36135 eBaby4U Sustainability Project: A Case Study in Public Health Persuasion Targeting Hard-to-Reach African American Teen Mothers

Kathleen Ragsdale, PhD1, Melanie Loehwing, PhD2, April Heiselt, PhD3, Sydney K. Harper, MS, CHES4 and Laura R. Walton, PhD, APR1, 1Social Science Research Center, Mississippi State University, Mississippi State, MS, 2Department of Communication, Mississippi State University, Mississippi State, MS, 3Center for the Advancement of Service-Learning Excellence, Mississippi State University, Mississippi State, MS, 4Counseling Center, University of Alabama in Huntsville, Huntsville, AL

Theoretical Background and research questions/hypothesis: eBaby4U is a multiphase project to improve infant feeding/health outcomes (including breastfeeding) among African American (AA) teen mothers. To our knowledge, eBaby4U is the only online resource that specifically targets this audience. eBaby4U’s smartphone-enabled website and nine companion videos deliver scientifically accurate and culturally relevant infant feeding/health information. eBaby4U fills an important gap in culturally relevant outreach to AA teen mothers, who have extremely low breastfeeding rates (Li et al, 2005). For Phase I, we produced, pilot-tested, and launched the eBaby4U.com website and nine teen parent educational videos on YouTube, including Prenatal Nutrition; A Day in the Life of a Teen Mom; Breastfeeding Myths; Breastfeeding Part 1; Breastfeeding Part 2; Introducing Your Baby to Solid Foods; Bottle Feeding Myths; SLEEP: For You & Your Baby; and My Baby is Stressing Me Out!. For Phase II, we implemented surveys (N=53) and in-depth interviews (N=59) among minority teen/young mothers (13-25 years old) recruited at Early Head Start Centers in rural Mississippi to collect data on how participants access infant feeding/health information online and barriers to optimal infant feeding (including breastfeeding). During Phases I-II, we determined that sustainability is a key component of online resources such as eBaby4U. To help meet this need, we conducted the eBaby4U Sustainability Project. Borchers’ (2013) Persuasion in the Media Age forms the project’s theoretical framework.

Methods: Borchers states that effective persuaders in the media age have five objectives: 1) forming relationships with their target audience(s), 2) repetition/branding, 3) electronic eloquence, 4) commoditization, 5) storytelling. For the eBaby4U Sustainability Project, we enlisted teams of racially/ethnically diverse university students enrolled in a communication course on persuasion to compete in a service-learning project to develop a persuasive campaign strategy—including a social media toolkit—to drive AA teen mothers to eBaby4U. Service-learning’s goal—which links academic coursework to meaningful community service—is to develop students who have increased critical thinking skills and cultural awareness (Kezar, 2002; Mitchell, 2008).  

Results: Each team of students developed a culturally relevant social media toolkit that incorporated all five of Borchers’ elements to motivate the target audience to visit eBaby4U. An expert panel of judges with backgrounds in eHealth/media outreach evaluated the toolkits/team presentations and selected a winning entry to be implemented to sustain eBaby4U.  

Conclusions: In university settings, using a service-learning model to link coursework to community service can be an effective means to leverage the knowledge/skills of tech-savvy students in the service of “communicating to advance the public’s health” (IOM, 2015) long after a grant’s funds have been expended.

Implications for research and/or practice: Innovative approaches to address the critical gap in culturally relevant and easily accessible online content to optimize public health outcomes among hard-to-reach audiences are needed. The eBaby4U Sustainability Project is a case study in harnessing the service-learning model in order to link academic coursework with public health persuasion targeting hard-to-reach AA teen mothers. We discuss implications for the application of social media to enhance health outcomes among such traditionally hard-to-reach target audiences.