Engagement on social media continues to grow worldwide, particularly in low- and middle-income countries where smartphone use is increasing rapidly. As social media becomes a pervasive and entrenched channel for people to consume media, institutions increasingly leverage it for marketing, awareness raising, and engagement with target audiences. 

The same is true for health and development programs, particularly social and behavior change (SBC) programs. Given how little effort is needed to create social media profiles and begin publishing content, it may seem like a quick win to reach diverse audiences with health and SBC information. But how much does it really cost to generate, publish, and moderate a steady flow of factual social media content? And how do those costs compare to more traditional SBC interventions?

Where Social and Behavior Change and Social Media Meet

Health SBC programs encourage people to adopt behaviors—from using modern contraceptive methods, to sleeping under bed nets, to being tested for HIV—by addressing underlying behavioral determinants such as attitudes and social norms. Social media offers an opportunity to engage people in conversations that may address those attitudes and norms. Yet there are evidence gaps about using social media for SBC, particularly related to the costs of these activities. 

To address these gaps, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) flagship SBC research project, Breakthrough RESEARCH, assessed the costs of the social media campaign Merci Mon Héros (MMH), or Thank You My Hero. MMH was created by youth activists in Ouagadougou Partnership countries and the USAID-funded Breakthrough ACTION project. The campaign was designed to reach the growing number of youth and adults in Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Niger, and Togo who are active on social media and promote an environment that encourages to young people’s informed access to voluntary family planning and reproductive health services. MMH disseminated campaign content via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube, as well as more traditional channels such as television, radio, and community activities. 

Calculating Social Media Unit Costs

Social media costs for SBC interventions can be grouped into three categories:

  1. Content. Developing content can include a wide range of personnel, from writers and actors to photographers and graphic designers to editors and producers. Non-personnel costs often include equipment (such as cameras), stock photo expenses, and software. 
  2. Dissemination. Disseminating content generally requires personnel for management, monitoring, and evaluation, and may also include paid influencers or promoters. Other costs may be needed for content hosting, advertising, and analytic tools to track and analyze activity. 
  3. Overhead. Comprehensive costs also take into account overhead, such as finance and human resource personnel or office space and utilities. 

Once total costs are captured, the next step is to choose the denominator(s) to calculate unit costs. Three common measures are used to gauge exposure to social media content. These are:

  1. Reach—the number of individuals exposed to content via a social media platform. 
  2. Engagement—the number of times people engaged with content through reactions, comments, shares, mentions, likes, etc. 
  3. Views—the number of times content was viewed, which for videos can be further subdivided based on the amount of time spent viewing the content (for instance, at least 30 seconds, complete view). 

The best choice of denominator depends on the SBC intervention’s objective and the level of interaction needed to influence behaviors. When SBC is addressing complex barriers to behavior change, the engagement measure is likely most relevant. In contrast, if the objective is simpler—like raising awareness on the availability of services—then the reach measure may be sufficient. 

What Breakthrough RESEARCH Found

Breakthrough RESEARCH identified all relevant costs for the MMH campaign to calculate the unit cost for reach, engagement, and views, using data automatically collected through the social media platforms. 

On average, the cost per reach was USD $0.16, the cost per engagement was USD $1.29, and the cost per video view over 30 seconds was USD $4.27. This cost per reach is comparable to average SBC unit costs for mass media, while the cost per view is closer to typical SBC unit costs for group interpersonal communication.

Lessons and Applicability

So is social media the low-cost, quick-win approach to large-scale SBC campaigns that it appears to be? Breakthrough RESEARCH’s assessment of MMH suggests that, when all cost inputs are considered, social media campaigns are comparable to more traditional mass media and interpersonal SBC activities. Program implementers considering social media as a means for continuity in programming during the COVID-19 pandemic and programs seeking to reach audiences who may be more engaged on social media than more traditional communication channels should keep these findings in mind.

Understanding the costs is a first step. More questions remain about the cost effectiveness of SBC campaigns via social media. Future research must test ways to both collect the costs and determine how effective social media SBC campaigns are in reaching and influencing their audiences. 


This blog was written by Nicole Bellows, Senior Technical Advisor, Avenir Health; and Marissa Pine Yeakey, consultant, with input from Leanne Dougherty, Senior Implementation Science Advisor, Population Council, all from the Breakthrough RESEARCH project. 

Breakthrough RESEARCH is a five-year cooperative agreement funded by the United States Agency for International Development to drive the generation, packaging, and use of innovative research on social and behavior change. The consortium is led by the Population Council in partnership with Avenir Health, ideas42, Institute for Reproductive Health at Georgetown University, PRB, and Tulane University.