When COVID-19 swept across the world, life as we knew it came to a halt. Large gatherings were canceled, schools were closed, and businesses were shuttered. With the abrupt change in daily living, new opportunities arose, as online usage increased. Facebook saw daily website usage jump by 27 percent from January 15, 2020, to March 24, 2020, in the United States (Koeze and Popper, 2020). Other platforms, such as Zoom, went from under two million daily users to over six million in the same period (Koeze and Popper, 2020).
With the switch from in-person interactions to online, the ability to interact with individuals and continue outreach events was not only plausible but also offered unique opportunities. Audiology graduate students participating in the University of Iowa Sound Awareness for Everyone (UISAFE) program jumped at the chance to spread healthy hearing messages in a new way.
Established in 2010, UISAFE is a clinical and outreach program through the University of Iowa Doctor of Audiology Program. The goal of UISAFE is to promote hearing health and prevent noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) by increasing awareness of NIHL and the hearing hazards that are part of everyday life.
Employing evidence-based practices, such as the Dangerous Decibels® curriculum, UISAFE strives to be an active member of the local community spreading healthy hearing messages. Participants include graduate students, faculty, and staff of the University of Iowa, who are dedicated to promoting hearing health through hearing screenings both in the clinic and at community venues, consultations, and outreach educational programs.
To continue these longstanding efforts in the pandemic era, current UISAFE participants developed a cohesive plan to reach targeted audiences through social media channels (Facebook and Instagram) and online meeting platforms (Zoom). At the start of the pandemic, during the summer of 2020, UISAFE’s efforts focused on setting up plans for healthy hearing messages on social media. By the end of the summer, interactive presentations were held virtually through Zoom.
It’s cliché, but as the saying goes when life give you lemons, make lemonade. Knowing the world shifted to virtual, why too couldn’t outreach endeavors? The internet has been around for many years, and there is evidenced-based research to support online marketing (Freberg, 2018).
As audiologists working in an academic training setting, our primary thoughts are not on marketing and online platforms. To gain a deeper understanding of the online marketplace, we invited an outside speaker to discuss best practices for online marketing. Following the discussion, our students had a six-step plan to use evidenced-based marketing research and apply it to healthy hearing outreach. The plan, adapted from Freberg (2018) included the following:
- Taking an introspective look at the organization
- Defining the target audience
- Identifying SMART goals and objectives
- Research, research, research
- Developing recommendations
- Creating action steps
The first step was to take an introspective look at UISAFE. The reason for this is simple: if one does not understand the organization in its current state, how can it be pushed and morphed to the next level? This included a SWOT (strengths-weakness-opportunity-threat) analysis. It allowed UISAFE participants to see areas for improvement, in addition to what had been working well, for example, the longstanding presence in the greater Iowa City community.
Once there was an understanding of the organization, students worked together to decide who they wanted to target. Research demonstrates that materials catered to the audience improve participants’ chances of retaining information (Hoffmann and Worrall, 2004).
The group of nine students decided on a few specific audiences for posts including athletes/Hawkeye fans, families, recreational activities (hunting, motorcycles, etc.), and college students. From there, students defined a specific-measurable-attainable-relevant-timebound (SMART) goal and objective. This gave them a specific end date and a quantifiable target. UISAFE’s goal for the summer and fall semester was to
Expand outreach by increasing our Facebook following by 20 percent by December 1, 2020, by making 18 Facebook and Instagram posts.
Students had a definition of success in terms of “followers” and a plan to make that happen. By liking other organizations, students aimed to expand their reach to other organizations who may repost or engage on the postings. Each member would like three relevant organizations by June 26.
With an audience in mind and goals to meet, students then turned their attention to research. What is our department/UISAFE currently doing online? What are other groups or organizations doing (social listening)? What seems to work well and resonate with followers to create engagement? Following this, it was time to come up with recommendations.
Recommendations considered which platform to use to reach the intended audience, the brand voice and tone of the posts, types of content to post. These steps resulted in sample posts and a posting calendar of who will post what and when. The main goal of this was to ensure continuity of the messages—the overarching message should be consistent with consumers unable to identify that different individuals are posting.
