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To change health behavior, tell a story- Lessons from the National Conference on Health Communication, Marketing, and Media

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Last week, our team attended the National Conference on Health Communication, Marketing, and Media in Atlanta. This year’s conference theme was “what’s your story?” and the focus was on learning how to best incorporate stories into health communication. Storytelling is one of the earliest forms of communication, and incorporating it in your marketing can have a powerful influence on behavior change.


So, what was our story at the conference? I presented on Indirect Marketing and Youth Smoking Intentions as part of the Quantitative Audience Research to Inform Youth-Related Public Health Communication and Policy breakout session, and we were busy as a conference sponsor and exhibitor. Not too busy, of course, to attend some great sessions that stressed best practices we can really get behind (and that have been near and dear to our team’s heart for many years).

  1. Tell a story: Fact + emotion = story. Eric Ratinoff from Act3 spoke about the misconception that facts speak for themselves in health communication. His work with a medication home delivery service demonstrated this—enrollment in the program substantially increased once messaging was reframed and showcased real program users discussing their reasons in using the program. He found that the facts often fail without the additional emotional support because individuals create their own internal stories on a subject despite what the facts may say. It is only in telling them a different story that you can create change—for example, the Michael J. Fox Foundation was successful in providing increased funding for Parkinson’s disease and Magic Johnson’s HIV positive announcement helped reduce the perception that HIV/AIDS could not be transmitted heterosexually.
  2. Speaking of facts, the best stories (at least in public health) are grounded in science and data. Perhaps one of the most inspirational themes from this year’s conference was an appreciation for the role of research in the development of impactful health communication interventions and initiatives. Cynthia Baur of CDC spoke about the inspiration she gets from a science-based process toward clear communication. Rebecca Brookes from the Vermont Department of Health shared her experiences working on a research-based smoking cessation campaign that sparked increased calls to the quit helpline and more web traffic. Their success was due to conducting research to fully understand what information their target audience wanted and how they wanted it. We often hear people say they wish they had the funding to incorporate research into their campaigns—as an added bonus, we heard how 802Quits leveraged such an approach on a small budget. In example after example, speakers shared tips on leveraging data throughout the campaign development process – from audience segmentation to message development and testing to evaluation. If you’ve been following our posts, you know that was certainly music to our ears!
  3. Speaking of emotion, research doesn’t mean your story is emotion-free. In fact, it can mean quite the opposite. Communication research allows campaign developers to tell stories in ways that will move their audiences. Understanding an audience’s values, motivations, and barriers allows us to connect with people on an emotional level – far more effective than top-down education alone. For example, Sjonna Paulson from the Oklahoma Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust spoke about their smokeless tobacco campaign’s success in generating helpline contacts. By seeking to understand smokeless tobacco’s cultural significance in their community, they were able to craft a message that would resonate with their population and prompt them to action. And, message testing isn’t just about the fact piece of the puzzle either. We didn’t hear much about this specifically at the conference, but look for upcoming posts on how we’re starting to measure emotional resonance.

Fors Marsh Group Exhibits at CDC NCHCMM

A huge thank you to all those who planned, organized, attended, sponsored, and presented at this year’s conference. Our calendars are marked for 2015!

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