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Image by Brian Suh


By Joe Smyser and Michelle Cox

Part One: Overview

Social media has been presented within the GCP embedded in the discussion of channels and media delivery systems. However, we feel that the topic of social media merits its own module because of its unique role in modern communication. "Social media" is defined as "forms of electronic communication (such as websites for social networking and microblogging) through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, and other content (such as videos)." The broad-reaching and ever-changing nature of social media is suggested by its definition alone. Social media refers at once to communities, the sites those communities are built within, and the creation and dissemination of media. However, social media is constantly evolving and has not always looked like what we see today. The development of social media spaces began in the 1990s. As of 2020, nearly three decades later, social networking sites continue to boast growth in user engagement. Facebook has 2.45 billion monthly users, compared to 1.71 billion in 2016. Other social media platforms record similarly high numbers. As of January 2020, there were 2 billion monthly users on YouTube, 1 billion on Instagram, 438 million on Reddit, 382 million on Snapchat, and 340 million on Twitter [1]. 

​As a public health and social marketing practitioner, it is not enough to simply know that "lots" of people use social media. A deeper understanding of the demographics of users of each site is necessary to design effective campaigns. ​

Broad demographic information for each major social site is available online because marketers and advertisers need it to decide when and where to buy advertising (known as media planning and buying). Though people working in social advocacy typically have very small budgets themselves, they can take advantage of the wealth of information generated by the need to sell advertising. Many social media sites provide a breakdown of their statistics meant for media buyers. Furthermore, Forrester is a major market research company that regularly publishes reports on social media usage, as are eMarketer and Nielsen. The Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan research group, is an excellent source as well. Many advertisers with bigger budgets will purchase access to programs like GfK MRI plus. Such software provides detailed demographic breakdowns to describe consumer behavior, including media usage and product purchasing behavior. Social media evolves at lightning speed, so regular check-in with MashableAdWeekWiredTechCrunchForbes, or any of the multitude of other industry news sources is advised.

Pew Research Center has current statistics for demographic information on U.S. social media users. For global demographics, see the embedded presentation below by We Are Social, a NYC-based marketing agency. There are, of course, many other sources of this information; We Are Social's report is comprehensive, but shouldn't be regarded as the definitive source.

Part Two: Evaluation

Until recently, it was difficult to convince a public health department or agency to use social media. When the CDC's Tips From Former Smokers campaign launched in 2012, it did not have a digital strategy to speak of, much less one for social media. The Tips From Former Smokers campaign was the first federally funded national mass media anti-smoking campaign, with a budget of approximately $50 million. And yet, leadership at CDC was still on the fence about the utility of social media. At the state level, there was reluctance as well; as recently as 2012 there were still state health departments that did not have Facebook pages (now they all do). Industry professionals have been less resistant, focusing instead on optimizing performance and return on investment. Tips From Former Smokers now has a robust digital and social strategy, mirroring a change across public health toward embracing social media. However, public health organizations are now faced with a different problem: what to do once they are on social media.

​It is critical to evaluate the followers of a public health department or agency's social media profiles, as well as the performance metrics of a behavior change or awareness campaign.  At a minimum, campaigns should report:

1. Number of impressions (views of the content)

2. Total engagement, or the number of likes, comments, and shares

        a. The average number of likes, comments, and shares per post

3. Top performing and lowest performing posts on each social  media platform

4. The demographics, if available, for impressions and engagement (including age, gender identity, and location)

5. A sentiment analysis of comments (i.e., a summary of the comments made on a social media platform or content by users). Sentiment analysis can be automated by third-party social media analysis tools (of which there are many; not even the linked list is comprehensive) or done by hand.

If money was spent to promote a post, or on an ad on a social media site, then campaigns should track:

1. The average cost per engagement

2. The average cost per view of any video

3. The number of video completions (i.e., complete views of a video)

During a campaign, there are often "micro-campaigns," or smaller-scale efforts to keep content current and relevant. For example, it is common practice for public health departments to capitalize on holidays and other themed days/months by making posts relating health topics to these larger cultural events (including Black History Month, Breast Cancer Awareness, Colon Cancer Screening Awareness, National Puppy Day, and Mother's Day, among many others). Reporting on these micro-campaigns should be broken out from the rest of social media reporting and evaluating on their own.

For sample social media reports, see's blog (specific to social media and digital content for government agencies), SimplyMeasured's blog (a useful resource for social media news and tips), and a sample report by marketing company Brandwatch. Some third-party social media analytics tools are listed here, in a comparison chart.

A helpful place to begin your training on social media analytics is Facebook, given it is the largest social media site. Facebook's own free analytics tool called Facebook Insights is powerful.  Facebook Insights provides details on the people who follow and engage with your page, as well as performance metrics for each post you've made. Here is a link to Facebook's overview of Insights, and here is a link to Facebook's online training courses.

Another excellent training resource is Hootsuite Academy. Hootsuite is a popular social media management tool; it can monitor multiple social media accounts, track keywords (words users of social media sites have written in their posts), and allows users to schedule and publish posts within its tool rather than needing to go to each social media site individually. The Hootsuite Academy offers multiple courses that cover all social media platforms for free.

It is crucial for new public health and social marketing professionals to be well-versed in social media, as there is still a need to advocate for proper social media use in public health settings. By gaining at least a basic level of understanding for how to maximize social media presence, you will be able to help advance your organization’s efforts and reach. Overall, it is necessary for social institutions to adapt to the ever-changing world of social media to promote public health, social and legal justice, and social change to all.

[1] Hootsuite is another good resource for a summary chart of users of social media and chat sites (some numbers may appear different due to reporting periods).
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