Information Technology for Health Advocacy: American Cancer Society’s Social Media Strategy

One constantly voiced theme for marketing or advocacy in social media: Listen, don’t just talk. (Also, perhaps not coincidently, good advice in effective leadership circles as well.)

So one crude rule of thumb for assessing whether an organization “gets it” is how much their social media strategy emphasizes listening. Interactivity naturally implies responding to what is heard, and advocacy requires some degree of broadcasting information. But listening—while arguably the most important—is often the least intuitive.

To get a sense of how the American Cancer Society (ACS) approaches information technology and social media for anti-cancer advocacy, Justmeans asked them several questions on the matter. David Balcom, Managing Director of Digital Activation, provided the following answers:

Justmeans: What is ACS' view of social media as an advocacy or awareness tool?

A:  "Social media is one channel of many to reach our audience, but it's an effective one for both advocacy and awareness. We maintain a presence on several social media networks, primarily Facebook and Twitter, and use these concentrated networks to listen and to talk. We talk about our programs and our initiatives, we ask our audience to take action, and we listen to what our patients say to us. Since our mission is delivered in a highly distributed way geographically, we employ both local and national social media outlets to deliver and monitor content."

Justmeans: What Role does ACS see for cancer patient-focused information technologies, such as social media, advocacy and support, informed patient decision making?

A:  "Our goal is to serve our patients at their point of need, wherever that point of need is. We're hard at work building and designing digital tools and services to extend our ability to care for our patients. An example includes the creation of a new diagnostic social network that puts cancer patients in touch with others who've shared their experiences. We're also extending our cancer information services to mobile devices, to better deliver where our patients need cancer information. We've aggressively delivered our advocacy calls to action via social media outlets, again to reach our audience where they live and act. All of these examples illustrate an approach that takes advantage of the available channels -- web, social, mobile -- to deliver our core mission."

Talk, Ask, Listen. Deliver, monitor. Sort of like a socially engaged conversation. They are using tools for what they are good for, for the value it provides to their core mission, rather than just “because its there.” Clearly their strategy seeks to harness digital technology’s ability to bring social support and information support to where the patient is, in terms of geographic location, preferred device or favorite social media platform (twitter vs. facebook).

As you might expect, ACS has a large social media following: 235,400 Facebook likes, 142,000 followers on Twitter (@americancancer). Does that translate into effectiveness? Lacking reliable objective metrics for social media effectiveness, or whether such efforts result in better health, that’s likely open to interpretation. ACS has a klout score of 62, if you value that metric, which is in the ballpark of some other large advocacy organizations such as the American Heart Association, American Diabetes Association, and AARP-as well as Justmeans.

Among health journalists, ACS is a go-to organization for cancer information, and their publications are some of the most common sources for data on cancer incidence, prevalence, as well as screening strategies.

Technology, including information technology, also has the potential to produces unintended consequence and challenges for health advocates, but more on that in the next installment of this story.

(Furthering public health mission, ACS' upcoming Corporate Impact Conference will explore workplace solutions for building a healthy workforce.)

Photo credit: Facebook, Twitter, ACS