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Going viral spreads right message

Back in the 1980s, HIV awareness was a clunky, ham-fisted business with videos of icebergs, tombstones and leaflets warning people not to die of ignorance. Online seemed to offer a way to communicate in a more intelligent and reasonable fashion.

Ironically, it took the arrival of a different kind of virus – the viral video or viral marketing campaign – to truly realise online potential and social media is at the heart of this new world.

“Social media and smartphones have created the potential to reach younger, harder-to-reach audiences through innovative campaigning, and to do so easier and cheaper than ever before,” says Amanda Pearce, director at Diva Creative, which runs health education campaigns for regional health authorities.

She points out that the Korean music video Gangnam Style has topped 805 million views and that sticky content can help spread education messages.

In recent years online gaming has proved popular. In Switzerland, for instance, a game called Catch the Sperm, set in the interior of someone’s body, begins with the sound of an orgasm. To protect the couple having sex, the player shoots condoms from an imaginary gun to snare sperm cells and the HIV virus.

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have changed the way we reach out to people

The campaign has reached more than 18 million people in over 100 countries. More locally, Diva launched Game On, a YouTube video aimed at young men in Leicestershire showing an imaginary platform game where a man has to overcome obstacles like bottles of beer and carelessness to arrive at his girlfriend’s bedroom.

“We supported the campaign offline with a lot of profile-raising,” Ms Pearce explains. “We found it had real awareness and attitude changes locally in the first two weeks. After that, it went truly viral, which is a little scary. You can never completely know what happens to it after that, but you keep supporting in your area.”

This mix of on and offline seems to work for HIV charity the Terrence Higgins Trust (THT). Cary James, head of programmes at THT, has studied the way people interact with charities online and sees similar patterns to brands activity.

“We are rolling out social media campaigns that look to engage and build trust as well as intervene, encouraging people to use condoms and take an HIV test, “ says Mr James. “These campaigns will run over months and years. If you talk to someone in the street, you’ll probably never see them again; if you engage on social media, you can talk to them again and again.”

Charli Scouller, communications manager at NAT (National Aids Trust), points out that many of the negative aspects of sites like Twitter – Twitter Mobs, for instance – can be harnessed to have the opposite effect and help remove the stigma still attached to people with HIV.

“Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have changed the way we reach out to people,” she says. “A video and a tweet can open so much up and, importantly for a charity, they’re free to use apart from the staff time taken to post and upload.

“Being a part of social media also gives people a sense of community and belonging. This is very important when dealing with a topic like HIV, which is often stigmatised, ignored and not openly discussed.”

NAT uses the power of Twitter to help address inaccurate HIV-related reporting in the media and reduce the stigma attached to the virus. NAT’s Press Gang is a virtual network of people with HIV across the UK who respond to “stigma alerts” – e-mails identifying inaccurate or negative reporting – by commenting online, writing to newspapers to correct errors or supporting positive stories with “like” upticks on sites like Facebook.

Counteracting ignorance is still at the heart of HIV education – social media is just a smarter way to make the point.