To connect hard-to-reach populations with public health information, turn to the influencers

Brown researchers partnered with influencers to screen potential participants for eligibility into ongoing trials and compare the effectiveness of public health-based influencer ads with traditional advertising.

The term “influencer” is fitting, as social media influencers shape culture in ways that increasingly rival traditional marketing. For their followers, the appeal lies in the perceived authenticity of online trendsetters—the relatable, familiar voice at the other end of the screen—as opposed to the scripted sales pitches of paid ads. 

Americans spend an average of seven hours a day online, with at least two of those hours on social media. This extensive use suggests that influencers should be effective in conveying public health information and in expanding outreach and engagement. Most public health campaigns, however, still rely primarily on more traditional paid advertising rather than influencer-generated content. 

A new study led by researchers from the Brown University School of Public Health compares the effectiveness of influencer-based marketing with other outreach strategies in realizing public health goals. They found that influencers, especially when they reflect or represent high-priority and hard-to-reach audiences, can help convey life-saving information, encouraging participation in interventions and recruiting for public health research.  

"Influencers have long been a topic of conversation in the marketing industry, but our understanding of their effectiveness in delivering health-related information is still in its early stages,” said Owen Fahey '23, MPH ’24, who co-led the study with Tyler Wray, associate professor of behavioral and social sciences at Brown. “By leveraging their authenticity and personal brands, we aimed to explore the value of influencers in disseminating public health messages among a hard-to-reach population."

“ Although marketing and public health may seem distinct, our study highlights the combined strengths of collaboration between these disciplines when investigating high-priority health concerns. ”

Owen Fahey MPH ’24, Health Services Research

Fahey and his research team worked with 20 predominantly Black, gay and bisexual influencers from Southern states to screen potential participants for eligibility into their various ongoing clinical trials and compare influencer ads to other, more traditional advertising methods on Facebook, Instagram and dating apps. They found that advertising with influencers of color allowed them to reach a higher percentage of Black gay and bisexual men who were at high HIV risk, who were not taking the HIV prophylactic, PrEP, or who were inclined to mistrust the health care system.   

This population has an outsized risk of acquiring HIV. “If HIV incidence among Black/African American gay and bisexual men continues at current rates, one in two will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetimes,”the authors write in their report. This level of risk is compounded by a lack of diversity in some HIV-related studies and clinical trials, coupled with experiences of racism in medicine that have generated medical mistrust among African Americans. 

The encouraging news is that a high percentage of followers who clicked through the posts belonged to this high-priority audience, demonstrating their openness to influencer-based public-health content. Additionally, recent data show that a higher percentage of African Americans use social media than other racial groups, while a second study found that 100% of recruited gay, bisexual and transgender participants at risk for HIV were active on social media, with roughly 87% logging on multiple times a day–significantly higher than the national average. “These trends suggest that online campaigns may be effective for reaching populations that are high-priority for HIV,” the authors write.

 "We have demonstrated the value of approaching public health research through an interdisciplinary perspective,” Fahey said. “Although marketing and public health may seem distinct, our study highlights the combined strengths of collaboration between these disciplines when investigating high-priority health concerns."

A key takeaway for fellow public health researchers is that posts made by verified influencers with significant followings (ranging from 2,000 to 150,000 followers) were most effective. Fahey and his team also found that they were most successful in securing a contract with influencers when they used a “managed influencer sourcing platform” or a site that helps users identify relevant influencers and expedite sponsorships. 

The study concludes with a recommendation for health professionals: to reach specific populations, and if financially possible, include influencer-based marketing in your advertising and outreach campaigns.