The COVID-19 pandemic forced us to stay home and merely dream of returning to working in person, it also challenged us to find pandemic-friendly ways to design and implement social behavior change communication. In the past year, we collaborated with a client in Nigeria to develop a remote HIV treatment and care referral service driven by social media. It was the perfect opportunity to discover new ways to optimize digital marketing and specifically, how to navigate the challenging world of Facebook advertising.

With the COVID-19 pandemic making in-person, community-driven health services impossible, Changeable, along with the USAID funded RISE Project (Reaching Impact, Saturation, and Epidemic Control) RISE Nigeria designed a branded, social media campaign called VALOR, Virtually Accelerating Linkage of Men to Reframed HIV Services using Facebook. VALOR aimed to increase demand for HIV testing, treatment and care services for Nigerian men ages 20-35. Due to the pandemic, we couldn’t meet with our intended audience as we normally would in order to get to know them and gather critical insights. Instead, while quarantined in the United States, we used WhatsApp to communicate with men from our target audience group in Nigeria. We explored what was most important to them in life, their values and aspirations, and how a branded service could best meet their needs. After many rounds of consultations and through work with Sprout Digital, a local digital creative agency, we landed on the VALOR campaign and a brand promise summarized in its tagline, Connect with courage. No judgment.

VALOR used paid advertising on Facebook to connect with men in two target states in Nigeria. Men who clicked through VALOR’s Facebook page were encouraged to initiate contact with a VALOR trained HIV case manager, known as a VALOR VIP GUIDE.  The Guides linked men who expressed interest in HIV services with HIV testing, counseling and treatment and care services for those testing positive.

The VALOR campaign ran paid ads for three months. As the campaign evolved, and we tracked performance on Facebook, we learned the ways in which the platform optimizes reach and engagement using various algorithms. Based on our experience, we identified three key ingredients for maximizing our return on Facebook advertising for social behavior change communication – 1) The level of the audience’s trust of the platform, 2) The importance of tracking engagement data against media buy objectives, and, 3) The importance of understanding Facebook’s rules for advertising. 

Understanding Audience Perceptions of the Platform 

We focused the campaign on Facebook as our discovery process revealed it had the highest level of penetration among men ages 20-35 in the two targeted states in Nigeria. However, we discovered that some men were hesitant or unwilling to participate in Facebook-advertised services; they were constantly bombarded by online scams and were understandably suspicious of social media ads, particularly when they didn’t also see these ads in more traditional media channels such as radio or television. For example, many men cited the infamous ‘Nigerian Prince’ email appeals specifically as a source of their distrust. Men suggested that complementing the social media campaign with more traditional print and out-of-home ads help increase their comfort level and show that VALOR was legitimate, therefore increasing both brand awareness and trust.  

Using Facebook Data Effectively 

A benefit of running a campaign through Facebook is the access to frequent campaign data that tracks a number of measures. We used Facebook data to track three metrics throughout the campaign: reach, interest, and engagement. Unfortunately, midway through the campaign, we learned that the specific ways in which an ad is purchased (i.e. with specific performance objectives) significantly impacts ad success. This is because of the way Facebook’s ad targeting algorithms work. For example, ads purchased with the media buy objective of ‘link clicks’ rather than ‘click through rates’ performed well. These ads target Facebook users who have a demonstrated history of link clicks rather than ‘perusers’ who may click all the way through a Facebook ad but never take the desired action of clicking on the link to be connected to a service. When we were able to compare the weekly performance of these different media buy objectives and understand their relative effectiveness, we were then able to optimize the return on our media buys. 

Keeping Pace with Evolving Rules

During our WhatsApp driven discovery phase, we initially asked men, “If we were to create a brand to help overcome your fears, which images would best convey such ideas?” We presented rough creative concepts for them to critique. We learned that the more traditional images of conquering fear, like a boxer with his arms raised or a man excelling in a track race, didn’t resonate at all with these men.  Men overwhelmingly agreed that visuals and concepts featuring gentle, affectionate images were more appealing. One man even sent an image that conveyed what he believed to be a highly resonant image of support and courage – two hugging teddy bears. We developed a number of concepts and those that demonstrated physical touch between either two men, or a man and a woman tested best. With that in mind, we thought, “Why not push the envelope?” As a result, Sprout Digital developed a concept that conveyed support and affection in a sexy way. We called it ‘Twiddling Toes,’ an image of two pairs of feet exposed from under bed sheets in the midst of intimacy. There was no additional nudity.  Feedback was overwhelmingly enthusiastic among target men. In fact, Twiddling Toes was the best performing ad as measured by engagement and links to VIP Guides for the entire campaign. However, six days after the ad started running it was removed from Facebook without an explanation.  After several rounds of investigation, we discovered that this ad, with only naked feet exposed, had violated Facebook’s paid advertising rules for ‘indecency’.  Interestingly, we were still able to post the image on VALOR’s Facebook business page and on Instagram in an unpaid capacity. Interestingly, at the same time Facebook adhered to its rules about indecent ‘sexual content’ for paid ads, viral content documenting tragically violent civil unrest taking place in Nigeria was posted with no limitations. To us, and many of our colleagues in Nigeria, the irony was not lost. 

Despite these challenges, the use of a compelling brand to target men through social media advertising was one of the first of its kind in Nigeria. Preliminary results indicated an increase in referral uptake and HIV testing among men who were exposed to the VALOR brand.  

This past year has been a year of challenge and adaptation. We emerged with valuable new insights for leveraging social media and Facebook advertising to affect social and behavior change.