Monday, April 1, 2013

Writing Public Health Blogs: Do We Get Back What We Put In?

Last week I attended a great webinar hosted by AcademyHealth called: “Traditional and New Methods for Disseminating What Works”.  One of the speakers was Dr. David Kindig and he touched on the evaluation component of writing a public health blog- do we get back what we put in?  As the tweet below indicates, this is an important question for all of our blogs.

My exploration of this question nicely coincides with the theme for this week’s National Public Health Week- “Return on Investment”.  I was initially going to write just my own thoughts, but then decided it would be a much richer piece if I could incorporate input from other public health bloggers.  The following colleagues were kind enough to send me their thoughts:

Elana Premack Sandler: Promoting Hope, Preventing Suicide for Psychology Today
Jonathan Purtle: The Public's Health for the Philadelphia Inquirer

1. How much time do you dedicate to your blog per day/week/month?

Jim: I wish I could post more blogs per week; right now I'm averaging about a post a week (sometimes it'll be 3-4 posts in a week, sometimes no posts for a few weeks in a row). Each post takes about an hour between research, linking and writing. And I've got to be constantly on the lookout for new and time-relevant material.

Elana: When I was writing weekly, I spent 3-5 hours a week researching, writing, editing, and posting (using the content management software, sometimes the hardest part!). I have a background in journalism, so I'm able to write and self-edit relatively quickly. Now that I'm posting only once a month, I probably spend 5-7 hours a month between culling through stories of interest, thinking about the relevance of various topics, writing, editing, and posting. It's actually more challenging to post only once a month, as I get out of practice and have more material to comb through to see what rises to the top.

Jonathan: On average, a 500-750 word post takes me 4-5 hours. I currently post twice a month. I used to post weekly, but the time burden was too much. 

Michael: Approximately one hour per day, mostly devoted to writing my daily posts.

Thomy: I blog as part of my job as an Editorial Assistant/ Social Media Editor for the International Journal of Public Health. When I was focused only on the blog, I dedicated about 4 hours per week (divided between blogging and visiting other blogs/public health sites- to get ideas, keep informed and interact). Since I now also manage the twitter and Facebook accounts, I have reduced my blog time to 2-3 hours per week. 

Leah: I spend about 5 hours on each blog post- between finding the story, writing, and marketing the posts on social media. Since I try to address topics that are hot in the news that week or that day (like Jim says above), I'm constantly on the lookout for relevant stories.  Throughout the week I save all my possible stories/links/ideas on a spreadsheet and pick the best one.  While my posting frequency has varied over the past three years of writing Pop Health, my goal is to post at least once per week.

2. Who is the audience for your blog?

Jim: The blogs that I write are written for professionals in the fields of public health and emergency management. My thought is that I can affect more change by finding and teaching best practices to the people on the ground actually working with the public.

Elana: My blog is read by mental health and public health professionals as well as laypeople interested in psychology, mental health, pop culture, and suicide prevention. Since I blog on a site that does a lot of promotion for itself, I have a relatively wide readership. Each post can generate 500-2000 hits; I haven't done any real numbers-running, but 100-300 hits on the day the post is published is probably average, and then each post accrues hits over time.

Jonathan: The general public in Philadelphia and surrounding areas. Given the size of the health care sector in the region, I like to think health professionals read it as well. I also dream that policy makers read it—although I’m not sure if either health professionals or policy makers read

Michael: Incredibly diverse audience of anti-smoking advocates, groups, and researchers, smokers’ rights advocates, government agencies, tobacco companies, newspaper reporters, stock market analysts, consumers, trade groups, and policy makers.

Thomy: Originally, our intended audience was mainly public health students, as we are affiliated with the Swiss School of Public Health. However, especially through social media, our audience seems to be not only public health students and professionals but also people who just have an interest in public health. Nevertheless, it is not easy to know exactly who our audience is, as we do not get a lot of comments and it is difficult to know who actually reads the blog. We try to engage people to write guest posts for us. This generally works quite well.

