Part of the marketing challenge for public and social services is scale. To be fair and equitable, public services should be accessible to all of the public. There are obvious logistical challenges to serving all the public (consider the ability to deliver a letter to any and every address in the country). But as a recent Harvard Business Review article points out, not all members of the public are the same, either.
Part of large scale marketing is the network effect. The positive network effect is often illustrated with the example of the telephone. If there’s only one telephone, it’s useless, because there’s no one else to call. A phone grows more valuable as you add more users.
But there are also negative network effects, too. Often, this is referred to as congestion. One example could be the car. Having a car to drive down the freeway can be useful and fun. Having 50,000 cars at once during rush hour is ineffective and frustrating.
So, some products and services never reach a big enough beneficial scale, while others exceed their useful scale and become congested.
Just as not all phones or cars are identical, neither are all potential customers of a public good or service identical. In the telephone instance, a phone isn’t much good if each phone user speaks a difference language. As another example, the public health market in the United States is huge, but infants and senior citizens have very different health needs. In scaling up a system, you need to account for various sub-networks that arise.
Some potential customers and sub-groups are more desirable that other, as well, for reaching scale. You can’t just amass sheer numbers and claim to be reaching scale. One recent example is concern about the number of healthy, young adults registering for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. As this New York Times article shows, there’s scrutiny about young adults enrolling, since this population is crucial to making the new system as a whole financially feasible.
The Harvard Business Review article lists some strategies for tackling these problems of scale:
- Focus on attracting and serving the desirable sub-groups (because the other groups you want will follow them)
- As you’re scaling up, look to expand into adjacent markets and opportunities (instead of fixating on growing a single market)
- Offer complementary products that serve new sub-groups or that bring sub-groups together
All these concerns about size and segments of the market, product design and distribution, are classic marketing considerations. By learning to think like a marketer, providers of public and social services stand a better chance of reaching a scale of operations commensurate with the size of social challenges that they seek to conquer.