I am so very new to the idea of sending health-related text messages in the hope of changing behavior – and still a bit skeptical, I admit. I have taken in so much information this week, and cannot say that I feel prepared to really advise anyone about how to do this successfully. In fact, according to what I have read, the research is mixed about whether SMS campaigns delivered via mobile phones are likely to succeed in improving health. However, I have concluded that some “best practices” are being developed to help guide these campaigns, including these:
1. Have Clear Objectives / Call to Action for Your Campaign
First and foremost, it is critical to have clearly defined objectives before starting an SMS health campaign. What is your overall objective for the campaign, e.g., quitting smoking, increasing physical activity, ensuring medication is taken on schedule, alerting community members to resources in emergency situations? What action would you like the recipient to take once they receive the message?
2. Understand Your Audience
This seems like common sense but can nonetheless be overlooked by enthusiastic public health professionals who seek to replicate a campaign that has been well-received in communities other than their own. Knowing one’s audience is essential for any type of communication plan, regardless of the medium or method.
(Excerpted from: Everything You Need to Know About Public Health Text Messaging – Public Health Seattle and Kings County)
3. Be Brief
A single SMS consists of no more than 160 characters. To prevent information overload and keep campaign costs down, choose words carefully. Stick to the point and ensure that the benefit/advantage of the health message is clear.
4. Think About Timing
Don’t send messages too frequently or re-send the same message without permission from the recipient. If you bother them too often, or send messages with no point, then you are likely to lose the recipient. Nobody likes spam! In fact, on printed materials or in the SMS itself, always specify how recipients can opt out.
Also, avoid sending messages at inconvenient times, like late at night, early in the morning, or on religious festivals and sacred days. This can have a huge impact on whether your messages are read and acted upon.
5. Monitor Results
As with any public health communication project, it is important to evaluate a SMS campaign, in terms of both process and outcome measures. Process measures will likely include: number of recipients who opted in / out; number of messages sent per recipient, per week, during the entire campaign; costs of conducting the campaign. Outcome measures should include tracking changes in knowledge and behaviors, as well as improvement in health conditions, where appropriate.
In general, I think that these tips apply for any public health communication campaign. The challenge remains: does providing information and support really change behavior? In order to see health improvements on a broad scale, I think that any information campaign must also be supported by interventions that address the social determinants of health and advocate for changes in policies and practices to target the community conditions that undermine health.