Google Hangouts are increasingly becoming a communications channel for groups to present conversations with people in disparate locations to a wide audience. So it was exciting to be sitting front and center—so to speak—at last week’s YTH Live Google Hangout being hosted by one of my favorite organizations, ISIS (Internet Sexuality Information Services – if you don’t know them, check them out!), in preparation for the April YTH Live Conference, focusing on new and social media use and technology in the sexual health promotion space for teens.
The topic was using mobile technology, specifically text messaging, in the sexual health context. As someone who utilizes new media in all my projects, I was excited to hear what the panelists had to say, and see if my experiences were borne out in their work as well. The lineup was great, featuring Tom Subak from Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Dr. Pamela Johnson from Voxiva (developer of the great mobile maternal and newborn health program Text4Baby), Sam McKelvie from Mobile Commons, and Eric Leven from RipRoad. It was hosted by ISIS’s Executive Director and Founder, Deb Levine (who, dear readers, incidentally was instrumental as the launcher of Go Ask Alice!, and as a former Alice! Health Promotion Office employee for a couple of years, I wanted to make sure to plug that).
The first question broached by Deb was around the key trends around people seeking out health information. Tom mentioned that young people are constantly and consistently surrounded by media and information sources—literally at the tip of their fingers, so finding the answers they need is way easier than it was before the advent of new media. In this vein—and luckily, I might add—it is pretty easy to ask what were historically difficult questions. Thoughts and questions about sexually transmitted infections, pregnancy and abortion don’t require the same mustering of public courage required in asking another person face-to-face about a pressing health issue.
Tom also noted something that I have definitely seen as a sexual health educator—people are usually seeking this information in moments of crisis and anxiety, when they may have just had sex and worried about an STI or pregnancy. It’s in these crisis moments that text messaging can play an important role. Waiting for an email response or waiting for someone to answer a question on Tumblr or Facebook—while still far quicker than waiting for an appointment with a healthcare professional—is not as quick as being able to text a worried query and getting an immediate response. One of the most fascinating things I heard in the entire Hangout was when Eric discussed his team’s Know HIV campaign, an integrated new media campaign encouraging people to get tested for HIV. He said that the busiest time for people accessing information about HIV was in the early morning hours—either it’s the time when people are mulling over the issue, or it’s the time right after they’ve had sex or potential exposure to HIV and are seeking out information immediately. Having that information easily accessible in those moments can be crucial, and can also help people plan their next steps.
My favorite part of the Hangout was when the speakers were addressing two-way communication. In my own work as well as the projects on which I have advised digital strategy, I try to emphasize two major tenets: One, interactivity is key. New media truly embodies the idea of call and response, and for the conversation to be kept going you need to answer questions as well pose them, and engage followers in creative ways. I’ve done this with polls, questions, trivia that awards responders, and the solicitation of input from my most vocal network members.
Sam underscored how to address that issue, noting that two-way communication doesn’t necessarily mean organizations need someone dedicated to personal responses—great news for folks with small budgets and for people working on a consultant basis. The example given was if you text a client “Did you get a flu shot?” you can have a few answers set depending on the person’s response. If their text back is “Yes,” you can have automatic answers setup to push to the client saying, “Great, don’t forget to remind your friends!” If their text back is no, then automatic messages can be sent saying, “Here is where you can get a shot close to you,” sending a link to a nearby clinic based on their location or directing them to a site giving them more details.
The second point I generally emphasize is that you need to treat your social and new media networks similar to the way you treat your in-person networks—essentially, it’s just relationship building in another context. This is partly accomplished by the first tenet, interactivity, but it’s also accomplished by paying attention to the work of your followers and supporting it, as well as reaching out to build collaborations and coalitions with other like-minded groups, increasing the internet-based safe spaces. (The collaborations are not solely web-based, of course. Pamela noted that the public health departments and medical professionals who supported Text4Baby and encouraged their patients to sign up were key, and it’s always a good idea to increase the number of sources of information about sexual and reproductive health.)
There are few organizations who can thrive in new media spaces by just blasting their own content—the New York Times is the only one I can think of. For my work implementing HIV and sexual health programs on Facebook and Tumblr, paying attention to the work of my followers and voicing my appreciation and admiration of their own work made significant headway in how trusting my audience was. In terms of sexual health specifically, this is also meeting teens where they’re at—Sam mentioned this as being essential from a programmatic perspective, but it’s also essential in terms of a behavior change perspective. When I worked with teens and young adults on risk behavior change around sex and substance, the greatest indicator of their success was my ability to assess where they were in terms of thinking about changing their behavior, and help them dissect some of their ambivalence and tease out their true questions (motivational interviewing, for all you health behavior professionals!). New media is a great space in which to do this, because the conversation feels sustained and continuous, and it’s easy to see one’s progression over the course of time. And paying attention to where those conversations are happening is also key—Tumblr has been the busiest platform for my sexual health interventions, which speaks to its popularity among teens, followed by Facebook and Twitter, the latter of which people seem to use as reminders and the former being a good platform for asking questions.
Lastly, the question of how to select the right mobile media tool to implement your public health message was brought up. Eric’s response was that text message was kind, since you can access people who are otherwise difficult to reach on other platforms. I tend to agree with this, since other platforms tend to require more initiation on the part of the individual, and populations have to do some seeking out on their own. Text message pushes allow your message to be sent to larger numbers of people across greater demographics, and with more frequency. Sam noted that teens of color and teens in lower-income communities who may not have full web access actually text the most, and information being sent via text can be even more helpful for these teens. That being said, I fully believe the integration of multiple new media platforms tends to ensure greatest success.
You can watch the whole Google Hangout here on the YTH Live page.