When people think of social media jobs, they might consider pop-culture commentary and corporate representation – but what about social media in public service? Last week, the Center of Disease Control’s (CDC) Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response used a darkly fictional twist – and a keen understanding of social media’s strengths – to tap into the hive mind’s love of all things undead, sparking a global viral sensation of Zombie Apocalypse humor (and educating the public) in the process.
Many companies use social media without really “getting it,” so seeing a government agency set such an excellent example, particularly in a way that acknowledges the foibles of internet culture, is really exciting. Curious to know more, I reached out to the CDC, and the lead for the Emergency Web and Social Media Team, Catherine Jamal was generous enough to answer some questions regarding the process of seeing Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse go viral.
So sit back, and prepare to be infected…with knowledge.
Generating Zombies: Social Media at the CDC
Using collaboration between teams, the CDC’s Office of Public Health Preparedness & Response created the Zombie campaign to revolve around emergency preparedness and the agency’s response to emergencies.
Members of the team had used social media for emergency preparedness in multiple situations, and unsurprisingly – given how this project came together – Jamal says there is “a lot” of social media experience at the CDC. When it comes to their online activities, the organization – like many businesses – uses a strategy that links information via website, social media, and more. In terms of their specific use of Twitter, the H1N1 outbreak was the catalyst behind the CDC’s emergency twitter feed and a Facebook Page.
“This idea [for the Zombie meme] came up during a brain-storming session between CDC communication experts in the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response,” said Jamal. “We were exploring how we might reach more people with our preparedness messages since personal preparedness is such a critical component of developing resilient communities.”
What companies can take note of from the CDC’s approach here is that they observed how a real world disaster – the Japan Earthquake – unfolded in the popular consciousness via a discussion their representatives took part in via the twitter account,@CDCemergency. The team noticed that “several people tweeted about zombie preparedness,” perhaps planting a seed for the later idea.
When that later idea was used – when the campaign was launched on 5/16/11 – Zombies were used as a metaphor for serious disasters: hurricanes, disease outbreaks, earthquakes and floods, to name just a few examples. This allowed @CDCemergency to introduce a topic that “people don’t typically talk about until it’s too late.” (Put another way, don’t wait to try and buy 10 gallons of water till the day after the apocalypse.)
But it’s not just peoples’ immediate safety that the CDC is interested in protecting. In a larger sense, “The campaign was also to have a broader conversation about the role of public health in keeping people safe from health threats every day.”
Going Viral: Spreading the Zombie Apocalypse Infection
If you’ve ever posted a photo of your cat on Twitter, you know the path to viral isn’t always an easy – or obvious one. For every Rebecca Black, there are millions of…well, the rest of us. I was interested in knowing what the CDC had used to launch interest in their campaign, since my awareness of it came well after Zombie Apocalypse began to trend on Twitter. This thing spread like the Rage virus; how did it get out there so fast? Jamal outlined its evolution:
Beginning with a post on Dr. Ali S. Khan’s public health matters blog, the campaign initially “utilized several additional existing social media channels including Twitter, Facebook, widgets, and badges. The blog post had an accompanying web page discussing the related social media.”
As noted above, I learned of the meme via twitter – but shortly after, mainstream news outlets picked up the story, and it went global IRL as well as online. So not only does the CDC Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response and now have a successful viral campaign on their hands, but the team’s public health message is being spread effectively at breakneck speed around a globe fraught with earthquakes, monsoons, floods, disease outbreaks and more.
The team “hoped that by using zombies as our focus and marketing the message via social media, we could gain the attention of a younger audience that is difficult to reach with traditional preparedness messages.” At a glance, it would appear they were successful – they were as surprised as anyone else to see CDC hit Twitter as a Trending Topic the day of the release.
To give an idea of how significant the jump in the CDC website’s hit was, Jamal provided the following context: while a typical blog post on the CDC site receives between 900-3000 total page views, the reach of Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse came out to over 2 million views – in less than a week. This makes it the #1 page on the CDC’s website.
That’s at least over a six hundred percent increase, based on the higher end of the figure. The average might reveal a far higher leap. Clearly, and whatever fears one might have about the public’s need to be entertained in order to be educated, this is an effective way to transmit information. “All zombie movies have a hero of some sort,” goes the CDC’s message, “and we encourage people to be ready to be that hero!”
The Serious Side of Social Media Outreach
Given the success of the Zombie Apocalypse meme, it’s not surprising that the CDC is interested in continuing to use social media for their outreach, offering the following advice: “A good way to get ready for the next apocalypse – no matter what it is – is for people to take some personal responsibility for themselves and their community.”
So what say you, dear readers? Has Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse got you stockpiling twinkies for the End Times?
Visit the CDC Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse Guide for information that can help you and your family prepare for a variety of disasters. Check out some of my Zombie-Related reviews for more braaaains…