Making social sexy
Fingertips poised over the keyboard ready to ask Dr Google that burning question you’re too embarrassed to ask an actual healthcare professional about? We've all been there.
We’ve all been there.
Fingertips poised over the keyboard ready to ask Dr Google that burning question we’re too embarrassed to ask an actual healthcare professional about. Even those of us in ‘the industry’ get sucked into clickbait and led down dodgy digital rabbit holes full of misinformation that only makes things worse. We leave feeling confused, worried and sometimes poorer, having spent £50 on a miracle cure made of hemp oil and cranberries.
But we do it time and time again because the disappointment of Dr Google is nowhere near as traumatic as the idea of talking to an actual doctor about something intimate or embarrassing. This means we make poor choices and often let conditions get far worse than they need be. Nowhere is this more true than in sexual health.
And this is where the internet, in particular social media, could play a key role in normalising sexual health from an awareness, education, and referral perspective.
Size matters in sexual health
According to stats from January 2021, social networking sites have an estimated 3.6 billion users, with 2.7 billion people using Facebook, 2.3 billion on YouTube, and a mere 1.2 using Instagram.1 With around half the world’s population using at least one platform, no one can afford to ignore social any more. And yes, I’m talking to you healthcare marketeers. We’ve hidden behind our highly regulated status for as long as we can – it’s time to get those feet wet, especially when it comes to sexual health.
Given the popularity of social media across a whole range of demographics, it’s the perfect platform for health promotion, particularly sensitive and stigmatising topics like sexual health, such as:
- Diagnosis and treatment of sexually transmitted infections and diseases
- Advice on (and dispensing of) emergency contraception
- Erectile dysfunction
- Vaginal atrophy and genitourinary complications of menopause
- Vaccination against HPV and hepatitis B
But does social actually work when it comes to health promotion?
The proof is in the posting
Social media marketers love to bombard us with promises of engagement rates, reach and impressions in the hundreds of thousands. But does it actually drive behaviour change – especially when it comes to health decisions?
There’s still a shortage of high-quality evidence for health behaviour change as the result of social media marketing. However, the modest evidence that does exist shows a statistically significant positive effect of social media campaigns on health-related behaviour change.2 Combined with the success of health promotion campaigns outside of sexual health, there is growing evidence that social media campaigns can actually work.3
But first they have to break through the marketing frenzy vying for users’ attention across platforms.
Not another safe sex ad
Research from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) gives us some insight into what people actually want from sexual health campaigns on social. The big takeaway is ‘everyone knows condoms prevent STIs’. What people really want is better access to services; specifically:4
- Information on how to access sexual health services and what to expect when they get there
- Anonymous spaces for conversations with peers and experts about specific issues and concerns
Marketing has a unique role to play here in providing a more holistic experience for sexual health products. This means going beyond the big, beautiful awareness campaign and using social media platforms as not just another media channel, but as sexual health ‘safe spaces’ where meaningful conversations and education can take place.
And this isn’t completely new ground. Brands like Ella One and Viagra Connect have shown that social media can work for industry and patients. And they’ve done it in a grown-up way that focuses on the patient’s experience, not childish humour.
Pharmacies also have an opportunity to expand their role as sexual health advisors and educators, using social media as the driver for their consultation and testing services.
In the last five years, manufacturers of sexual health products have partnered with pharmacies to make the most of Facebook advertising to lower STI rates. This included using Facebook ads to connect people to free home-based STI test kits they can order online, recruit for HPV trials, and answer questions about the HPV vaccine.4
It’s time to make social media the cornerstone of conversations about stigmatised subjects. We all deserve the right to make informed choices about our health – even the parts of it we’re too embarrassed to talk about. Only social media can provide the reach and privacy to make that a reality.
- Statista: Most popular social networks worldwide as of January 2021, ranked by number of active users. Available from https://www.statista.com/statistics/272014/global-social-networks-ranked-by-number-of-users/ Accessed April 2021
- Gabarron E and Wynn R. Glob Health Action. 2016; 19(9): 32193.
- Laranjo L et al. J Am Med Inform Assoc. 2015;22(1):243–256.
- Technical Report: Utilising social media to support HIV/STI prevention: evidence to inform a handbook for public health programme managers. Available from https://www.ecdc.europa.eu/sites/portal/files/documents/social-media-use-to-support%20HIV-STI-prevention-evidence-for-public-health_0.pdf. Accessed April 2021