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Can digital communications boost behaviour change?

By Lorraine Walters and Federico Marchisio

Adopting new, healthy behaviours – or breaking old, bad habits – can be hard to sustain, but as both communication and support tools move almost exclusively online, will this shift to digital or mobile platforms make sustained behaviour change easier to achieve?

Mobile phones and digital comms channels are incredibly powerful tools, influencing decisions and providing support at every stage of the behaviour change process. Technology offers unprecedented opportunities to reach, monitor and keep users on track, and it is encouraging to see public health bodies embracing the digital revolution.

Digital health interventions

New NICE guidelines, published in October 2020, highlight goal planning, monitoring and social support as the components to focus on when developing digital health interventions. However, for us, it is personalisation that can make or break behaviour change programmes.

Using a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach can result in poor uptake or even backlash, such as Cancer Research UK being accused of fat-shaming while trying to raise awareness of the link between obesity and cancer.

Technology allows us to customise experiences and tailor messages to a user’s unique needs and interests; as a result, healthcare communication professionals can develop campaigns that resonate at a much deeper level.

Personalisation

How can personalisation permeate every aspect of behaviour change and make each step more effective? Segmenting audiences and tailoring messages are crucial to cut through the noise and spark a positive response, especially in the age of tribalism and non-stop exposure to visual stimuli.

Digital channels own a disturbing amount of information about us, but this can be used as a force for good, identifying those in need and reaching them with relevant messages, customised to their interests, on the channels where they are most active.

Once we start our behavioural change journey, setting personalised, specific goals makes us accountable, while reaching those goals gives us a sense of achievement. Digital tools encourage and reinforce behaviour change throughout the journey by capturing those goals and allowing us to track them, measure progress and get immediate feedback.

By implementing rewards and introducing gamification and social validation, users can be rewarded for their behaviour while also being entertained.

Once goals are set, digital communication allows for relevant and direct engagement, with messages tailored to the individual delivered by text message, apps, wearable devices or the internet. Support can be provided at steps in the journey when people are most receptive, either when presented with an opportunity to engage in healthy behaviour or when vulnerable to negative behaviour.

And with 80% of people in the UK now owning smartphones, individualised support can be accessed at any time. Repetition helps establish behaviour change and digital push notifications can deliver reminders and reinforcement with the right message at the right time.

Digital technologies can also be used to offer support when users are confronted with barriers and setbacks. They increasingly use information about a person to adapt support to that person’s unique and changing needs.

Digital communications also create a sense of community: a feeling that we’re on a journey with others and are not alone. Social networks can positively influence healthy behaviour by allowing people to create personal profiles and join a community to chat and meet other users, providing both support and information when it’s needed.

Long-term sustainability

While personalised digital tools and communications can certainly kick off and enhance behaviour change, can they sustain it in the long term and can they work in isolation?

Despite the enthusiasm we have for digital tools, we don’t believe we can solely rely on them to drive positive change. The current pandemic and consequent lockdown demonstrated how digital tools can keep us connected, but also exposed their limitations, with mental health issues increasing due to a lack of human contact as well as the ongoing uncertainty.

Some healthy behaviours have been supported by digital; fitness app downloads skyrocketed during the pandemic, but how many were from people who were already active, and how many will be motivated to continue as opportunities to show off the results keep being delayed?

Other behaviours were negatively influenced by digital comms. Disinformation was spread on social media about COVID-19, masks and vaccines, and traditional channels had to be leveraged to publicise consistent, timely communications, such as reminders to wear masks before entering stations and shops.

These examples show why every behaviour change programme should be planned carefully and built around the target audience, leveraging the mix of tools and comms channels that best fit their traits and attitudes. After all, this is personalisation too.

Lorraine Walters is Practice Leader and Federico Marchisio is Digital Programme Director, both at Say Communications

In association with

17th December 2020

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