Leah: I write for a broad public audience with an interest in public health, pop culture, or both. Therefore, I use it as a platform to breakdown and explain public health/communication concepts (e.g., "teachable moments"; "cue to action"). From the analytics, emails, and comments that I receive, I know that I have a large following among public health professionals, students, and teachers.  I have heard from more than one faculty member to say that they use my blog with their students to demonstrate the connection between public health and their everyday lives (e.g., movies, magazines, advertising).

3. What is the ideal “return/s on investment” for your blogging efforts? 

Jim: I've been writing blogs relevant to public health and emergencies for more than six years. I've found it to be one of the best investments I've made in my career, even with the huge investment in time and effort required for success.  I've found that the best return I've realized is my network of contacts and friends across the country and around the world; none of whom I would've met without being available and "out there" online.

Elana: For me, the ideal return on investment is reader engagement. I really get a lot out of seeing reader comments (the good and the not-so-good) and corresponding with readers via the comments section, or with friends and more personal connections on Facebook when I promote my posts there.

Jonathan: The ideal return is three-fold: (1) A public which understands that health is about more than just individual choices. A public which begins to see the reverberating impacts of social/economic policies, beyond the health care sector, on people’s health. A public which is knowledgeable about trauma theory and research on trauma/stress. (2) Networking. (3) Increased readership. While this is the most measurable, I’m not convinced it means all that much. Who’s reading? How are they reading? How is the information changing their perceptions? Is it at all? We have no idea.

Michael: The ideal “return on investment” is the blog having an actual impact on public policy.

Thomy: Increasing readership and dissemination of ideas is always a good return. We would ideally like to have more engagement in the form of interaction (e.g., comments). Networking is also quite satisfying and really helps broaden our blogging horizons. As a public health journal, we are also interested in disseminating our research articles.  I personally would like to see more and more public health students, researchers and professionals having blogs and engaging in social media to learn new things, disseminate their knowledge, “meet” interesting people and also –why not- for the fun of it!

Leah: Pop Health began as a hobby that just happened to incorporate my field of public health.  Now it has become a key part of my professional portfolio.  Therefore, the key returns are now different than three years ago.  Now, I'm looking for increased readership and referrals to my site.  I'm looking for increased dialogue with readers and colleagues.  I'm also looking for new and exciting professional opportunities (e.g., guest blogging, writing, and teaching) that can emerge by branding my expertise in this niche of public health.

4. Do you measure these “returns”?  If so- how?

Jim: I've seen a tremendous benefit professionally. As a direct result of my online identity and interactions, I've been invited to more than a dozen international, national and regional conferences to speak on those topics I blog about.  But even beyond those personal returns, I've seen a tremendous benefit professionally. Not only am I able to call on friends I've made around the globe to help with ideas for work, but I've grown as a result of being forced to flesh out my ideas. When I write about something, I want it to be well thought-out and considered. By writing these ideas out, I am forced to consider not only my idea, but how it affects other, larger problems...Without writing it out, I would just have a nugget of an idea, no more than that.

Elana: I measure this ROI very unscientifically. I notice which topics generate more interest (both in terms of hits, which are tracked by Psychology Today, and comments) either on the Psychology Today site or on Facebook. I've wanted to get more sophisticated with Google Analytics, but can't do that as I don't actually manage the website that hosts my blog. I've also enjoyed meeting people at professional conferences who recognized my name because of my blog. That really blew me away - it meant that I was really reaching people (not just my Mom!).

Jonathan: tracks usage statistics and sends them to us on a weekly basis. Posts on animals, kids, and pop culture typically do the best.

Michael: Yes, but not formally. I assess the actions of public health agencies and organizations to determine whether the blog seems to be changing their thinking about these issues. I also assess the state of public opinion in the field regarding these issues.

Thomy: We keep track of visitors, time spent on blog (etc.) via Google Analytics and StatCounter. We also monitor the most popular posts and try to have some ongoing themes corresponding to these popular posts.  Regarding the “return on investment” to the Journal, we are trying to monitor whether articles that have been featured in the blog are downloaded more often from our website.

