Creating global health messages that work

Written by Mychal A. Voorhees, MA, health literacy & community outreach coordinator at the Bernard Becker Medical Library of the School of Medicine

One of the key components of any health program is communication. How do we let people know what we are trying to do? How do we get people involved? How do we get people to change?

While every potential audience we work with is inherently different, many of the same principles apply when we talk about creating communication and messaging that works. Regardless if your audience consists of college-aged males in St. Louis or expectant mothers in a remote village in Bolivia, it all comes down to knowing your audience. Here are a few things you’ll want to learn about your target audience before you plan any health communication strategy.

Talk to those who influence the audience.

One of the first things you want to learn about your audience is who influences them. Is there a church leader or community elder they will listen to? Is there someone in the community you need to talk to first? In collectivist cultures, this step can be especially critical.

When health workers from the International Trachoma Initiative (ITI) offered to provide free surgery for village members with trachoma, an infectious eye disease, villagers completely refused to have the surgery. It became clear over time that villagers were upset that social norms had not been observed; village elders had not been consulted prior to the community surgery program. Once the elders were consulted, the village members were enthusiastic about the opportunity for surgery. (1)

Health workers from the International Trachoma Initiative.
Find out what the audience believes.

One of the most crucial components of developing messaging for your program is finding out what your audience believes. What do they believe about the illness? Where do they believe the illness comes from?

A great example of this comes from the Guinea worm campaign managed by the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia. Members of Guinea worm-infected communities were divided on where the Guinea worm originated. Many believed the worm was the result of a curse by a neighbor or friend. Others thought the worm was given to them by God. (2) It is quite difficult to convince someone to stop drinking contaminated water when they don’t believe it is what causes their illness. The Carter Center used this information to help construct their messaging and education materials.

Talk like the audience.

Find out what words and descriptions your audience uses on a regular basis. Is the phrase “expectant mother” going to resonate with your audience? Or is “baby ma” more appropriate to describe a pregnant woman? Learn how your audience talks. If they don’t understand what you’re saying, the rest won’t matter.

Meet the audience where they are.

Find out: Does your audience have activities or hobbies? Do they go to church? Do they go to school?  What technology do they use? What social media sites do they engage with? Do they participate in community activities? If you find out your target audience is active in a community theater each week, try to integrate your messaging into the theater events. Meet your audience where they are.

Use images and design elements that resonate with the audience.

A key component of health communication strategies relies on images and design elements. Can your audience relate to the images in your communication materials? Do the people depicted in your materials look like the audience you’re trying to reach? Are the background images something your audience has seen before? Use images and colors that draw your audience to the materials in the first place.

Pre-test and revise.

Once you’ve created your messages and materials, be sure to test them with your audience. Pretesting includes asking key stakeholders and a few members of the audience if the messages are clear and understood. If, over time, you discover messages are unclear or confusing, it’s time to step back and make some changes.

The communication process is continuous. It entails dialogue, out-of-the box thinking, and ultimately, building relationships. Getting to know your audience can be a time-consuming part of program planning, but it’s an invaluable step.

Key References:

  1. Zondervan, M., Kuper, H., Solomon, A., & Buchan, J. (2004). Health promotion for trachoma control. Community Eye Health Journal, 17, 57-58.
  2. Cielo Global Health Media, Inc. (2010). Foul Water, Fiery Serpent.
  3. Goldberg, A.B., Ratzan, S.C., Jacobson, K.L., & Parker, R.M. (2015). Addressing Ebola and other outbreaks: A communication checklist for global health leaders, policymakers, and practitioners. Journal of Health Communication, 20, 121-122.