In 2015, Forbes magazine reported that between June 1 and August 13, 2014, 15 million people commented, posted or liked the Ice Bucket Challenge on Facebook. 1.2 million videos were posted about the Ice Bucket Challenge on Facebook. Another 2.2 million people tweeted about the challenge. By all accounts, the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) social media campaign was a huge fundraising success for the ALS foundation raising 11.4 million dollars in 2014 compared with 1.7 million dollars in 2013 prior to the Ice Bucket Challenge.
Social media campaigns like The Ice Bucket Challenge and Livestrong bracelet promotion and the Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM) pink ribbons raise awareness about health issues and are designed to be engaging on social media platforms.
Yet, much of the use of social media about these campaigns were one-way communications. For example, BCAM reported the average number of tweets about their latest campaign was less than two per user suggesting there were not on-going conversations between users, organizations, and their followers.
Public health organizations, such as the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the World Health Organization (WHO), the American Public Health Association (APHA) are using social media as a channel to distribute information and educate rather than using social media to create conversations and engage with the audience to influence health behavior. Superficial gimmicks like the Ice Bucket Challenge can act as a catalyst for sustainable, health behavior change. Making new behavior ‘stick’ takes persistent effort and patience to wait for the behavior change to become a sustainable, everyday public health norm.
If public health organizations are to effectively use social media, they must dedicate resources (time, money and personnel) to their social media campaigns and develop a strategic communication plan that includes best practices for expanding reach and promoting interactivity and engagement. Here are three ways that public health organizations can use social media to expand reach and promote public interaction and engagement:
1. Shift communication from population level to individuals
Use social media to establish real-time, responsive interaction with the target audience by soliciting ongoing user-generated content in selected media platforms.
2. Use social media to drive dialog and policy responsiveness by demonstrating target audience engagement
Engagement keeps organizations from being perceived as tone deaf or insensitive to the concerns and needs of the target audience. To be engaged means that organizations are constantly listening, responding, interacting, learning, and using social media to drive ongoing improvements in engagement. The higher the level of engagement, the more effort and resources are needed by the organization to adequately and effectively maintain a consistent, coordinated engagement approach. Health metrics derived by this engagement can be use to track disease or illness in populations.
3. Leverage social media engagement for public health behavior change impact and sustainability
Information is not sufficient to change health behaviors. Social media provides opportunities to connect with the target audience in their communities. In May 2012, Facebook, allowed users to share organ donation status on their Facebook timelines sharing this with the users’ Facebook friends. These Facebook users could then officially register online as an organ donor with their state’s Department of Motor Vehicles. During the 12 day campaign, there was a 21.2-fold increase in new online donor registrations on the day the initiative began. While the number of online donor registrations decreased throughout the 12 day campaign, registration rates remained elevated after the campaign was done.
As Shirky put it in his book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organization, “Revolution doesn’t happen when society adopts new technologies – it happens when society adopts new behaviors.”
Shirky, C., Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organization, Penguin Press, New York, NY (2008).
Thackeray et al.: Using Twitter for breast cancer prevention: an analysis of breast cancer awareness month. BMC Cancer 2013 13:508.
Thackeray et al.: Adoption and use of social media among public health departments. BMC Public Health 2012 12:242.