Trying to drive behavioral change and spur advocacy around a complicated topic like obesity with limited resources is the type of challenge that requires a complete re-thinking about how to engage teens. This was the challenge with the implementation of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health's "Youth Activism Against Obesity" (YAAO) campaign.
The primary mission of this campaign, developed as part of a larger statewide Healthy Eating Active Communities program, was to increase middle and high school students' awareness of healthy eating habits.
In-depth market research, including surveys and focus groups, into our teen target audience provided us with some interesting insights:
• Youth are generally willing to get behind a cause that they consider worthy.
• They show a communal, almost "tribal" group behavior.
• Advice from adults is not cool (i.e., "Say No To Drugs," "Eat healthy").
• They're digital natives, social networkers and "natural-born texters."
We knew that if we were to be successful, we needed to avoid sounding like adults telling youth what to do. We had a huge opportunity to tap into pre-existing conversations (many occurring through social networking) if we were willing to approach this audience differently.
Our strategic approach to the YAAO program was simple yet radical - become part of the content. Instead of broadcasting one-way messages at teenagers, YAAO strove to engage teens in a conversation.
When we began developing the YAAO campaign, "We're Fed Up," http://www.werefedup.com/ there was a peer-to-peer framework already in place to leverage. Two Los Angeles County high schools had each recruited 40 youth leaders to spearhead the effort and essentially serve as our client. They guided the creative and brand platform and now "own" the marketing message --- a social media program in its most organic state --- created for and by smart, savvy, well-informed teens.
YAAO's campaign revolves around a social network that leverages a "hub and spoke" model. We decided to use the technology available to build a custom social network "hub" that focus on our obesity issue. Then we created strategic branded "spokes" on key social platforms popular with teens, including MySpace, YouTube, Flickr and Facebook.
Although YAAO was developed as a social media campaign, it needed to tell a story. The campaign, as with any other traditional ad campaign, required a compelling message that captures youth's attention, has a clear purpose and is believable. Our message was clear and impactful:
"Be aware that there are a lot of factors working against you and your community's health and well-being. You have the power to take responsibility, speak up, raise awareness, organize and drive real change in your community and beyond."
Our central idea was simply, "Don't eat everything you're being fed."
The idea was encapsulated in a branding platform the youth helped us develop:
Facing a limited budget (less than six figures for paid media), we also had to think outside the box when crafting the media strategy. Specifically, we focused our paid media and PR around "igniting a spark" to generate buzz and build a sizeable community of users on WereFedup.com.
Social media, in addition to being the foundation of the campaign, is an integral part of our media strategy. We are using social media to increase participation and involvement, specifically to seed and grow conversations and drive student ownership of these discussions. With a limited media budget, social media is the key to turning the spark into a viral movement.
What We've Learned
"We're Fed Up" officially launched Oct. 17 and has shown early promise. As of the writing of this column, we have more than 420 active members on the social network, where 339 pictures have been added, 217 blogs posted, 76 videos uploaded and 16 active forum discussions have started. We have added a weekly "guest blogger" program and adjusted the campaign strategy significantly during the past few months, including integrating a mobile component. In addition to measuring site activity, we are tracking social media "conversations" and have employed a sophisticated two-prong longitudinal study to measure behavioral / attitudinal change and ultimately the success of the campaign.
While we have learned countless lessons and made miscalculations in developing "We're Fed Up," the biggest takeaway is that there is no magic bullet or one-size-fits-all approach to engaging teens. Instead, I encourage marketers to be prepared to alter their process and approach to be in the best position to succeed. Specifically, apply these "strategic" best practices whenever possible:
• Work early and often with your target audience. They can provide invaluable guidance and feedback in developing and optimizing your campaign.
• Give up control. The more you're willing to give up, the more likely you'll be successful.
• Be prepared to adjust / change your strategy --- often quickly.