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Who knows me? – Digital Marketing and Public Health

July 8, 2018

I recently ran a workshop with the National Institute for Public Health in Slovenia as part of a piece of work that I am doing with the UK Health Forum. They were interested in exploring what action could be taken to address the growth in digital marketing aimed at children and young people – particularly with regard to fast food and alcohol. This is about vulnerability – and of course could also apply to adult mental health in particular.

Slovenia is part of a WHO working group on this topic. Its challenging for a number of reasons; digital doesn’t respect borders, there are issues of vulnerability and rights, governments  are comparatively inexperienced in this field.

Capability and Strategies

Public Health is only just beginning to work out strategies that will enable it to respond effectively to digital marketing. It does seem that the default is probably to focus on legislation to reduce the scale and reach of marketing.

Other strategies include restricting the means to access social media in areas that are controlled by the state – such as banning smartphone use in schools. Of course more authoritarian countries like China or Turkey simply prevent access to some websites altogether.

Targeting and Data Harvesting

One of the the reasons that social media is so attractive is because messages can be tailored to specific populations and individuals. So, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc all target us with adverts that mirror our interests and buying habits – I am getting a lot of adverts for whisky, british made clothes and obscure beers at the moment!

Much of this is informed by companies harvesting and then sharing data about us – an example is Experian who hold financial information about more or less every adult and share this (for a price) with companies who are in their club. I wrote about this in 2012 here

This sophisticated approach to targeting material at individuals (to quote experian) can:

“Transform campaigns into intelligent interactions ─ where highly personalised marketing and advertising move your audiences as never before. Optimise advertising and marketing spend, boost conversion, better engage audiences and increase deployment speed.”

The public sector are off the pace here. It is still the case that most public sector digital communication is not tailored or targeted to particular communities or people. Most people who are reached are those who have made a conscious decision to join a twitter feed, facebook page or website. This means that much of the communication is with people who are already to some degree interested in the topic or organisation – for example the activity of a clinical commissioning group or a campaign to increase levels of physical activity.

Compared to the size of population and the reach of social media these interactions are small beer.

What can be done?

Build on Assets

The reason that companies use advertising and social media in particular is because they want to compensate for the fact that they do not have a strong relationship with individuals in the real world.

The strongest relationships that people should have are directly with their friends, families and communities. Counterintuitively one of the best strategies is to focus on the local. This is where agencies such as local authorities, the NHS and the voluntary and community sector have the assets and connections that can help them combat the reach of digital media providing an alternative and offering training in how to use it safely. This means that it is crucial that there is continued and greater investment in programmes such as Social Prescribing, Health Trainers, Community Health Champions and grass root community organisations.

it is interesting that the Good Things Foundation which promotes the use of digital advocates using precisely these assets which it calls “four jewels of inclusive communities” (Relationships, Participation, Independence and shared sense of place and culture) with the aim of building digital literacy and enabling people to use digital technologies to promote wellbeing.

Tailor Data to audiences

I do think that public sector agencies need to consider their position with regarded to tailored and targeted digital communications. Should they be seeking to connect more with real world organisations and their digital channels – for example mosques and churches? Should they be buying access to data from companies like Experian to produce their own tailored programmes?

What do you think?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jeremy permalink
    July 8, 2018 10:29

    Good points. We just need a LOT more discussion here. Feel that the forces of good remauin way off the curve for many good reasons.

  2. Chris Brookes permalink
    July 9, 2018 12:19

    Public Health is in its infancy when it comes to thinking about marketing. I worry that we are still in a world where because an advert doesn’t actually say drink beer and you will be more socially succesful, we think of advertsing as broadly benign. However the recent penetration of clothes brands (Superdry, Jack Wills, A & F and even North Face – other labels are available) tells us that there is something far more subtle going on. And then we think about how marketing takes place in the digital world. How do we both harness the potential power to promote public health actions – and reduce the potential harm from health harming products? It is also an interesting question whether enabling advertising itself is in some fashion damaging – it is after all a one way conversation between business and an individual. We somehow need to co-opt advertisers to work with and for public health!

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