Podcast Transcript: Using Snapchat to Engage Youth

The following is the transcript for episode 6, an interview with Karen Murtfeldt a Community Engagement Specialist at Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest. You can access the podcast and shownotes for this episode by clicking here. 


Welcome back to the What Works in Youth HIV Podcast!

This is Aisha Moore the What Works in Youth HIV Project Director and your host. In today's episode we're talking with Karen Murtfeldt to learn best practices for using Snapchat to engage youth beyond in‐person health education. Here's my colleauge Katelyn Doré with Karen.


Today, I'm joined by Karen and we'll be talking about Snapchat which I'm really excited to, to talk about today.

Karen, to start off our conversation, could you tell us a little bit about the work that you do and why you were drawn to the field.


Of course. First of all, thank you so much for having me. I'm excited to talk about Snapchat with you.

I work at Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest. We're in three counties, San Diego, Riverside, and Imperial. And I specifically work in San Diego in the Community and Government Relations Department. And I work in community engagement. It's basically a dream job. I get to drive around San Diego and work with young people. I provide comprehensive sex education to diverse groups of young people all throughout San Diego.  

Katelyn Do you mainly work with young people in the school setting, in the community setting? Where, where do you reach young people when you're going out and talking with them? 
Karen I work in a variety of places. Of course I do teach in the science classrooms in middle schools and high schools. I also go into special schools that just work with young people who are homeless. I work in juvenile justice. So, I do a, a monthly program with girls at a rehabilitation facility. And then I also go into Juvenile Hall and do large lectures on sexual health. I work with small groups as well like sometimes, some high schools will put together just a small group of young people that are at special needs for this type of education. I get to spend, you know, a few hours with them going through a comprehensive sexual education program.
Katelyn It sounds like you reach people in a lot different places in the community. Wonderful to hear the about the different groups of young people that you work with. So, thinking about kind of all of those different settings and different young people that you're working with, why did you choose Snapchat to enhance your sexual health or HIV prevention work? 

Yeah, great question. 

So, we are, most of the time, working, in classrooms or we are doing like working in lecture halls or at outreach event, where we're only with, we're with young people for maybe an hour, maybe five minutes, maybe a six hour program. And what we see, through that exposure to young people is that they are on their phones. 

So, at the end of 2014, beginning of 2015, my supervisor, our education outreach manager, she gave me the broad task of finding a way for our education department to utilize digital media. Why did she ask me that? It was fairly obvious that we needed to reach youth where they are at. They have a lot of questions and a lot of the time, they go on to, either their phone or sometimes their computer and they Google their questions. So, we wanted to find a way to reach them there, where they're at.

I dove into a literature search. And I worked on this research for probably about two months. It was really fun. I learned about lots of different programs that people do. And two of my favorite sources were actually, Pew Research. They do a really neat overview of teen social media and technology. And then my favorite resource that I found was TECHsex USA made by YTH and it covered youth sexuality and reproductive health in the digital age. 

After this lit search, getting all this information, I put together a webinar with a myriad of options. I probably gave 15 different options and what were the pros and cons of all of them. Some of them were very expensive. So it would be, you know, coding and creating an app and, you know, needing staff to support that app. In the end, we picked out Snapchat. It fit our needs, it fit, what we had resource wise as well. The form and function of Snapchat really fit, our education department needs.

Katelyn I think our audience would be really interested to hear a little bit more about what Snapchat is, the definitions kind of the unique, you know, what sets it apart from other platforms you looked at. Some people may have used Snapchat. For others, this might be the first time they're hearing about it.

Snapchat is a mobile app and it allows users to send and receive self‐destructing photos and videos. And those photos and videos, those are called snaps. And snaps can be sent directly to friends such as like a direct message. And it can also, snaps can be added to a story. So, a collection of snaps put together, create a narrative. And unlike direct snaps, stories can be viewed by anyone who follows that Snapchat user. So, when you add a snap to a story, it becomes public but it only lasts for 24 hours before it disappears. So, that's just Snapchat 101, really, really basic. 

What we used mainly and I would say 99% of the time is the story aspect of Snapchat. With stories, when you post a snap and/or a series of snaps and it creates that story, anybody that opens up their Snapchat app can see that story. So, anybody can go through and see where you've been, what you've been doing, what you have to say, what you have to talk about. And it is a way that, it feels very personal. It feels like you can talk to your phone, talk to Snapchat, and it feels almost like a direct message many times but it's available for everybody to see.  

What makes Snapchat a little bit different from other social media apps such as Instagram or Facebook and also why we chose Snapchat, Snapchat is incredibly popular with young people. With our target population, teens, middle schoolers, high schoolers, college students, Snapchat just wins out. They really enjoy Snapchat. Snapchat is different than Instagram and Facebook in that it doesn't save and archive posts. So, with Facebook, if you put something on four, five years ago, unless you go on and delete it, it's still on there. Snapchat, things disappear. And it is a little bit more like what real life is like where in real life, you someone, you talk with someone and you have that memory but it's not saved and documented. Snapchat is just, just very different, has a different vibe. Instagram is very beautiful. Very kind of perfect looking.

