SMANA and Westat host a networking event in Rockville, Maryland on digital marketing strategy

By Anthony D. Panzera, PhD MPH

The Social Marketing Association of North America (SMANA) was hosted by Westat, a research and communications firm in Rockville, MD, on Monday, April 29 for an evening of networking and a discussion panel titled, “Making Digital a Part of Your Social Marketing Strategy: A Moderated Discussion.” SMANA President Sandra Parades welcomed attendees and introduced the moderator, Dr. Amelia Burke-Garcia, and fellow panelists: Julie Yegen (a senior digital manager at Westat), Melissa Ford (senior strategist at Women Online), and Dasha Afanaseva (a senior digital media specialist at Westat).  

Dr. Bruke-Garcia, who is the Director of the Center for Digital Strategy & Research at Westat, guided the discussion across a number of topics regarding the application of digital media to social marketing public health campaigns. The panel opened with commentary on where social media-based marketing novices should begin their journey. Yegen reminded event attendees of the importance of knowing targeted audiences; while, over time, demographics may shift, social marketers need to be aware of how they shift and evolve when considering audiences based on the social media they use. In Yegen’s experience, audience segments may use different media for different purposes. Although some may be concerned with gaining more followers globally on, say, a Facebook group, Yegen explained that further insight can come from other, possibly more relevant questions – “Do you want more followers or better engagements? Or more actions?” Learning a social media platform and being able to use it expertly is a capacity social marketers can develop with time.

Despite the initial inclination to expand the size of an audience, some algorithms aim to reach current audiences better. Key to successful engagement, Yegen explained, is quality content in a variety of forms, especially imagery and video. While not all social marketers are graphic designers, marketers may build their ability to use platforms like Twitter Moments or Instagram Stories, technology like smartphone-based photography, and software like Adobe Spark to enhance promotional elements. Underlying design tasks should be the effort to “cut through the clutter.” According to the panel, for example, “Instagram Stories has 400 Million users watching on average 28 minutes per day,” so compelling visual content is key to successfully conveying important health messaging to targeted audiences.

Melissa Ford’s work at Women Online taps into the landscape of “influencers” – individuals who have built robust followers on social media platforms. Influencer marketing, according to Ford, is when a campaign engages an influencer to leverage the influencer’s follower base for a cause, which often involves the influencer posting the campaign’s content to social media. Influencers can also play a part in content creation when they are hired to post about a particular nonprofit like Planned Parenthood or Share Our Strength, or a campaign about particular public health topics such as adverse childhood experiences.

Ford also shed light on the influencer marketing process. Organizations that seek to use influencer marketing first must clearly define their campaign’s goal. Then, a particular potential influencer (or set of influencers) is selected. Once engaged, the influencer(s) then can send followers to a new public health resource. An important metric that is used is the weight of the Google rank, which measures “how important’ your site is relative to others and, the greater the ranking, the higher your site “bubbles to the top.” Information from influencers can enhance a Google ranking and suggested parameters can be provided to influencers to ensure a strong ranking. Ford’s efforts are also to ensure that good resources remain on top while spammers are deprioritized. Interestingly and relevant to the use of social media today, Google-based tools are able to distinguish active, “legit” accounts from bots and inactive accounts in order to curate better content. While influencer marketing can be costly, Ford points to some opportunities where influencers “volunteer” their platforms for a good cause, especially for those causes that are most urgent.

Ford’s work with Women Online also highlighted important insights about distinguishing “followship” from engagement. While some influencers may have many followers, those followers may not be engaged. Conversely, an influencer may have few followers but those who do follow are actively engaged. Ford emphasized evaluating an influencers’ worth with these insights in mind as well as understanding who their followers are and the type and quality of their engagement activities.

Dasha Afanaseva described “digital evaluation” as the task of assessing and optimizing a digital campaign; “by ‘optimizing’,” Afanaseva explained, “I mean a continuous process of daily or weekly tweaking a campaign to make adjustments for audience targeting and ad imagery.” Constant monitoring and evaluation can assess metrics such as engagements (in type and quantity), click-through rates, web traffic, and the performance of hashtags. Afanaseva’s tip for measurement in digital evaluation is to always bring it back to your goals. A campaign’s goals should help evaluators craft performance metrics. In addition, clarifying evaluation metrics helps communication within project teams. The panel agreed that engagement scoring is useful in campaign monitoring.

Toward the close of the panel, speakers noted some drawbacks to digital media approaches. Frustrations experienced by panelists who are concerned with campaign performance and evaluation occur as media evolve. One example, as a panelist explained, was that Facebook changed its newsfeed content for users in 2018 in order to prioritize “organic” over paid advertisements. When Twitter cracked down on bot accounts and suspended 70 million accounts, some of the panelists’ campaigns saw a drop in followship. The panelists also agreed that solely looking at “impressions” as a measure of the quality of posted content was a misconception. If time and resources allow, the panelists support conducting mini-experiments to test a new strategy or content. Afanaseva, Yegen, and Ford agreed that having in-depth data on audiences and influencers would make their roles easier, especially for tailoring information.

During the question and answer session, attendees noted the importance of understanding the role of social media activity as a “proxy” for real behaviors and behavior change. Although there are limitations to social media measures, the quality of what is posted can be an indicator of behavior or experience in some capacity, as implied from Ford’s work with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Milestone Mondays” activity for children’s developmental milestones. Panelists also emphasized that translating content in different languages requires “adaptation,” or that message tailoring should be “adapting” meanings rather than only “straight-up translation.” Taken together, social media tools can help social marketing campaigns in the public health arena but should be implemented in a strategic manner with design that includes the ability to monitor, assess, and evaluate chosen strategies.


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