Adjusting media tracking to meet the demands of behavior change marketing

As digital media strategists, the first question we ask when writing a media plan is: what are the media metrics for this campaign? When the campaign goal is something clear, concise and trackable – like increase e-commerce sales – the answer to that question is simple. 

However, it's rarely that easy for public health awareness campaigns, where the ultimate goal of the campaign is something that frequently takes years to measure. 

Think: Increase awareness of how tobacco products are marketed to middle and high schoolers. So, the question we are left trying to answer is: 

  • How do we verify that the overall media campaign is effective in helping to achieve goals, and more importantly...
  • How do we prove impact by each tactic and channel?

The good news: although it’s trickier to make a direct correlation to large-scale behavior change metrics, there are key steps anyone working on a public health communications campaign can take to more accurately measure effectiveness. The bad news: it can be tricky and somewhat imperfect.

Step 1: Start with your primary goal

If step 1 is to start with your primary goal, step 1a is to understand your goal by answering some questions, like: to reduce tobacco use among middle and high schoolers, will increasing the awareness of strategies used by tobacco companies help? And if so, what does that look like? Is it enough to motivate parents to talk to their kids about the dangers of tobacco use? Does it mean concerned parents have more frequent and in-depth conversations with their children about the dangers of smoking? 

When it comes to public health, the answer to this question usually ties back to a measured health outcome, such as a reduction in the teen smoking rate. This leads to step 1b: which is to find something to measure. If you have an abstract goal that can be tied to a measurable outcome, you are already well on your way to tracking your campaign’s effectiveness.

Step 2: Know the larger picture, but recognize your limitations

So now that we’ve established the big-picture outcome we can measure, it’s essential to acknowledge where that falls short. In most cases, changes in public health outcomes happen over a long period of time. In the case of a tobacco awareness campaign, you should not expect to see a difference in the teen smoking rate during a single 3-to-6-month media flight – it may take years of consistent messaging before that needle starts to move.

Once you acknowledge those limitations, you can be more thoughtful about how you use that measured outcome. For instance, if you run a campaign to increase the awareness of the dangers of tobacco each year for several years, you will start to see the change in smoking rates that you can tie to the number of new users from paid media who visit your tobacco prevention landing page to learn more.

Step 3: Analyze what you can measure

Since we can’t tie a person who views an ad on say, Facebook, to a reduction in the teen smoking rate in Wisconsin, it’s important to track metrics that can help get us closer to that abstract rate.

In the case of a campaign to reduce tobacco use, we can track a user from ad impression all the way through to key actions on the website landing page. 

If we know a user spends time looking at related content on the website, we also know there is a higher likelihood they will have a conversation with their child about the dangers of smoking, armed with relevant, accurate information. This in turn may help that child decide not to try it and avoid developing a nicotine substance use disorder in the teenage years. And while we can’t be certain that a single pageview directly leads to a young person choosing not to smoke, we do know that greater access to that information can help.

Step 4: Pair the larger picture with your campaign measurement

Now that we know our media tactics are driving real, meaningful action on-site, we can then look at the bigger picture again. If we know that Facebook ads drive the highest number of visits to key educational content on-site, and we see a noticeable change in teen smoking rates, we can be reasonably confident that Facebook ads had a positive impact. 

One of the largest barriers we face in public health messaging is affecting behavior change through communications. Addictions – learned, rote and routine behaviors – are not undone in a single ad. That is why measuring a public health campaign’s effectiveness requires a hybrid approach that marries direct, trackable metrics that can serve as ‘jumping off-points’ to get you closer to an abstract goal. And while it leaves a lot of grey area, when the measurement is thoughtful and the analysis consistent, the combination can bring powerful results.