If We Build It, Will They Come? Social Media Contest to Engage Young Adults to Talk About Safer Sex Online

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Engaging young adults to talk about safer sex online can be challenging. HOPE Online, which comprises the HOPE websiteFacebook, and Twitter pages, is no exception.  After all, we are asking young African American adults to 1) go online, which may be in  itself a potential barrier,  and 2) open up about their own sexuality, ask questions, and express opinions about topics that many might prefer to keep private or only discuss with their closest friends and family.

On the other hand, we know there is a need and desire for locally relevant quality information and we have connected with many young adults who are enthusiastic and dedicated to promoting healthy sexuality in the community. Indeed, we have gained a loyal following on our Facebook and Twitter pages.

To continue expanding the following on our social media sites, we launched a contest to encourage more HOPE party participants to follow and engage with us online. The contest ran for two months, from October 1 through November 30. Participants earned points for each activity they completed. When they reached 50 points they were awarded a $10 gift card. The two contestants with the most points at the end of the contest were given $50 gift cards.

Did It Work?
Yes! We gained 21 new followers from our focus population.  We were extremely pleased with this outcome… here’s why:
  • The contest did not require a large investment. We spent approximately 6 hours per week tracking and responding to participants and under $250 on incentives.
  • Our new followers were (and still are) actively engaged. In addition, most of them have very large networks. This means that connecting with just these few people gives us the opportunity to reach hundreds.
  • We learned some valuable lessons about using social media in health communications that we can use moving forward.

What Were the Lessons Learned?
1)      Incentives work. Gaining a following in social media can be difficult, and going viral is rare.  A common social media marketing model is to create a buzz by offering rewards or incentives. Many businesses offer gift cards or enter names in drawings to gain followers on Facebook. Although on a smaller scale, incentives and competition were helpful in boosting our following.

2)      Small following, but high engagement. We saw not only an increase in the number of followers, but also a significant increase in engagement. The incentives were structured in a way that rewarded multiple points of contact, as well as ongoing participation. The result was that the majority of the participants posted multiple times and contacted us in more than one way. In addition, participants went beyond simple likes and often posted meaningful comments on our Facebook and website blog posts, and re-tweeted many of our posts.

3)      Texting is a good strategy. Many of our participants opted to text a question and indicated that texting was the best way to contact them. To send and receive texts, we created a Google Voice account. This gave us a local phone number that we could give participants to send texts to us. We were also able to send text messages in response from a computer instead of a mobile phone. (Note: Our research team is also using Google Voice to text study participants for follow up surveys and has been very successful in connecting with this population.)

What are the next steps?
To keep the momentum going, we are starting a new contest to encourage all of our current followers to “Bring 5 Friends”. Our first contest encouraged people to follow us, but the reward structure didn’t necessarily encourage them to share and bring others to like us. To build a greater following, we need our current followers to share and encourage their friends to connect with us as well. The next contest will continue to bring people to our site so that we eventually reach the tipping point, where the information shared on the sites is seen not by hundreds but by thousands in Flint and Genesee County.

For additional  information about the HOPE project, visit the HOPE  project page.