Engaging people who use drugs online

It seems everywhere I go lately harm reduction/AOD workers are struggling with a similar issue of how to reach target audiences via social networks/media or other technology projects (e.g. smartphone applications).  In my experience reaching the harm reduction workforce has not been that difficult – simply find some like minded bodies online and start chatting, but when it comes to reaching people who have a lived experience of drug use, I’m never quite sure whether the smoke signals I send out via the internet are reaching my target audience.

While I continue to wrestle with this, I can definitely recognise projects that will never reach their intended audience.  All too often online projects seem to be built according to the assumption that “if we build it, they will come” (apologies for the all too frequently used Kevin Costner quote).

Democratisation of media

The advent of a read/write web (web 2.0) shifts the means of media production from media moguls to anybody who has a computer and internet access, however just as web 2.0 has enabled harm reductionists to be broadcasters of harm reduction information, the interactive nature of web 2.0 also means that we need to think carefully about how we capture people’s attention.  If we are offering something that the intended audience does not perceive as relevant or useful then they just won’t tune in.   The most important thing is to remember that it is what the audience thinks is important or useful that counts, not what we think they need.

Know your target audience

Obviously there are a lot of different ways to get to know your target audience, through surveys, feedback or just plain practise wisdom, but what is it that you need to know about them?

I suggest that there are three questions that we need to ask about our intended audience before embarking on a project:

  1. Where are they?
  2. What is their motivation?
  3. What do they need?

Where are they?

According to the Pew Internet Project’s research related to health and healthcare:

  • 78% of U.S. adults use the internet (August 2011 survey).
  • 88% of U.S. adults own a cell phone
  • 80% of internet users, or 59% of U.S. adults, look online for health information.
  • 17% of cell phone owners, or 15% of adults, have used their phone to look up health or medical information.
  • 11% of internet users had searched for information about alcohol and/or drug problems in 2006 in the U.S.

(Source:Pew Internet Project http://www.pewinternet.org/Commentary/2011/November/Pew-Internet-Health.aspx )

Given these staggering numbers, I think it’s pretty safe to assume that we can find people who have a lived experience of drug use in any of the popular social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube. Additionally the exponential growth in mobile device ownership means that our target audience are far more likely to own a mobile device than computer, meaning that potentially we can reach our intended audience via smartphone applications.  The question then is not are they there, it is instead how do we get them to interact?


In considering a strategy to reach people who have a lived experience of drug use, you also need to consider the stage of change the target audience is at.  A useful framework when considering this is Prochaska and Di Clemente’s Stages of Change model.

Prochaska and Di Clemente's Stages of Change Model

This model can act as a useful guide when we start shaping our strategies for the use of social media and other technology to reach drug using audiences.

For example projects such as the National Drugs Campaign iPhone app may be potentially attractive to people who are highly motivated to make significant changes to their drug use (preparers and actioners), however people who are contemplative or pre-contemplative about their drug use are highly unlikely to go to the trouble of downloading the application.  How then do we engage this group?  A good example may well be the Drugs Meter website/application.

The site’s appeal banks on people’s curiosity and human drive to compare ourselves with others, bypassing completely the notion of motivation.  The site invites people to provide a small amount of information regarding demographic and patterns of drug consumption and then provides feedback comparing the person’s substance use with others of a similar demographic – this is the hook.  The message however is one of opportunistic brief intervention providing drug information and harm reduction strategies as part of the feedback.


Another way to strengthen the likelihood of engagement is to meet a previously unmet need or use the technology to improve upon previous methods for the delivery of a service.   A perfect example of this is the Overdose Response smart phone app developed by U – Turn Training.

The welcome emergence of peer naloxone programs in a number of locations across the world necessitates training of peers in the administration of naloxone to individuals experiencing an opiate overdose.  The concept of the peer naloxone training app is to provide a tool for refresher training.  The chief advantage of this application however is the ability to use the app as an on the spot coach when responding to an actual overdose.


I’m not going to pretend to know all of the secrets of using social media to deliver harm reduction messages to the drug using community.  As stated at the beginning this is a topic that I am still wrestling with.  I would assert however that some key areas for consideration when planning a project is motivation and utility. Without these key ingredients  any project is destined to languish in the nether regions of the www.

One Response to “Engaging people who use drugs online”
  1. David Woods says:

    Reblogged this on ThinnerBlueLine.

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