Assessing Readiness to Use Social Media for Prevention

Social media tools—including social networking sites, blogs and microblogs, and image/video-sharing sites—offer many new and exciting ways to support and advance prevention efforts. Some prevention professionals are using social media to stay abreast of the latest in prevention research and practice (for example, by reading SAMHSA’s blog or watching National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) videos. Others are using social media to stay in touch with colleagues (for example, by connecting on Linkedin or tweeting on Twitter). Still others use social media to practice prevention.

Social media can be used as listening tools to better understand a community, dialogue tools to engage with a community, and communication channels to build program and organizational identity and share prevention messages. When used toward these ends, social media can help raise awareness, promote healthy norms and behaviors, and advocate for policy changes related to prevention within a community. For example, prevention organizations have used social networking sites like Facebook to enter—and influence—conversations about drinking on college campuses.

Though often cutting edge and teeming with potential, social media requires a real commitment of time and resources. When deciding if the time is right for your program or organization to establish a social media presence, consider the following questions:

  • Do you have the technology?
  • Do you have the person power?
  • Will you have an audience?

Do You Have the Technology?

Social media tools tend to be most appropriate for programs and organizations with a firm handle on computer and software fundamentals. To establish a social media presence, you will need (at minimum) the following:

  • Access to a reliable high-speed Internet connection
  • At least one relatively up-to-date computer (no more than 3 to 5 years old) with a web browser such as Internet Explorer or Firefox

Though not hard to come by, these basic requirements will allow you to establish and maintain a reliable social media presence. And—social media aside—keep in mind that almost all organizations will get more bang for their buck by ensuring that their computers are networked and backed up regularly; by purchasing robust software to help staff members do their jobs; by maintaining a useful constituent database; and by exploring the benefits of an e-newsletter or email action alerts.

Do You Have the Person Power?

The world of social media is fast-paced, unpredictable, and full of discerning visitors. Before setting foot in this world, be sure you have the right navigators. Are your staff members:

  • Experienced? Your learning curve will be greatly reduced if you have staff on board who are already familiar and comfortable with the constellation of social media tools.
  • Team players? Figuring out how to represent your program or organization in the virtual world—and bringing that online identity to life—will require collaboration.
  • Effective communicators? Your social media efforts—and your organization’s reputation—will be best served by staff that can actively engage an online audience and handle unpredictable questions and comments appropriately.
  • Available? If you have staff that fit the bill, can you spare them right now for social media planning and start-up? How about over the long haul to keep your social media efforts active and up-to-date?

If you do not currently have the right people available to establish and maintain a robust online presence, then consider making this a priority before moving forward.

Will You Have an Audience?

Suppose you have both the technology and the person power in place. Now ask yourself: If you build it, will they come? Social media is all about interaction. It’s only effective when you have someone on the receiving end. So, before you assemble a team to go “virtual” with your prevention efforts, consider whether your target population will be receptive. Specifically, do the people you currently (or hope to) reach:

  • Own computers and/or mobile media devices such as smart phones or iPods?
  • Visit social networking sites like Facebook or watch videos on YouTube?
  • Text or tweet one another?

Though increasingly diverse, social media users still tend to be fairly young and tech-savvy. So, while social media might be perfect for announcing and spreading the word about an upcoming youth rally, it might be less than perfect for publicizing a seminar on prescription drug use among older adults.

Moving Forward

If you answered “yes” to the three questions posed above, then access the CAPT resource Developing a Social Media Plan to Support Substance Abuse Prevention for more detailed guidance on how to get started.

If you answered “no” to any one of the three, then social media may not be the best fit for your program or organization right now. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be in the future. Over time, your capacity to support social media is likely to grow and your target audience may become more receptive. And when this happens, you will be in a much stronger position to take advantage of all that social media has to offer!


Last Updated: 09/24/2015