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The Walking Dead as Effective Messengers

They might be soulless, brain-eating killers, but zombies played a pretty big role in 2011 in bringing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to life.
Ahead of hurricane season last year, CDC communications staffers were trying to come up with new ways to get the word out to the public about the importance of disaster preparedness. The CDC had a number of resources available on its website, but faced a tough problem in getting
people to actually come to the website.
The CDC opted to use social media to brainstorm, asking Twitter followers what sort of disasters they were preparing for. While some people replied they were concerned about hurricanes or tornados, others feared a more sinister scenario: zombies. 
Or more specifically, the zombie apocalypse.
Rather than balk at a few smart mouthed social media users, the CDC decided to run with it, recalled Margaret Silver, who works in the agency’s communication office. “We thought, ‘You could prepare for zombies, and it would be just like you were preparing for a hurricane or a flood,’” said
Silver, who relayed the story during the MDPA childhood obesity conference on Wednesday.
At the end of the CDC’s “Zombie Apocalypse” campaign, the agency’s emergency preparedness team posted a 1,143 percent boost in its website traffic compared to the same period previous year. And while zombies might not be the best spokespeople for a childhood obesity campaign, there are major lessons to be learned from the CDC when crafting your own social media-based advocacy efforts.
CDC’s emergency preparedness team started their zombie-themed work by writing a tongue-in-cheek blog post analyzing best practices when preparing for the inevitable apocalypse, including by having an emergency kit at home and drawing up an emergency plan. The CDC also outlined what its role would be during a zombie apocalypse, including launching an investigation, managing patient care and overseeing
infection control. 
The agency decided to conduct a slow rollout of the campaign. On the first day, staffers posted the blog but did little to promote it. Only a few minor bloggers picked it up, Silver said.
But the next day, the CDC tweeted about it. Within an hour of the tweet’s post, the blog crashed, Silver recalled. “That just shows you the power of putting something out on social media,” she said. 
After that, the post went viral (no zombie-related pun intended). The blog tracked more than 60,000 page views an hour within the first three days of the launch (compared to the usual 80 page views). Social media was even busier, as staffers at one point tracked a tweet a second coming through.
Mainstream news sources quickly picked up the story, with Fox News even inquiring whether the CDC had been hacked by zombie enthusiasts.
All told, more than 3,000 news outlets featured a story on the CDC’s zombie campaign.
By the time the zombie apocalypse died down (again, no pun intended), the CDC had registered 800,000 page views in a single day, more than the peak day of any emergency other than the H1N1 virus, Silver recalled. 
Silver estimated that the marketing value of the campaign measured around $3.4 million. It cost the agency $80 to put together.
“It was very funny. It was fun to write, we had a good time with it,” Silver said. “But we did pepper in real information.”
While it’s not necessary to involve zombies to craft a smart social media-based campaign, Silver did share some tips on how childhood obesity advocates could follow in the CDC’s footsteps to get the word out. Her advice:
  • Use Combined Relevance. When picking a fun campaign theme, do a little research to make sure what you put forth is something people actually would care about. “They’re going to share it with their community of followers and their social network. You want to find something that people are going to read,” Silver said.
  • Think Timely. The Zombie Apocalypse campaign benefited not just from the resurgence in zombies as a pop culture phenomenon. It also was released the week that controversial preacher Harold Camping predicted the end of the world. Preparing for an apocalypse already was on everybody’s mind.
  • Be Funny. Think about your own social media habits: A lot of times, you are just scanning tweets looking for something interesting. Humor can draw people in.
  • Keep Your Brand Identity. Creative tactics don’t mean you should abandon your message. The CDC used zombies to push the emergency preparedness information it wanted people to know about.  “Have a sense of humor, be engaging with your audience, but keep your message consistent,” Silver advised.
  • Don’t Be Afraid to Take Chances. The health advocacy field is often very dry. Stepping outside the box can help spice things up, and generate interest from people who might not otherwise get involved.