Why the best public health campaigns use audience testing to guide messaging.
Communicating to the public about health topics is often part art, part science: research-backed theories meld with innovative thinking. The result? Messages and products that move people to act in ways that benefit their overall health and wellbeing.
When done right, health communications campaigns—you know, those ads you see on TV or at bus stops encouraging you to get screened for colon cancer, stop smoking, and not drink and drive—borrow artistry from the commercial marketing world but use science-based strategies that are meant to change your behavior.
But finding that balance between compelling and creative is not always easy.
The best public health campaigns, whether the topic is opioid use prevention or autism awareness, tend to:
- Contain a relevant message,
- Include compelling and engaging materials, and
- Reach the intended audience at a time when they’re most receptive
They do this by audience testing, early, often and well BEFORE anything goes out to the public.
So what are some key questions to ask when you have a chance to hear from your target audience about an issue you’re trying to address? Here are some to consider:
- What does your audience know about the problem already?
- How do they feel about it?
- What can they do to solve the problem?
- When sharing draft messages or materials, ask what they think the main message is that you’re trying to get across? How do the materials make them feel (e.g., nervous, scared, offended, energized, encouraged, empowered, confident)?
- Do the materials grab their attention? Are they convincing? Believable? Are they trying to get them to do something? If so, would they do it?
- Are the messages and materials relevant to them?Why/why not?
- What actions, if any, would they take after seeing or hearing your message?
Doing this kind of research and testing your work before it goes out the door doesn’t have to be complicated and expensive. There are cost-effective ways to learn more about an audience, as well as gut check your content before you unveil it to the world.
- Check to see what is published about your target audience and the specific health behavior. Ideally, you’ll answer some of your core questions based on research other people have already done. Take a look to see if there are any proven strategies to reach your target audience or message frames that are more effective for communicating about your health topic.
- Don’t start from scratch. Scan for other health communication campaigns that have similarities (e.g., overlapping topics, similar audience) to your effort. Capture as much guidance as you can from others that can inform your work. And be on the lookout for existing national campaigns, either from federal health agencies or nonprofit organizations that offer opportunities to adapt the campaign and messages to your specific needs.
- Meet your audience where they are. Leverage times when those you’re trying to reach are already getting together (e.g., students at a school assembly, community members at a town hall meeting, colleagues at a conference or workshop). Plan ahead to see if you can take 5 minutes to ask them a few questions about a message or concept you’re working on; or 30 minutes to facilitate a more in-depth discussion.
- It is better to test with some people than no people. Aim to test with a representative sample of your target audience, but if you can’t get that, take advantage of any opportunity to talk with them, even if your research sample isn’t perfect. Sharing tagline concepts for your campaign with even a few people is better than nothing and can still identify any major red flags.
- Use low-cost and free research tools. For example, SurveyMonkey offers a free account that includes an online survey and basic analysis, making it easy to administer and collect responses.Share the survey link with your target audience in Facebook groups or listservs that you know your audience uses. Or ask partners or others with access to the audience to send the survey link out on your behalf.
Why is testing so important? First, it lets you understand the issue you’re working on from the audience’s perspective and tells you what they think. Second, it helps you find the right words and phrases to use when talking about the issue with your audience. You’ll also learn how your audience likes to get information—in-person, via social media, from a trusted third-party, all of the above, etc.? Finally, audience testing minimizes risk. The worst possible outcome of a public health communications campaign is what we call “unintended consequences” – the possibility of making the problem worse. Testing makes sure that never happens.
Whether you’re developing a full health communications campaign or simply looking to create new and engaging content as part of an existing effort, testing can mean the difference between something that sticks and something that falls flat.