Instagram Outreach Strategies

Topics: mHealth Smoking Cessation
Social media is a powerful tool for exposing large populations to information because of the easily accessible audience base. Social media outreach, or seeking contact with individual users through direct and personalized messages on social media platforms, provides an opportunity to expand the reach of evidence-based resources for public health issues. The National Cancer Institute’s Smokefree.gov uses this form of social media intervention to reach smokers who are trying to quit. Quitting can be disheartening, and smokers do not always proactively seek out support. Individualized outreach through social media enables organizations to actively reach out to smokers who may not otherwise find the appropriate resources. Personalization is important when dealing with complex emotions and decisions, and this strategy allows for customized messaging and delivery. For these reasons, the National Cancer Institute’s Smokefree.gov initiative has integrated an outreach technique into their social media strategy to better meet the needs of their target population.
The Smokefree.gov initiative uses a personalized outreach strategy to directly connect Digital Engagement Specialists (DES) with quitters through Instagram. Our target audience consists of Instagram users based in the United States who post about smoking cessation goals. Users are identified by searching hashtags commonly accompanying posts about cessation, such as #QuitSmoking and #Smokefree. Posts that come up during these searches are published by users on public accounts without privacy settings and restrictions and are in the public domain. Posts are most frequently about smokefree milestones, struggles during a quit attempt, or an upcoming quit date. 
To effectively reach the target audience while protecting the credibility of the Smokefree brand, it is necessary to identify exclusion criteria for post selection. The Smokefree.gov Initiative does not reach out to users whose posts mention: 
  • Solely or mostly e-cigarette use 
  • Smoking marijuana or other illicit substances
  • Profanity, nudity, or profane gestures 
These criteria help the DES make case by case decisions. A user who mentions e-cigarettes as one of their quit methods in an otherwise appropriate, cessation-focused post, for instance, would still fit within our target audience. A user who is advocating for the use of e-cigarettes as a quit aid would likely respond negatively to outreach efforts, and would not fit within our target audience. Similarly, profanity and nudity within posts suggest that the user may engage inappropriately with the SmokefreeUS Instagram account. At a minimum, the DES looks at the image and accompanying text of the post in question and the profile picture and username of the user in order to manually screen for these exclusion criteria. In some cases the DES may decide to check the last few posts from the user, the user’s bio area, or the content of one or more of the hashtags used in the post. Avoiding users and posts that have one or more of these exclusion criteria serves to focus outreach efforts on a specific target audience and to protect the reputation of the SmokefreeUS brand.
Once a user is identified and screened for exclusion criteria, a DES crafts a personalized, positive, and supportive message, which they post as a comment under the individual’s cessation-related photo. The comment comes directly from the SmokefreeUS Instagram account; it is presented to the user as a comment from @SmokefreeUS. The comment responds to or acknowledges something specific about the post and is designed to reflect one of the following key messages of the Smokefree.gov initiative: 
We have resources designed to help you quit: You can quit, and Smokefree.gov can help. You don’t have to invent a method or plan. We’ve done that part for you — just commit. Come make a plan now to set yourself up for success. 
Quitting is worth it: Quitting smoking is not as easy as flipping a switch. But you’re going to be so happy you did it once it’s behind you. It’s worth it. You’re worth it. Your family and friends are worth it. Quitting smoking is a bold step toward living a healthier life – and having more money in your pocket.
There’s more than one way: If one quit method didn’t work for you, another one might; there are lots of proven ways to quit. Come find out what will work for you.
You can try more than once: It may take you several tries to quit for good, but you can view the first tries as practice quits. The important thing is that you are prioritizing your health — whether it’s the first, second or tenth time you’ve tried quitting, we’re here to help you until you succeed.
We can help with other healthy lifestyle goals, too: When you quit, you may be interested in making other healthy changes, or be worried about your weight. We can help with that, too. Making healthy food choices and staying active can also help with staying Smokefree.
Example Outreach
  smokefreeus "@username Congratulations!! That’s a big milestone and it sounds like you’ve found some great ways to  handle your cravings. We’re so proud of you!"
  username "Thank you so much. Thank you for this account. It’s super cool to have a place to come & vent, share & learn how other successful non smokers become just that. Thank you all. Y’all ROCK!"
Initial outreach and continued communication is tracked so that the DES can follow up with the user and provide resource suggestions when appropriate. A simple document that contains the username, post link, and date is sufficient for this tracking process. When a user responds to the outreach, that can be marked with a “Yes”, “x” or check mark in a free space next to the user information. 
There is a delicate balance between personalization and perceived privacy infringement when it comes to using social listening tactics to find specific members of a target audience. It is important that this strategy is implemented by a DES with a strong understanding of social media etiquette and norms. Some standard best practices are: 
  • The DES should not engage with users who seem aggressive or non-responsive.
  • The DES should not reach out to the same user more than once within a two month time frame (this can be checked through the tracking process outlined above). 
  • The DES should ask for permission before sharing pictures or quotes from a user’s profile (even though there are no legal restrictions on the use of public Instagram content). ​
  • Language choice should be kept friendly and casual but maintain a level of professionalism that makes it clear that conversation is optional. The user should be confident that they will not be contacted again if they do not choose to engage. ​
  • Finally, customized comments should be used to distinguish meaningful outreach from programmed bots and spam accounts. 
This outreach strategy not only builds awareness about the suite of resources Smokefree.gov has to offer, but also a follower base for the Smokefree Instagram account itself. Having authentic conversation with users establishes credibility as an expert on the subject matter – in this case, tobacco cessation – while also appealing to the users’ desire for connection. Standardized responses are easy to identify and do not establish this type of credibility or satisfy this need.
Exploring options for personalized messages should be at the forefront of social marketing strategies for behavioral change. While chat bots and emerging artificial intelligence technologies are important (and scalable) areas for exploration, manual one-to-one social media outreach should not be discounted. Using manual outreach is a viable short term and low-cost strategy. To personally reach out to ten users per day, it takes one DES approximately 30 minutes. The insight collected from this outreach is as valuable as the foundation of engaged followers it can build. Understanding what types of messages users respond to is key to building effective automated outreach tools. Public health initiatives and behavior change campaigns can use social media outreach to complement, test, and inform automated outreach investments. establish this type of credibility or satisfy this need. 
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