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7 tips for using social media to drive behavior change

The reach of social network sites (SNS) has evolved from Silcon Valley technocrats to more than 1 billion people worldwide. Trends like #MeToo, #ZeroWaste and #Fitspo are signs of the deepening relationship between social media and social change. Non-profit, health and public-service organizations can make use of this dynamic by leveraging social media to drive behavior change. But before you launch a new public health campaign, keep these seven tips in mind. 

#1 Know your audience.

Gen Xers, Millennials and Baby Boomers, oh my! If you plan to reach your target audiences online, you need to know where to reach them, and different generations prefer different platforms. One study indicates people ages 18-29 are 60% more likely to watch videos online than adults who are 50-65.

Korda, H., Itani, Z. (2013). Harnessing Social Media for Health Promotion and Behavior Change. Health Promotion Practice, 14(1), 15-23.

#2 Make an app for that.

Drive engagement through a mobile application. A team of doctors in Wyoming studied the effects of a smartphone app on pregnancy and birth outcomes and found a significant relationship between app use and completion of prenatal visits as well as a moderate reduction in low birthweight. Just be sure not to induce app fatigue. Pay attention to design and usability, and find ways to allow users to integrate the app into their favorite SNSs, like Facebook and Instagram.

Bush, J., Barlow, D. E., Echols, J., Wilkerson, J., Bellevin, K. (2017). Impact of a Mobile Health Application on User Engagement and Pregnancy Outcomes Among Wyoming Medicaid Members. Telemedicine Journal and E-Health, 23(11), 891–898.

#3 Let them share.

Enable members of your intervention group to share information about their progress, goals and experience with other members and nonmembers. Of seven social media features evaluated for their impact on intervention outcome, sharing resulted in the highest number of positive outcomes. Consider hosting a blog, requesting testimonials or asking members to share photos of their newer, healthier selves.

Elaheebocus, S., Weal, M., Morrison, L., Yardley, L. (2018). Peer-Based Social Media Features in Behavior Change Interventions: Systematic Review. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 20(2), e20.

#4 Make it a game.

Fuel the motivation to change by introducing some friendly competition. A group of social researchers found that when they made step counting a game among coworkers, people walked an average of 2 miles more than those in a non-competitive setting. It’s important to note that the people on each team knew each other prior to the study. Find ways to replicate the effort like providing print-outs and information so target audience members engage people in their homes and workplaces.

Foster, D., Linehan, C., Kirman, B., Lawson, S., & James, G. (2010). Motivating physical activity at work: Using persuasive social media for competitive step counting. Proceedings of the 14th International Academic MindTrek Conference, 111-116.

#5 Send a motivational message.

You can boost your impact through social messaging or SMS, but make every text count by sending the right kind of message. A British study measured the impact of different types of motivational messages on increasing physical activity among four groups of young adults. Physical activity increased significantly more among the group that received affective texts about how exercise would make them feel (increased levels of positivity, joy, optimism, etc.), than the group that received instrumental texts about the physical benefits of exercise (heart health, weight management), the group that received both affective and instrumental messages, or the group that received no texts at all. Instead of sticking to science, it might be a good idea to highlight the emotional benefits that come with change.

Rose, T. Barker, M. Maria Jacob, C. Morrison, L. (2017). A Systematic Review of Digital Interventions for Improving the Diet and Physical Activity Behaviors of Adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health, 61(6), 669-677.

#6 Laugh a little.

Don’t rely on fear appeals or depressing personal stories to reach your audience. In 2017, social media research about skin cancer awareness revealed humorous content had a higher engagement rate than content that was meant to shock, inform or sadden. Even if your organization is promoting a serious topic, try to find room for some comedy.

Eysenbach, G., Giraud-Carrier, C., Yang, H., Soron, T. (2017). Tweet for Behavior Change: Using Social Media for the Dissemination of Public Health Messages. JMIR Public Health and Surveillance, 3(1), JMIR Public Health and Surveillance, 2017, Vol.3(1).

#7 Go analog, too.

Just because they click doesn’t mean it sticks! Social media can amplify your message, but it can’t replace human interaction. Know the difference between activism and slacktivism, and remember change is about people – real, in-person people – not avatars. Whatever your cause, be sure to measure what matters, not just impressions, engagement and reach.

Mccafferty, D. (2011). Activism vs. slacktivism. Communications of the ACM, 54(12), 17-19.

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