Leah: I have used Google Analytics and Blogger Statistics for measurements like page views, referring sites, and key words used to find Pop Health. I also take note of the posts that stimulate more engagement with readers- I would note that more dialogue seems to take place directly on social media where I market the posts (i.e., Facebook & Twitter) vs. the comment section on the blog itself.  As a result of the blog, I have also been invited to guest write on other sites like The Public's Health- so tracking those opportunities helps me to measure return on investment as well.

Evaluation and Return on Investment are key concepts in public health

With public health professionals constantly being asked to do more with less, it is imperative that we show how our investments are paying off. It is important to think of "investments" broadly- they are not just money...they are our time too.  As you can see from the responses to question #1, creating and maintaining a blog is a huge commitment.  And although we write for a variety of audiences with different goals (ranging from promoting research to trying to impact policy), we share the challenge of trying to evaluate those goals.

Therefore, we need to lead ongoing dialogue about the goals and evaluation of public health blogs. CDC's National Prevention Information Network (NPIN) is continuing its "In the Know: Social Media for Public Health" webcasts this spring and the June 4, 2013 event will focus on Measurement & Evaluation.  I look forward to continuing this discussion there and elsewhere.

Thank you again to Jim, Elana, Jonathan, Michael, and Thomy for your contributions!  I appreciate you making the time and sharing your experiences.

I would like to invite other public health bloggers to weigh in on these questions:  

  • How much time do you dedicate to your blog per day/week/month?
  • Who is the audience for your blog?
  • What is the ideal “return/s on investment” for your blogging efforts? 
  • Do you measure these “returns”?  If so- how?


  1. It's hard to raise the bar and harder still to keep it there. Reading your comments one can see that PH bloggers bring multiple skills to their posts. Participants can read, respond and or continue to explore topics. Blogging is a unique medium that opens the world of PH to larger audiences.

  2. Thanks for an interesting post, Leah. Due to Easter I was unfortunately not able to complete your questions before you posted the blog post. But none the less here are my responses with regards to my blog

    How much time do you dedicate to your blog per day/week/month?
    It’s hard to give a general estimate of how much time I use. It can very from several hours per day to sometimes no activity at all. In the beginning I posted new entries at least once a week and preferable twice. I used the blog as a tool in a research project and the blog posts thus functions both as a form of communication of what I was doing to the world, but almost just as importantly as a web log for myself, helping me keep track of what I was doing and seeing the links between different components of my work.

    Who is the audience for your blog?
    I guess my main audience is people with a public health background, and especially those with an interest in communication. The aim is however to try and target all public health people and make them see the role science communication may play in their work and its significance to public health. Whether I’m reaching these people is difficult for me to know. Through Twitter and can tell that it is being shared among people with a health related background but its very hard to tell. When focusing on specific themes, e.g. social media and disaster preparedness, the target audience is of course a wider, but yet more specific group of people.

    What is the ideal “return/s on investment” for your blogging efforts?
    This is a very tricky question. I know that it matters to me that what I scribble about is actually being read, although much of the writing actually serves as a way for me to structure my own thoughts and therefor doesn’t necessarily have to be read by anyone. However, I must be honest and say that looking at the statistics of how many have accessed the blog post, shared it on Twitter etc gives me a kick and is a motivator for writing. An ideal return of my blogging efforts is therefore that it is being read. Preferable by the right people of course and if they engage with comments it is perfect. But equally or perhaps even more important is the networking returns. Through blogging I have, like the other respondents in this mini survey, expanded my network and made great connections with people I would most like not have encountered otherwise. My connection with Leah Roman is an example here of. It keeps overwhelming me how powerful a tool blogging is in networking. Especially when it is combined with Twitter, Facebook, etc.

    Do you measure these “returns”? If so- how?
    Apart from following ‘my statistics’ I don’t really measure my returns.

    I can only encourage others in Public Health to take up blogging. But be careful its a bit addictive.

  3. Thank you all for reading this week and sharing your thoughts!

    Nina- I'm glad we got to include your answers here in the comment section! Thank you so much for making the time.

    Best, Leah

  4. These are good questions. Sometimes it's better disseminate quality resources and information that other authorities have put together, for example, through Twitter, rather than writing it all from scratch ourselves. Time is precious