Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Instagram It! Using Instagram for Public Health

This week's guest post for Pop Health was written by Alyssa Anderson.  She is a Community Health Education graduate student focusing on health promotion and work site wellness. Originally, she thought employee wellness was her niche but soon discovered that social media took 1st place in her heart. Finding ways to weave health promotion, marketing, and communication with social media is her main focus these days. She currently lives on Pensacola Beach, FL, enjoying her slice of paradise on the Gulf Coast. 

Follow Alyssa on Twitter, Instagram, and pin with her here!

There is certainly a wide range of social media channels discussed on Pop Health. However, as I was browsing and chatting with Leah about this guest post, we discovered that Instagram had not yet been covered. I jumped at the opportunity to highlight some public health organizations using this channel. And with the revealing of Instagram Video, the timing just seemed perfect.

A quick search of Instagram revealed that a number of public health organizations are actively using this photo-sharing application.

  • Chicago Department of Public Health (By the way, congratulations to the Blackhawks!)
  • American Public Health Association
  • Austin, TX Department of Health and Human Services (what they did is really great, more to come!)
  • The Red Pump Project (Hey, National HIV Testing Day is June 27!)
  • American Cancer Society
  • The list continues…

While there are quite a few public health organizations on Instagram, their usage differs. For example, Chicago Department of Public Health is sharing mostly promotional messages, such as

It may seem simple and a no-brainer, but these posts have received little engagement. A "like" here, a comment there, but no real involvement from other followers.  In fact, Chicago Department of Public Health only has 195 followers. In a city of 2.7 million, their Instagram is having very little reach.

On the other hand, the Red Pump Project has 905 followers. They promote awareness and education for women and girls about HIV/AIDS using the red shoe as their symbol. Users can tag their pictures with #RockTheRedPump to show their support. Typical posts are from events, putting faces to their movement, and event promotion. Here are a few snapshots:

The images are more colorful and vibrant than those posted by the Chicago Department of Public Health. And some image descriptions have a call to action…asking followers to like and share, comment below, etc. The second picture has 47 likes and most have over 20 likes with comments.

On social media, using calls to action or cues inspires people to do just that. Regardless of the message or reason for using social media, engaging with your target audience is key and helps to expand your reach.

Now, the city of Austin tried something this past April during National Public Health Week. They tasked their audience, the citizens in the city to help them answer a question: What is public health? Instagram users were to snap a picture of what public health means to them in Austin with the unique tag #austinpublichealth.

Such a great idea! Think about it, a photo journey from your target audience about what public health means to them. You could almost use these as unfocused focus groups and see what your audience does with the resources you have provided.

Unfortunately, only 17 pictures were tagged with #austinpublichealth. Bummer.
Here’s what I think could have gone better:

  • Promote, promote, promote! If these pictures were to be part of a larger campaign, creative marketing strategies to get the word out could have been used.
  • Incentives. As much as we want to believe everyone cares about public health, you sometimes have to lead people with a carrot. There could possibly be red tape with giving away prizes to the best picture, but perhaps an award or certificate could have been used.
  • Engage. No other users engaged with the 17 pictures, no one championed the program from the department.

So we’ve seen the good (The Red Pump Project), the bad (Stanley Cup winning Chicago…I’ve got to throw my hometown a bone!), and the different (#austinPublicHealth). The biggest take-away from this would be inviting engagement.

  • Tell people what you want them to do, kindly. Share this post! Double-tap if you think #vaccines rock! 
  • Take interesting pictures. We see your event posters all over town and we’re just as blind to them online as we are in real life. Snap a shot of a child wearing a bike helmet and elbow pads instead of a flyer with Bike Safety Tips listed. 
  • Be a real person. People want to engage with other people, not ambiguous brands or images.
  • Test NEW things. Don’t be afraid to try things out and don’t feel bad if they fall flat! 

And since we are discussing trying new things, have you tried Instagram Video? How do you like it compared to Vine? I think the length is going to be great for public health professionals, much better than a 6 second loop. What sorts of videos would you like to see for #publichealth?

(P.S. Comment below and share this with your friends!)


  1. Hey! We're on there, too!

    Unfortunately, we've not had the engagement we'd like either. We were even giving away tickets to the Jay-Z concert this summer! I wonder if it's because of the content. Our photos are hyper-focused on the condoms, not on anything else. You can see other accounts, though, like Chicago and Red Pump Project are about people living and doing things that aren't specifically approved by the Department. It can get really boring if I know that every day one of the pictures in my feed will be of a condom. Every day. Without fail. In a new spot in the city. Bor. Ring.

    I don't have a solution, but I know it's out there. I'd love if you guys would be willing to chat about the new video aspect of IG, July 16th at 2pm on #sm4ph!

    1. I figured you guys would be on there! Maybe pump some more keywords into your Instagram account to bump up your Google page rank.

      The nature of the content may certainly be a reason why there's been little engagement. Similar to becoming poster-blind to all of the event posters, Instagram users will scroll through images that don't entice them. Maybe coming up with another sort of content strategy would serve you well. Or running an Instagram promotional campaign...maybe like a scavenger hunt for the condom?

      I'll work my schedule to participate in the July 16th #sm4ph chat. I LOVE the new Instagram video and can see many applications for public health. Thanks!

  2. As a federal government contractor, I would love to use Instagram for public health, but we cannot right because we are only allowed to use new media tools that have a federal terms of service (TOS) signed for offical government use. As you can see from the list, Instagram still isn't on it yet: Thanks for the blog post and recommendations for when and if a federal TOS is approved for Instagrams use. Important to note for implementation.

    1. I absolutely understand! I'm currently interning for the department of health in my county and there are many limitations placed on social media. It can be difficult to persuade upper management about the use of social media for public health, but I fully believe that will change. Hopefully sooner rather than later!

  3. A quick update to this thread: Instagram is now available for use by federal agencies!

    I look forward to hearing the implementation/evaluation stories as they become available!

  4. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) is on Instagram! @afspnational