholder consultations and collaborative partnerships, usability and prototype testing, train-the-trainer models, peer leadership and education, Y/PAR, and CBPR. Across the PD methods applied, several participant and researcher roles (‘agents of change’) were identified including informants, consultants, co-designers, testers, leaders/trainees (see MATE taxonomy). As participation has evolved to take on new meanings and incorporate new perspectives, there have been calls to critically assess whether the core principle of PD–involvement of users and stakeholders in design processes–holds up in practice (Robertson & Simonsen, 2012; Vines et al., 2013). Moreover, as the range of PD methods being developed and appropriated by different fields increases, there is a need for greater critique and reflection on how PD and related approaches are employed and communicated in social marketing. Importantly, there is a need to advance current understandings of how to enable and prompt meaningful participation to ensure people feel empowered to understand, realise, and claim their right to participation (Willmott et al., 2022). This special issue calls for papers applying PD methods within the design, implementation, and evaluation of social marketing programs. The special issue welcome papers from all methodological approaches. Additionally, conceptual contributions, position pieces, and review articles are welcome.

List of topics

This Special Issue aims to stimulate discourse within and beyond the social marketing discipline on the role and importance of participatory design (PD) in behavioural and social change initiatives, establish standards of practice for the field, showcase best practice case studies, and identify priorities for future research and practice. Topics of submissions may include (but are not limited to):

  • Conceptualisations of participation. How should we define participation in social marketing? What resources do people need to be able to participate? What are the costs and benefits of participation? Are there/can there be different levels of participation?
  • Critical analysis of whether and how the structures of PD include, protect, and secure participant interests when designing social marketing programs.
  • Practical considerations of the different roles and power dynamics at play in PD. What mindsets, frames, and behaviours must be in place to create a ‘third space’ for collaboration and reflexive communication? How can roles and/or structures support this?
  • Critiques of common PD methods applied in social marketing that may lead to unintended consequences.
  • What are the processes and/or outcomes of PD in value/wellbeing co-creation? Can value be created with these PD methods? If so, how can it be created? Can it be destroyed? How can social marketers prevent value destruction?
  • Evaluations of PD within social marketing programs. To be considered, the method of PD applied must be clearly defined and reporting of outcomes must be transparent. In addition to measurable outcomes, evaluations should include reflections on process, power dynamics, and patterns of inclusion and exclusion.
  • Reviews assessing the current state-of-the-art and outlining future research priorities.
  • New methods, models, or frameworks to guide PD application in social marketing.
  • Standards or quality criteria to guide the best practice application of PD methods in social marketing.

The guest editorial team for this special issue comprises social marketing academics with expertise in participatory design (PD) methods, practitioners from industry, and lived experience experts. Subsequently, submissions which include academics, practitioners, and lived experience consultants as part of authorship teams are particularly encouraged.

Key dates

Submissions open: 12 January 2023

Submissions close: 4 May 2023

Final acceptance: 12 January 2024

Publication date: 2 April 2024 

Guest editors

Dr. Taylor Willmott – Lecturer in Marketing, The University of Adelaide

Dr. David Schmidtke – Lecturer in Marketing, The University of Adelaide

Morgan Lee Cataldo – Senior Manager, Youth Engagement Berry Street & Social Innovation Partner, Morgan & Co

Sinead McLeod – Integrated Strategist and Research Lead, Stanley Street

Abstracts and questions

If you have an abstract you would like reviewed for suitability prior to submission, please email to Dr. Taylor Willmott ([email protected]). All special issue questions can be addressed to Dr. Taylor Willmott.

Paper submission

Authors may submit a full paper (6000 - 8000 words, including tables, figures, and references) to the special issue of the Journal of Social Marketing.

The papers must follow the author guidelines on Emerald’s website. You must select the special issue title Nothing about us without us: participatory design application in social marketing when prompted during the submission process on ScholarOne.


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