Health Communications Conference: Focus on Audience Research

Three team members from CATMEDIA attended the 11th Annual National Conference on Health Communication, Marketing, and Media, held in Atlanta August 15 – 17. The conference was a collaboration between Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Public Health Information Coalition (NPHIC—committed to “making public health public”), and Society for Health Communication. CATMEDIA is a proud organizational member of the Society for Health Communication, a member-driven organization comprised of health communication professionals, students, and scholars. 

Medical students listening sitting at desk at the university.jpeg

The theme of the conference was “Big Challenges, Real World Solutions,” and common threads throughout the sessions included engagement, empathy, and evaluation. Dr. Katherine Daniel, Conference Co-Chair and Associate Director for Communication at CDC, emphasized the importance of evaluation. She said we must research the audience to find common ground, which enables us to connect and engage with that audience. Evaluation research measures our impact so that we can improve our messaging and further build trust with the audience.

The emphasis on research and data science continued throughout the conference. Dr. Vincent Covelo, Director of the Center for Risk Communication and a member of the World Health Organization’s Global Emergency Public Health Committee, provided insights from the latest brain research, which included: 

  • People want to know you care before they care what you know.
    • Compassion, conviction, optimism - significant tools employed during the 9/11 tragedy.
  • People have differences in their ability to hear, understand, and remember.
    • Cognitive overload – messages must be short, clear, and repeated
  • People focus more on negative information than on positive information.
    • Negative dominance theory – two to three times more emphasis on negative

Dr. Covelo reminded attendees of Ben Franklin’s message from 1797, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” Retention of the message is highest (75%) when we involve the audience and help them learn.

Public Health. Medical Concept with Blurred Text, Stethoscope, Pills and Syringe on Grey Background. Selective Focus..jpegHealth communications, especially public health communications, often include “high concern” situations, risks, and issues. Health emergencies, such as the Zika virus, require that facts be delivered in a compassionate way, aligned with the cultural norms of the audience, delivered, evaluated, and repeated with appropriate enhancements to increase connection and engagement. The objective is to change behavior to lessen the emergency and save lives. For example, in Zika outbreak areas, one communications campaign included a call to action to control mosquitos by removing standing water, spraying insecticide outside, keeping skin covered or treated with topical insecticide, and to use condoms even for an already pregnant woman and her partner since the virus has been found to be sexually transmitted.

With the high stakes in health communications, it is no wonder that there is intense focus on research of all types. Health communicators design research to understand the target audience, so that the organization can connect with members of the audience, earn their trust, and ensure the audience will learn and pass on what they’ve learned to others with a need to know.

Man doing fitness test on exercise bike at the medical centre.jpegOne session, entitled “Data is King: The many faces of campaign research,” included three panel members each discussing how research and data shaped their campaign. The topics included: (1) gamification to increase awareness and preventative behavior regarding HIV; (2) the anticipated communication campaign brought about the court order for tobacco companies to publish “corrective statements” regarding the tobacco firm's misstatements over many decades; and (3) an adolescent campaign regarding the HPV vaccine, which can prevent cervical cancer. Each panel member described formal research designs directed at their target audience, findings of the research, and how the findings would be used to enhance future messaging.

Another message during the conference was that audience segmentation should include psychographics, which measures audience members’ attitudes and interests rather than only “objective” demographic data such as gender and race. For instance, by monitoring social media discussions it is possible to group parents into those that limit the screen time of their children, and those who allow their kids to make their own tech decisions.[i] The data can be further coded to identify level of passion on the topic. With that data, it is possible to target educational messages to one or both groups based on what is important to the members of that group.

Several sessions mentioned the use of video for health communications, including social channels, which allow for better targeting than traditional media. The same careful research is required to ensure video communicates in a way that connects, engages, and inspires to action. Video not only must use the appropriate language, but must also address local vernacular of the target audience.

doctor handshake with a patient at doctors bright modern office in hospital.jpegThere are many details to research, analyze, implement, track and report on. Project management is key throughout the communications process.

It seems we can learn from this gathering of professionals, students, and scholars. As communication professionals, we have a message to share. We must identify the target audience for that message, craft and refine a message that connects with the target audience, and ultimately motivate the audience to take the actions prescribed in the message. All steps of the communication process are dependent on research. After we launch a communications campaign, we must do further research, gather key metrics to determine results, and then continuously learn and improve the message. 

Target audience research can include primary, secondary, and mixed methods research. You can read more about primary research here, and secondary research here. Stay tuned for the final article in the three-part series on mixed methods, which includes data analytics.

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CATMEDIA is an award-winning Inc. 500 company based in Atlanta, Georgia. Founded in 1997, the company specializes in advertising, creative services, media production, program management, training, and human resource management. As a Women Owned Small Business (WOSB), CATMEDIA provides world-class customer service and innovative solutions to government and commercial clients. Current CATMEDIA clients include Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Office of Personnel Management (OPM), and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

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[i] Samuel, Alexandra (2016, March 11). “Psychographics Are Just as Important for Marketers as Demographics,” Harvard Business Review.

Gloria F. Pobst, Ph.D., MBA

About Gloria F. Pobst, Ph.D., MBA

Gloria Pobst helps organizations and work groups drive performance through change management, leadership development, and action learning. She has expertise in both quantitative and qualitative research, including ethnographic methods. You can connect with Gloria via Twitter @GloriaPobst or LinkedIn.

View all posts by Gloria F. Pobst, Ph.D., MBA

Healthcare, healthcare marketing, Marketing

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