State Health Agencies Increasingly Adopt Social Media, but Brace for Pay-to-Play Future

March 10, 2015|2:14 p.m.| Virgie Townsend

State public health departments markedly expanded their use of social media from 2011 to 2014, viewing it as an effective, low-cost means to reach their audiences. But the agencies are also preparing for social media platforms to increasingly charge them to access their audiences.

In January, the National Public Health Information Coalition (NPHIC) reported that 82 percent of state health agencies use both Facebook and Twitter, versus 44 percent in August 2011.

“This illustrates the growing importance of social media,” says NPHIC Communications Director Brad Christensen. “People are realizing the value of its immediacy. With the rise of smartphones, social networking is a finger tap away.”

Although state health agencies have famously used social media in emergency responses, such as when Hurricane Sandy hit the Northeast in 2012, health agencies also use them to publicize health promotion information that news media are less likely to cover.

“You rarely see stories about diabetes or injury prevention in traditional media channels,” Christensen says. “Newspapers are going out of business, so social media gives health departments a means to reach directly to the public without having to go through a news editor.”

Delaware Department of Health and Social Services (DDHSS) Health and Risk Communication Section Chief Emily Knearl says that social media has provided a dual benefit for her department. On the one hand, social media platforms allow them to reach Delawareans without their content being filtered through a reporter. At the same time, many journalists follow them on social media and will follow up with the department on its announcements to cover in news stories.

Scott Sandow, public information officer at the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), says another benefit is that social media “allows CDPH to keep a real-time pulse of how health impacts people’s livesallows CDPH to keep a real-time pulse of how health impacts people’s lives and also helps us determine the success of our message.”

Pay to Play

However, state health agencies say that they’re beginning to prepare for the future of social media: platforms charging users to get information in front of their audiences.

“Social media has been a low-cost and potentially broad-reaching opportunity to build community in customer-chosen channels, but we’re experiencing a sharp move toward a pay-to-play social space,” Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) Web and New Media Manager Jennifer Tweedy said via email, pointing to Facebook’s promoted posts system and Twitter’s business advertising feature as examples. “This shift has changed the online social landscape and can’t be ignored by brands that want to stay relevant and engaged with their online communities.”

DDHSS Community Relations Officer Leslie Poland predicts that state health agencies will soon need to provide more money for social media.

"Facebook ads now require you to pay to get in front of your audience. If this is successful, you’ll see more social media trying this charging approach,” says Poland. “We need staff to stay on top of how to reach audiences and that requires funds."'Facebook ads now require you to pay to get in front of your audience. If this is successful, you’ll see more social media trying this charging approach,” says Poland. “We need staff to stay on top of how to reach audiences and that requires funds.'

To increase their digital footprint and keep costs down, state health agencies may also want to investigate other social media outlets or explore other new media options. Christensen cites the AZ Dept. of Health Services Director's Blog, started by former ADHS Director Will Humble, as a successful approach.

“Arizona has almost stopped sending out news releases because Will Humble’s daily blog entries were so often picked up by traditional media,” he says.

For health agencies looking to improve their digital outreach in a rapidly changing field, Christensen and Arizona, California, and Delaware’s public health agencies offer the following tips:

Strategies for Health Agencies to Improve Digital Outreach

“Post on social media daily, or almost daily. To build a following, you have to provide consistent content.” – Brad Christensen, NPHIC

“Use a conversational tone, and ask yourself ‘would this catch my attention?’” – Leslie Poland, DDHSS

“Decide what success means to you. It probably isn’t simply the number of followers for your brand. As you gauge the types of online interactions that are most beneficial for your online community and brand, craft ways to better use those touch points to communicate key messages and engage with your growing community.” – Jennifer Tweedy, ADHS

“Create working relationships with program staff and develop a sense of their social media knowledge and needs. In some cases, this requires explaining the benefits of social media to your staff.” – Scott Sandow, CDPH

“Add visuals when you can. If you use Facebook, use pictures and graphs. Pictures tell a story and draw in readers.” – Brad Christensen, NPHIC

“Write press releases so they can be chopped up easily into tweets. Take a paragraph and turn it into a sentence that someone is going to be interested in.” – Leslie Poland, DDHSS

“Monitor and evaluate social media analytics to help determine which posts have a high rate of engagement.” – Scott Sandow, CDPH

“Don’t let fear of negative feedback keep you from reaching your online community. Negative sentiment is an opportunity to clarify, educate, and be human. ’Negative sentiment is an opportunity to clarify, educate, and be human.’" – Jennifer Tweedy, ADHS