How the CDC built an awareness campaign that spurred action

Oren Fliegelman July 2018 Video, Healthcare

The opioid epidemic is one of the biggest health crises in the United States. In 2016 alone, 115 people died each day from an opioid overdose and 11.5 million abused prescription opioids.

And yet, in spite of these shocking numbers, when the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) did some preliminary research, it found that knowledge of the risks of prescription opioids was surprisingly low.

To bridge this knowledge gap, the NCIPC worked with communications services contractor ICF to do something it had never done before in the opioid space: create a made-for-digital awareness campaign, with an emphasis on YouTube. After watching the YouTube ads, viewers aged 25 to 34 were 24% more likely to be aware that prescription opioids can be dangerous. But the campaign had another, slightly unexpected result. It actually drove people to take action and learn more about the issue.1

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Here’s how the CDC built an awareness-building campaign that also spurred action — and, in the process, likely saved lives.

Driving interaction

The campaign had several 30-second creative spots that used emotional first-person stories focused on education. Each opens with a straightforward message: “Prescription opioids can be addictive and dangerous.” Then, different people share how their lives have been impacted by prescription opioids. Mike and Devin speak about their own battles with addiction, and Judy and Ann Marie talk about losing a child. The ads close with the campaign’s tagline, “It only takes a little to lose a lot,” and direct viewers to the CDC’s website for more information.

The team wanted viewers to have more than one interaction with the awareness campaign. So they built a six-second bumper, combining the opening and closing messages from the longer ads to reinforce the point, and served it to people who had seen the 30-second spots. “This was primarily a digital campaign, and we wanted to create something that was right for the space,” said LeShaundra Cordier, communications team lead for NCIPC.

Measuring success

Even though the goal of the campaign was to raise awareness, the team wanted to gauge whether it had also spurred action. The challenge was that they had few metrics to point to. Unlike most brands, sales numbers, conversions, and acquisitions weren’t relevant.

Instead, the team turned to Google’s Search Lift, because search is a leading indicator of behavior and intent. The thinking was that if the campaign was doing its job, people who had watched the ad would be heading to Google Search and the CDC’s website to learn more. “It was a quick and easy way to get information on intent when we were launching an awareness campaign,” said Cordier.

The results speak to the campaign’s effectiveness. Viewers who saw the campaign were over 46% more likely to search for “opioid” terms.2 Best of all, the team was able to break down the Search Lift results by geographic area, meaning they could see — even down to the county level — where the campaign was working and optimize future ads.

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Tips to keep in mind

The CDC was impressed that an awareness campaign could spur so many searches, and the agency plans to incorporate the lessons into future marketing efforts. Here are some ideas for other brands or organizations looking to do the same.

  • Leave some questions unanswered. The team went into the campaign thinking that most people would know a lot about the opioid crisis, but realized quickly that wasn’t the case. By building creative that caught the viewer’s attention but left questions unanswered, the team ensured people wanted to learn more.
  • Consider real-world behavior when determining measurement. The team was thrilled that the campaign spurred so much action — but they wouldn’t have known this if they hadn’t thought to measure Search Lift. To make sure you’re measuring all types of impact, even for campaigns with broad awareness goals, it’s worth adding additional metrics outside of your core goals.
  • Short ads can make a big impact. It was a challenge for the CDC to narrow down such a nuanced topic into just six seconds, involving a lot of time and discussion. But the bumper ad ended up being one of the top-performing ads. “Had we not used digital platforms and their native ad formats, we would not have had the success we did,” said Cordier.
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