Determinants of successful online public engagement campaigns in global health
Campbell, Iain Harry
Efforts in global health and development have broad political support and substantial financial commitment from most governments. However, global health organisations often have difficulty gaining the support of the public for important health interventions and policy reforms. The history of global health media campaigns has proven that it is very difficult to get the public engaged with global health issues, as compared to other forms of entertainment or public debates in the media. Strategies for capturing the attention of the general public online for persisting problems outside of emergency situations are poorly defined and there are only a few isolated examples of success.In order to gain some insight into what factors might help to increase public engagement with global health issues I undertook a 3 year public engagement campaign using online videos and tracked detailed metrics at each step of the way. I began the study by creating over 2 hours of global health video content across ten videos covering major topics in global health with varied style of presentation. The ten videos formed a documentary called "Survival: The Story of Global Health”. These episodes were then shared through social media, promoted through Youtube and finally broadcast on national television to around 1.4 million total viewers. Key metrics were tracked at each stage of the process generating a rich set of data to analyse. The study began by posting each episode with a brief background text on a Facebook profile with an average of 450 friends and a further 800 followers throughout the period of study. This was achieved by collaboration with global health professor Igor Rudan who volunteered to narrate the videos and post them from his Facebook profile.Between Aug 1 and Sept 30, 2017 I studied the interaction with each Facebook post tracking all available engagement metrics. Remarkably one of these episodes was shared virally on Facebook leading to media coverage of the video and this provided the opportunity for further study. The website of a national newspaper with around 250,000 daily viewers shared three of these videos after they were posted on Facebook. I recorded views, shares, comments and the effect on the number of YouTube views of the featured videos.I then conducted two studies in two separate samples of viewers to determine the nature of engagement with each video as defined by 22 different parameters . The first study was based on posting videos to a YouTube channel between Aug 30 and Sept 30, 2017 and collecting analytics on the viewership. By June 30, 2019 this approach attracted 41,305 viewers. The second study was more controlled and conducted on a private YouTube channel and the videos were advertised to reach a high number of viewers. This attracted 188,154 viewers and I collected data on viewers' behaviour using YouTube Analytics. The first study on Facebook showed that the 10 posts received between 65 and 274 "likes" on the Facebook profile and between 2 and 124 shares, receiving between 0 and 17 comments. The three episodes that were shared by the online newspaper portal were further shared between 164 and 2820 times, receiving between 8 and 111 comments from general public. The effect of these two promotion channels on YouTube viewership resulted in between 107 and 9,784 views of the 10 featured videos, with the number of "likes" received on YouTube ranging between 0 and 43. The video that raised the most attention and shares was the one on the history of pandemics, which also had the highest number of shares on YouTube (69), followed by the video on human evolution (14). Topics of non-communicable diseases and the future of humanity were also popular, while the topics more specific to global health raised less interest - i.e., maternal and child mortality, major infectious diseases, international organizations, inequality and equity, and UN's Millennium Development Goals. The two studies on YouTube showed clear differences in all measured parameters of engagement based on the topic of the video. Episodes on pandemics (14,594 views) and human evolution (10,761 views) were clear positive outliers, while the remaining eight episodes received between 1,110 and 3,197 views. In the second study, there were several notable differences between the 10 videos in the parameters analysed through YouTube Analytics. Episode 2 on maternal and child health had the highest view rate (18.90%) and Episode 4 had the highest average view duration (6 minutes). At the bottom of the rank were Episode 6 on ageing and dying (view rate of 13.83%) and Episode 5 on non-communicable diseases (view rate 14.59%).Analysis of the data from the Croatian National Television, which reached >1.4 million viewers cumulatively, showed that the number of viewers tuning in at any point was the highest for Episode 5 (202.848), followed by Episode 3 (169.908) and Episode 1 (152.322), while Episode 7 (93.149) and Episode 8 (81.160) had the lowest reach. However, in terms of average viewership, Episode 5 (122.200) was followed by Episode 9 (104.604) and then Episode 1 (100.886).Across the studies my research identified 5 main factors contributing the success of videos which performed well. 1.Contribution to public debate.2.Timing of release within windows of opportunity for increased engagement. 3.Promotion by global health figure with authentic scientific background.4.Positive emotional valency.5.Entertainment value of content (Narrative formats, dramatic presentation.)The major challenge of promoting global health health videos online is the long-term development focus of global health topics in contrast to a shortening media and public attention span. This was reflected throughout the study in the low engagement with videos on sustainable development goals or internal matters of global health policy and development (episodes 7 and 8). And in the far higher engagement with videos of story-based content with dramatic visuals and music (episodes 1, 4 and 10). The public primarily looks to social media for entertainment and in such an environment it can be incredibly difficult to promote the complex humanitarian and scientific global health agenda against waves of short-form highly entertaining media “candy”. However we did have one outlier result in Episode 4 which cut through the social media noise quite effectively.The unique viral spread of Episode 4 resulting in national television broadcast to over one million viewers illustrated the value of what I have called “engagement windows” in this study. I define an “engagement window” as a unique combination of circumstances that open the opportunity for an unusually high level of engagement with the public. In the case of Episode 4 three main factors catalysed this engagement window:1.The presence of a vocal anti-vaxxer movement in Croatia.2.The outbreak of measles in the Croatian population.3.The need for a credible scientific voice in the public debate.The combination of these three factors led to high levels of engagement with the video, viral sharing and national broadcast among the population. However such an opportunity was only able to be taken advantage of after extensive preparation. An enthusiastic core audience needs to built in advance of such times in order to reach a critical mass of supporters and trigger network effects and viral sharing when a window of opportunity arises. This can be achieved with consistent offering of valuable media content to supporters through social media which builds relationships and support for a project. This needs to be a consistent, regular (daily if possible) effort throughout a project in order to generate real engagement and support, not an afterthought at the end of a project.Another important lesson I learned was that the public engage more readily with content which is positive, entertaining and fits in with their current interests. Many use media as a means of escape from the harsh realities of daily life and do not want to engage with heavy subject matter while looking for escape and entertainment. This was reflected in the very low engagement with the episode on “Ageing and Dying”. Clearly many global health topics deal with serious and sometimes tragic subject matter. In such cases creative approaches to communicate inspiring stories of the action taken to solve problems and improve the lives of others in difficult circumstances may prove effective. Long-term engagement with viewers needs to be fostered through primarily positive interactions as audiences become fatigued with traditional guilt-based or negative emotional appeals. The often light-hearted, positive and pro-active approach of Bill Gates personal blog is an excellent example of how to deal with difficult topics in a positive way.Having a narrator with an authentic scientific background gave credibility to the message in the videos, the value of which was reflected in the comments posted in the online news portals. In other areas of popular science many of the most effective popularisers have a significant background in research and study. The global health community has a unique voice to contribute to public debate but few public facing figureheads to create a strong media identity. The values of science, equality and equity, technology and long term perspective were the key messages we instilled in each episode and led to a favourable reaction from the public. Many of these insights are reflected to some degree in social media marketing research indicating that these are not necessarily specific to global health promotion. The global health community could benefit greatly from adopting some of the social media marketing strategies currently being used in the commercial world. An interdisciplinary approach to public engagement could successfully combine the work of highly skilled creatives with academics. Through a combination of these strategies and more to be identified the global health community could approach its engagement with the public as an on-going mutually beneficial interaction distilling complex long term development goals into entertaining content which gradually invites the audience to a deeper understanding of global health issues.