When deciding on platforms, students decided to use Facebook and Instagram to share the information. They used the following information to guide their decision on what platforms to use. Below is the population that represents the largest share of specific online platform use (Freberg, 2018):
- Facebook: skews older—18-49 years old—79 percent
- LinkedIn: proportional—30-49 years old—37 percent | 18-29, 50-64 years old—28 percent
- Second fastest growing platform as of 2020 (Post, 2020)
- YouTube: proportional—13-64 years old—all above 70 percent
- Twitter: skews young—18-29 years old—32 percent | 13-17 years old—32 percent
- Instagram: very young—13-17 years old—72 percent |18-29 years old—67 percent
- Snapchat: very young—13-17 years old—69 percent | 18-29 years old—62 percent
- TikTok: very young—16-24 years old—60 percent
- Fastest growing platform as of 2020 (Post, 2020)
With the platforms decided and the calendar made, students began creating their posts. The goal of the posts was, and continue to be, to change an individual’s attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors regarding healthy hearing habits. This includes the use of hearing protection. It was important for the students to understand that not everyone will adapt to the wearing hearing protection after seeing a post, but if they can get someone thinking about hazardous sounds in everyday life, they are having a positive impact.
To ensure continuity and frequent postings, students sent their post idea, including wording, photos, links, etc., to the entire UISAFE team two days prior to a scheduled post. Students received feedback from peers and made changes to ensure uniformity.
The results were something the students are proud of, and the two accounts continue to grow today. Here are a few highlights:
- Each student “liked” three other groups on Facebook to spread awareness about UISAFE to other groups who may be interested in UISAFE’s message and shared a “get to know UISAFE” post on their personal pages that was originally posted on UISAFE’s Facebook page.
- An Instagram account was started, which currently has over 100 followers.
- The University of Iowa Drum line reached out on the platform requesting a presentation. UISAFE is presenting to the drumline on healthy hearing at the end of April.
- UISAFE met their goal of a 20 percent increase of “likes” on Facebook
- On April 1, 2020, there were 201 likes, and on December 31, 2020, there was an increase to 268 likes.
- More success was achieved than the numbers show based off “likes” alone.
- For example, a December 26 post reached 1,046 individuals.
- The vice president for advocacy for the Educational Audiology Association contacted the group because of UISAFE’s social media presence to collaborate and help update their position statement on NIHL and prevention for educational audiology.
During May is Better Hearing Month, utilize our resources, media graphics, news articles, press releases, and more to raise awareness about hearing and balance disorders as well as the role of the audiologist in screening, treatment, and care. The articles below highlight areas to focus on during the month of May, and how the audiologist remains vital during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition to social media, students also identified avenues to continue outreach events with the physical distancing measures remaining in place during the fall of 2020 and the spring of 2021.
Students reached out to organizations to whom they wanted to present and based on the demographic used previously established materials to compile an online presentation. Students met with their clinical instructor prior to the presentation to run through materials and discuss learning objectives. Examples of presentations include:
- A Zoom health fair in partnership with a local public library.
- Zoom presentations to several hundred college students including the following:
- A sorority on the University of Iowa Campus
- University of Iowa School of Music
- University of Iowa College of Education
- University of Iowa Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders Introduction Class
- Augustana University Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders
- Augustana University Department of Music
- A virtual science technology engineering, and math (STEM) night with the Iowa Children’s Museum
- A Zoom Dangerous Decibels presentation to first and third graders at a local elementary
These opportunities supported previously established, community partnerships and allowed students meaningful experiences disseminating healthy hearing messages with a variety of age groups. Utilizing programs and foundations from in-person events, the new format enabled community members and students, for example, to gain information from the comfort of their own home. Continuing to use online platforms, like Zoom, when in-person events continue allows UISAFE to reach outside of the Iowa City area without travel expenses or time.
Although COVID-19 stopped in-person events for the time being, healthy hearing outreach events continued. The pandemic pushed UISAFE participants to think outside the box and led to new educational opportunities.
The past months have granted UISAFE the opportunity to reach individuals where they are at and influence those not previously met at outreach events. It also set the stage to continue virtually when the world returns to the new normal, which allows UISAFE to reach audiences both near and far. While our group cannot wait to return to in-person outreach, lessons learned, and improvements made during the virtual times will set the stage to continue for the months and years to come.