Learnings from Washington State’s opioid abuse prevention campaign.

tyler tullis

Tyler Tullis
Director of Marketing

May 22, 2018

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The story of how Washington built an opioid prevention campaign that is changing behavior with positive social norms.

The opioid crisis is sweeping through the U.S., touching nearly every community in our country. In areas of Washington State, opioid overdose deaths are now the leading cause of accidental deaths—more than firearms and car accidents.

DH worked with Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) to launch the state’s first campaign to prevent opioid misuse and abuse. The goal of the campaign was to get people to change their behaviors around opioid use, storage and disposal.

We sat down with Christine Varela, a social marketing expert who co-designed the campaign, to understand how the campaign was built not only to raise awareness, but more importantly, to change behaviors.

Getting people to change their behavior is difficult. Can you tell us how you approached such a complicated issue like opioid prevention?

As we looked at early opioid campaigns running across the country, we came across scary and sad statistics about the crisis. Research shows that while fear-based campaigns may grab attention, they don’t impact actual behavior change or move people to action. Yes, we wanted to raise awareness about this issue but then convert that awareness into actual behaviors.

So, instead of scare tactics, we approached this work from a positive social norming standpoint, focusing on empowerment through information. Because that does lead to behavior change. We focused on clear, easy and individual actions people could take that would have an impact.

How do you go about building a complex campaign like this?

Research. We always start with research. We gathered expertise from frontline counselors and other agencies to uncover the actions that people can take that would make a difference. What are the steps with highest impact and fewest barriers? How do we communicate with enough information that it bolsters the credibility of what we’re doing but is simple enough that it is actionable?

We developed creative concepts that we tested in focus groups, and we had various audiences walk us through what was effective, what needed to change and where there was confusion. Then we built the campaign out from there.

What were the concepts you ended up developing?

We focused creative around the idea of the power of one. Research indicates that people are easily overwhelmed at the size and scope of this crisis. So, for each audience, we broke down the behavior change into a simple, actionable step. One conversation. One act of locking up medication. One act of reaching out to a friend.

And it’s not just the power of one act but the power of one individual—putting ownership back on all of us. This change starts with one person… with me. It isn’t someone else’s problem. We each have a part to play and actions we can take. Research shows that no demographic is safe from this crisis. It transcends geography, age, race and socioeconomic conditions.

Do you have any advice for people working on a complex behavior change campaign?

It is incredibly important to know your audience and to include your audience in your early campaign development and feedback. While we may think we know how a particular segment will respond, there’s no substitute for hearing that feedback directly. In our case, our audiences actually helped shape messaging and creative direction—in the end making for a more compelling and effective campaign.

How did you reach different audience groups?

Through our research, we came to focus on three distinct audiences that needed to hear different messages: 18-25 year olds, parents of 18-25 year olds, and 65+ year olds. Though they each needed to hear different messages and see different creative (with images that reflect people from that age group), we had to build all the pieces into an overall theme that could work across audiences and create a unifying campaign.

What is the role of the client in developing a campaign like this?

DSHS was an excellent partner. That agency has decades of history working in the addiction and recovery space. They knew things we simply couldn’t know because we haven’t been on the front lines—such as avoiding images or messages that could be triggers. It’s ideal when you have a client who acts as a true partner in that sense. DSHS brought tremendous insight and wisdom.

Are you already seeing an impact with this campaign?

In addition to the media buy we ran to reach the areas across our state most impacted by the crisis, we intentionally developed this campaign to be shareable. Our partner toolkit was downloaded 216 times, increasing the campaign’s presence and effectiveness around the state. Posters, print ads and PSAs could be localized by health jurisdictions and nonprofits around the state to be leveraged in their own communities.

What do you think is the big takeaway for other states gearing up to address the opioid crisis?

I hope other states emulate the great model built by DSHS in Washington. Fear tactics don’t change behaviors, it takes a social marketing effort that establishes positive social norms around topics as complex as this. They have to make this incredibly complex issues accessible and actionable—less is more with the message. Finally, they must arm partners with the tools they need to carry the message beyond what they can afford amid tight campaign budgets. I hope other states are hopeful when they see what has been done in Washington, because it can be done anywhere.

If you’d like to learn more about Washington State’s opioid prevention campaign or speak with Christine Varela for counsel on your work addressing the crisis, please feel free to reach out!

Christine Varela, Partner




You can see DH’s full case study for the “Starts with One” campaign here.

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