Monday, 15 November 2010

Can Social Media Drive Positive Behaviour Change?

Social media marketing commonly uses the medium to leverage the power of our friend networks to drive purchase, get users to engage with a brand/campaign or spread recommendations. While examples of the power to drive behaviour through community engagement are readily available for brands, NGOs, political parties & charities, does the power of social media extend to positive health behaviour for users?

Our decisions about behaviour don't just come from internal factors, but are shaped by a variety of external sources, such as peer reference groups, family and the local community/culture.

In real life networks, the choice to exercise more, give up smoking, eat healthier or save more money can be influenced by those around us. The readiness to share these personal positive initiatives may be tempered by the closeness of the relationships we have with others, but generally, these can be shared experiences across our family, friend, professional or acquaintance networks. Given that the power of social networking is moving these relationships online, regardless of geographic barriers, shouldn't our positive decisions become even more incentivized?

The amount of information online supporting positive behavioural efforts is vast, with sites such as Webmd, blogs on nutrition, Facebook pages for NGOs such as the American Lung association and twitter pages for those ready to provide fitness advice. Going beyond just providing information, and reinforcing activity, seems to limit the amount of sources slightly.

 Foursquare's Healthy Eating Badge encourages healthy dining options...

Location based social networks (LBSN) such as Foursquare provide good examples in the form of their current campaigns with Runkeeper (providing badges to those who run certain amounts) and CNN on healthy eating (providing badges to those who check in at various Farmer's Markets & other locations). Promotions such as these take the search for information and incentivize activity, but what about aiding decisions and committing to them?

This rather quick analysis of phrases on twitter, shows how quickly 750 messages with these certain positive phrases are generated. Confounding tweets selling products aside, we see that most positive phrases are present in various amounts on Twitter.

The way a user shares such decisions, be it to start running or give up smoking, may vary across networks , though organic conversation seems to be the most basic vehicle for such an announcement. Just as telling fiends in person about our decisions is a tacit license to provide encouragement and engage in our efforts, doing so online, hopes to encourage those within our social group. The reach and timeliness of communication through social media is useful, but do users leverage the lasting power of relationships to enhance their health decisions?

Looking at Facebook Applications for positive health choices (Fitness (both eating & running), Smoking, Finances & Sobriety), I found 44 examples of non-quiz based applications for sharing and committing to a positive behaviour

Facebook applications are a strong candidate for sharing and committing to a positive health change, as they automate sharing progress, track data well and hold the capacity to engage friends. Looking at 4 major categories (becoming fit, saving money, quitting smoking and sobriety/substance related issues), there seems to be an indication that many different applications have built small user bases on Facebook.

Overall, the most popular applications found were Cardiotrainer (78,623) & Nike+ Run Tracker (29,786) -- (full list below). Beyond the top few applications though, a heavily fragmented sample exists. On average, each application has 3,685 MAU, but 420 with top 5 applications ignored. Usage of applications seems to mirror the expected social readiness to reveal such a decision to your friends (in both real life and online), with diet & fitness issues trumping the more serious money & substance abuse issues.

Looking at the anecdotal data from both Facebook & Twitter, it seems that both online and offline channels are regulated by similar social norms when it comes to behavioural choices. This isn't too surprising, as the way which we consider online network behaviour has moved closer to the real world in recent years. While social networking may increase the reach of our friend networks, the implications for behavioural choices and announcements frequently reverberate into the real world, meaning that influence on our choices involves both.

Does this mean that social networks don't have a greater capacity to drive positive health choices? Probably not. The issue seems to involve bringing users outside of a current network in around the choice, less than using existing friends to reinforce it. Communities of runners (either in forums, on apps, or just conversing) reinforce running behaviour, more so than non-running friends probably would. The same could possibly be said for dieters or those quitting smoking online, the shared experience between individuals in those sub groups may grant a greater authority on that specific topic.

WeQuit's Facebook app may have motivated some users during its launch on 'No Smoking Day', but its current user base (98 MAU) shows the challenge in using network involvement to drive lasting interaction around positive behaviour in social media.

So what does this mean for companies or app developers hoping to build a community to drive positive behaviour? It points to developing strengths from networking users around a shared interest, using search, collaboration and matchmaking features over the ability to post to existing networks. The power of the news feed or wall post to drive users in may work for social gaming, but it doesn't seem to be there yet in social positive health.


Full list of Positive Health FB applications analyzed:

Application Name MAU Category
Cardiotrainer 78,623 Fitness
Nike+ Running Monitor 29,786 Fitness
Map My Run 21,756 Fitness
My Diet 11,636 Fitness
Quit-o-meteR 3967 Smoking
Fit-ify! 3,297 Fitness Fitness Log 3,034 Fitness
CalorieStory Food Diary 2,286 Fitness
Healthseeker 1,468 Fitness Daily Dares 1,011 Fitness
Change Reaction 785 Fitness
No Smoking! 672 Smoking
Weight Watchers Tracker 470 Fitness
Weight Challenge 465 Fitness
MyMoney 383 Finances
Healthy Lungs 361 Smoking
Calorie Counter 269 Fitness
NHS Healthy Living 239 Fitness
How much money did I save since I've quit smoking? 162 Smoking
Quit Smoking Counter 158 Smoking
Stop Smoking 148 Smoking
Quitclock 144 Smoking
Quit'n'Tell 128 Smoking
QuitTracker 128 Smoking
WeQuit 98 Smoking
Feed the 81 Finances
Spark Your Life Activity Tracker 69 Fitness
Quit Smoking 69 Smoking
iChallenge Fitness 60 Fitness
Nutrition Data 59 Fitness
Virtual Smoker 58 Smoking
Sobriety Chips! 46 Sobriety 41 Finances
With a little help from my friends 30 Smoking
Split Bills 24 Finances
Healthy Steps 21 Fitness
Blast n Quit 18 Smoking
Sober Gifts 18 Sobriety
How addicted are you to cigarettes 17 Smoking
Cybercise 15 Fitness
Quitters 15 Smoking
Gimmepleez 11 Finances
Smart Saver 10 Finances
Yousustain 10 Finances