The Prevention Collaborative, LLC.
In preparation for disseminating new English and Spanish materials in our Amigos y Amantes project, we wanted to create a social media account to showcase our original content, ideally in a primarily consumer-facing and highly engaging way. Our Facebook page has a steady following and we’re now creating original posts featuring NLM references on our website, but both platforms rely heavily on curating existing resources. Further, our Facebook audience appears to skew more towards other professionals in the HIV prevention and treatment sphere than to at-risk consumers.
To build our new audience, we returned to our Heads or Tails library of content. Originally created in 2013-2015 as online, animated vignettes, in 2016 we adapted the digital content into a print comic book. For this iteration we edited the image layout so they’d fit the Instagram format while breaking the story down into panels, allowing us to tell the story in a serial format, posting 3 to 5 images per day. Because Heads or Tails lost funding earlier than originally scheduled, the story as it existed ended on a cliffhanger. For the 2018 Instagram reboot, we drew from other grants to script and illustrate a closing segment to the story which shows the main characters getting PrEP/PEP counseling, as originally intended, and allows us to bring the story to a close before transitioning to the Amigos y Amantes storyline.
Launched in January 2018, our Instagram account now has over 1,110 followers and continues to grow. Below are some of the considerations and lessons learned from our first 5 months telling this story online:
- Take advantage of scheduling software. Instagram only recently began partnering with social media management websites, which now allows us to post images from a computer (vs exclusively from a phone) and to pre-schedule images to be posted in the future. While we had been using Hootsuite for much of our Facebook content management, we chose Tailwind to publish to Instagram due to its more robust reporting capabilities and insight tools that help us track profile, post, and hashtag performance.
- Choose a “voice” for your account Admin. Our account is targeted at MSM of color, so many followers assume the account Admin is also an MSM of color (the Admin is not). To avoid being misleading, or the appearance of “catfishing,” we always refer to ourselves as “the team” and “our team.” This also allows us to acknowledge the community members who have contributed to our content and has proven useful when followers direct message (DM) the account asking personal questions, e.g. “How old are you?” was answered with, “Our team is all different ages!”
- Be prepared to engage. They don’t call it social media for nothing! We have several strategies for maximizing our communication with our followers, and while this level of engagement can be time consuming the results are worth it. First, we reply to every comment and DM (with the two exceptions listed below), since even posting a quick thank you to a compliment has opened up conversations with our users. Second, we’re prepared with resources to convert those conversations to links to care when appropriate. We routinely share the PrEP/PEP warmline for our partners at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and have an agreement with one of their social workers to share her direct phone number with anyone who needs the referral. Most importantly, a peer educator and trainer from a local mPowerment group agreed to let us tag him in posts we want him to engage with (username @short2clerk in this image). He’ll then join the conversation in the comments and will DM the user to initiate one-on-one outreach.
- Be prepared to disengage. In general, we take every comment and DM as an opportunity to provide health education and links to additional information, and we try to avoid ever deleting a comment or direct message thread. One exception to this rule was a follower who began posting lengthy comments on every image advertising herbal HIV “remedies.” We initially countered those comments with links to more reliable information, but as the unsolicited advertising continued we ultimately felt it was irresponsible to keep that information on our images and deleted the comments as soon as they appeared. Fortunately, soon after we began deleting them, the comments stopped. The second exception to our rule was a group chat the account was added to in which all the members exchanged videos of themselves masturbating, which we also chose to leave once it became clear that there were limited opportunities for health education and/or links to care, and potential violations of privacy.
- Keep it real. Our stories are based on the real lives of our community advisors, and the feedback we’ve gotten from followers reflects how important that’s been in creating narratives that are engaging, relatable, and true to others’ experiences. Our hope is that added credibility then translates to our promotion of resources and services. The stories also feature real providers and scripts are edited by the clinician to ensure both medical accuracy and a positive representation of the care provided at the clinics we promote. For example, we’re able to show HIV specialist Dr. Alwyn Cohall giving his cell phone number to a newly diagnosed patient in case the client has questions, or Nurse Practitioner Emmet Phipps using accessible language in PrEP counseling such as “bottoming” instead of “receptive anal intercourse.” These small cues send big messages about the importance of inclusive, nonjudgmental, supportive medical care, and they were able to follow up and say, “And you can actually experience this is in real life with the team these providers are part of!” And sure enough, just last week, a new client at the clinic said to Dr. Cohall, “I saw you in that Instagram story!”
- Invest in getting followers. Definitely invest time, but also invest money if you can. We pay to boost relevant posts to a wider audience (sometimes as little as $25 at a time); many people who see the boosted posts follow our account and many others simply “like” the post, at which point we’ll follow them and they’ll often follow back. We’re still evaluating our approaches to determine the best ROI, but this strategy was a leader in helping us build a solid fan base quickly. We’ve also had success finding accounts with a similar aesthetic as ours and following their followers; again, many will follow back. Instagram also recently introduced the ability to follow a hashtag rather than a user, and that’s often a helpful way for us to identify like-minded accounts to follow in the hopes of a follow back. Finally, the concept of the follower/following ratio isn’t based on hard science, but as a matter of general housekeeping and account maintenance, every few weeks we do unfollow users that aren’t following us back. There are several apps that allow you to do so relatively easily, we’re currently using the paid version of Followers Pro +.
- Expect the unexpected. Due to the unique nature of our content, we weren’t sure how the audience would react to our posts, or if the concept of the serialized story would even work at all. For example, the story begins with a lot of sexually explicit content before the main characters go to a clinic for HIV/STI testing. Would we lose followers when the images shifted entirely to a health education focus? Would they think it was a bait and switch? Luckily, no. Our engagement and follow rates not only stayed just as high but as of this writing, as seen in this screenshot, the vast majority of our most “liked” images are from scenes in which a newly diagnosed character attends his first HIV support group rather than any of the sexual content.
We also weren’t sure whether the serial format would work well on a platform where you’re constantly adding new followers mid-story. But we do see new followers going back through months of previous content, liking and commenting on older posts as they catch up on the story.
Finally, we didn’t expect the degree to which our followers would pay such close attention our stories and get invested in the characters. Comments from our followers call out characters by name (even though we only occasionally use the characters’ names in the panels), they frequently ask us to post updates faster, and some even noted the one time that Tailwind failed to publish an image — all of our panels are numbered sequentially, and much to our surprise, people pointed it out when we skipped a number even though the story still made perfect sense without it! Now that we know our audience is paying such close attention, we recently integrated a break in the story to present a few facts about HIV, which were also very well received and will soon be boosted to a wider audience.
We’re still developing our promotional and content strategies, but so far as an outreach and engagement tool this approach has been well worth the investment of time and effort and we’re excited to continue growing (and to continue getting great feedback from our followers!).
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