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Social Media in Public Health: What's Not to 'Like'?

Oct 31, 2011, 10:28 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth

Twitter, Facebook and other social media applications are often seen as up-to-the-minute, spontaneous news tools. But at a session this afternoon at the 2011 APHA annual meeting, AIDS.gov’s Miguel Gomez shared a secret: he and his staff meet each week to plan out what they are going to Tweet. They examine what their partners and advocates are talking about in the social media sphere so that they know they are being responsive to relevant topics. And, of course, they respond as needed if circumstances warrant, but this advice was a great kick-off to an engaging session on using social media to communicate, educate, and advocate for public health.

Michele Late is the woman behind @publichealth, APHA’s Twitter account since 2007. With 140,000-plus followers, @publichealth is one of the top health Twitter accounts out there, and TIME magazine said as much in a ranking this past March. Late shared tools such as URL shorteners, analytics tools and Tweet schedulers that she has mastered over the past few years, urging others to take advantage of the many (free!) resources out there that can give Twitter account owners information about their followers. By tracking retweets and other statistics, Late learned what types of posts were most interesting to the @publichealth audience (career-related, health observances and personal health tips are way up there).

Some specific tips Late shared:

  • If you put a period if front of an @ reply, it will show up for everyone who follows you (and not just the person you are replying to and anyone who follows them).
  • Tweet for all time zones. If you’re on the East Coast, make sure to Tweet in the late afternoon.
  • Interact with followers (“otherwise you’re not social – you’re a bulletin board”)

Megan Yarbrough from M+R Strategic Services reminded the audience that if they want to measure their social media success, they should make sure to define their goals in advance. If you don’t know who you want to reach, it’s pretty hard to be strategic and to determine whether you made an impact. And it is also helpful to understand social media algorithms: for example, on Facebook, things such as affinity (“likes”) and the type of content (photos are worth more) are weighted heavily toward your metrics. Yarbrough also reported on a benchmarking survey of Facebook use by non-profits that found:

  • Non-profits average 15,000 fans on Facebook pages
  • A good way to measure Facebook fans is to look at number of fans compared to number of e-mail subscribers. Non-profits averaged 110 fans/email subscriber.
  • For every 1,000 fans, non-profits only had an average of 1.7 likes or comments.

Ever wonder how the CDC strategizes about social media? Former social media guru (now she’s at the National Office for Drug Control Policy) Erin Edgerton shared some tips—in 140 characters—for success. Her advice included remembering to use the principles of good communication, even if you are working on a new or flashy platform; holding on to your content promotion until you have a really good piece to promote, and ensuring that you use people’s ideas and input if you ask for them.

>>Follow our coverage of APHA 2011 on Twitter here and read up from NewPublicHealth here.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.