November 12, 2014 – American Institutes for Research hosted a panel discussion entitled Power or Promise: Do Online Health Campaigns Impact Offline Behavior at the Carnegie Institute in Washington, DC. The panel, comprised of representatives from Google, THINK Interactive Inc., The National Cancer Institute, and User Insight discussed the progression of consumer-oriented outreach in the realm of health education and developments in linking online knowledge with offline action. American Institutes for Research (AIR) is a non-profit social and behavioral science research organization, established in 1946. AIR has provided reports to numerous institutions including the Department of Education, the US Army, and the Haitian Ministry of Health.
This particular panel explored the future of public health campaigns by better comprehending the present state of mass health education in the public sphere. Galen Cole, principal researcher of the Health and Social Development Program at AIR, introduced the audience to the situation at hand, specifically the importance of communicating efficiently with respect to the need for social research to focus health professionals to the needs of the public. Previously, health experts pushed out large quantities of health information without receiving any information of the effectiveness of their campaigns. The current state of social communication allows for two-way communication that better aligns health providers and educators to the needs of consumers.
As health campaigns move into the digital sphere, reliable information on the effectiveness of campaigns is difficult to measure. Panelists agreed that public sector health institutions must depend on developments from the private sector to impact change on the lives of consumers. Furthermore, panelists confirmed there is need for health institutes to collaborate more in order to share information and move away from the separate information silos that are common today.
Despite the vast amount of information consumers provide online, it is still difficult to extrapolate the effectiveness of health campaigns using online information. One of the ways, health professionals attempt to understand consumer behavior in the realm of health is through analysis of trends in search queries. Google’s Public Sector Accounts Executive Roy Daiany described Google’s role in measuring the effect of online campaigns. Daiany describes Google’s measurement process as oriented around three aspects of consumer access; see, think, and do. Measuring if ads and campaigns are seen is complex. It is estimated that half of the digital ads placed are not seen and tracking the visibility of ads outside of consumer interactions, such as clicks or likes, is difficult to pin down. For the think aspect, digital marketing tracks awareness and interaction on ads. The do part, or the behavior of consumers, can be tracked by search histories. Google did this to investigate the effectiveness of ads which highlighted the health risks associated with tobacco use. Google found that people who received the ad were 60 percent more likely to later search for information on quitting tobacco use. Though this study was useful for understanding the online impact of digital ads, it is less helpful if determining if any those users went on to actually quit smoking.
In this endeavor the panelists were optimistic about gleaning information from mobile sources. The opportunity to contact consumers through the use of mobile technology such as cellphones and wearable tech like Google Glass or Fitbit is an area of much interest for health professionals. Interaction through mobile and wearable technology would allow public health professionals real time influence and feedback on public behavior in relation to health.
The panelists also discussed the ethics of social marketing in the realm of health education and how to properly ensure consumer protection. Though statutes, which protect patients during health related research, regulate the practices of pubic sector institutions, the lines are less clear as the public sector becomes more dependent on private sector marketing techniques. The panelists discussed how consumers become desensitized to providing information to online sources. Kevin O’Connor of User Insights highlighted that in the past the concept of putting a credit card number into an online site was unthinkable but today is common practice. The idea is as consumers provide more information they will be less cautious about the information they are willing to provide. The panelist discussed how the regulations which protect patients should be extended to ensure consumers have rights whether they want them or not. This would include broadening HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) so that private sector data collection must be held to the same standard as government funded research.
To conclude the discussion, the panelists highlighted digital media’s position as a learning system. It was highlighted that implementing effective health campaigns requires understanding of the social atmosphere in which these campaigns will be launched.