Perhaps because of this unique feature of Snapchat, it's actually been shown to make people happier, to make young people happier. So because of that, Snapchat really fit what we needed. And specifically, we found that Snapchat was private, informal, and fun. 

Private was really important to us because it's really important for young people. So, sex is, for some
people, for a lot of people, it's a very sensitive topic. And a lot of young people are embarrassed if people can see that they are looking at sexual health information. So, youth reported preferring messages that disappear. So, it's perfect with Snapchat that information can disappear. And Snapchat just allowed us to provide education on these really sensitive topics in a private platform.

Snapchat is incredibly informal. We all in our department have really busy schedules as I'm sure, most people do. And we have a really tight budget once again as, you know, most non‐profits do and this new platform we were going into, it had to be really low frills. It had to be doable without significant investment. And Snapchat allowed us to create just a wide array of messages ranging from really short, sweet messages that were simple to longer narratives that were scripted, produced, and had more of a directed feel to it.  Because of that informal part of Snapchat, we really could create an atmosphere of normalcy around sexuality education which is one of our goals.

And then, of course, Snapchat is fun. Who doesn't want things that are fun? Youth reported really wanting messaging that was friendly but serious. So, Snapchat allows us to do that. We can talk about really serious topics but then we can also infuse fun into that. There's filters. There's just silly things you can do on Snapchat. So just creates that ability to meet young people where they are at with information that they need.


Awesome. It sounds like a really fun and life‐like app to be using with youth. 

In your planning, designing and implementation of your Snapchat campaigns what has worked best in your process?


We first made the decision to use Snapchat but before we actually went live with our campaign, there were months of planning. Back when we started, there were no nonprofits who were using Snapchat. So, we had to really define how we were going to be using this new app for education. We were very clear with our, first of all, with our intention of Snapchat that we wanted provide sexuality education, we wanted to normalize sexual health education. We know that children and youth are just inundated with sexual messages. We wanted to jump into the wavelengths where they're at and provide simple to understand, direct messages of education. We had, you know, done YouTube videos before. And for example, when we did a video like that, it would take almost a month to get the script approved before we could go ahead and film it. With Snapchat, it was going to be very different. It was going to be something that, once you filmed it on your phone, it was posted pretty much instantaneously. So we knew that we had to do a really good job of planning and providing a foundation for our Snapchat team before we could go live. We spent about two and a half months and we met multiple times during planning sessions with our Snapchat team. And we had five people on our Snapchat team. All of us were often out in the community. So, we already had a good understanding of how to present make sure that we were on message, that we were communicating appropriately and correctly. We knew that especially a place where people could potentially record us or take a picture of what we presenting, that we really had to be very confident in what we were creating on Snapchat.

So in our implementation planning, we went through a number of things. First of all, we set out very clearly what our goal was for Snapchat. We created a list of all the names and descriptive terms we would use. We created a list of topics that we would talk about. And we really wanted to stick to those topics, kind of stick to what our expertise was. We went through slang terms, which slang terms would be okay to use, which were not recommended. And we brought to the table during our planning meetings our security department and our marketing department. So, we knew that both of them had insight into this campaign and we needed to hear what they had to say. For example, how to stay safe when Snapping in the field. We wanted to make sure that we never had name tags on. We just, of course, had to make sure we didn't have any young people in our videos. And then marketing, we really utilized their experience on Facebook and Instagram, which was when they would get certain direct messages. So, we, we had a very extensive foundation of what information we would be talking about and what we would do if something happened out of the ordinary. 


Sounds like that was a busy two and a half months bringing out those people together. That was a big piece of getting ready to do your campaign and an important foundation to lay for that work.

How did you then transition to designing your stories and implementing your different Snapchat campaigns?


So, after we did our planning, we did a good month where just our Snapchat team, we kept it internal. We just practiced making stories. So, some of us were a little bit familiar with Snapchat but I would say, out of the five people starting, three people had never used Snapchat. So, we just had to go through and create stories. And because we are out working with youth so often, we kind of knew what topics we wanted to talk about. So, translating them into Snapchat was a fun learning experience really to be able to learn how to make stories. So we did that for the first month.

Then our, our next step in our implementation was getting a teen group that we worked with weekly to follow us and they gave us feedback on Snapchat. They had already been using Snapchat for over a year. So, they were able to give as some good feedback, things such as talk to the camera. Don't like have somebody sitting back 10 feet away and record them. Actually have the person talking looking into it and connecting with the camera. So, we had that and then we did a broad internal launch where just people in our agency were following us. So, that went on for about three months.

And then finally, we had worked out some of the kinks and some of our kinks were that there could only be one person on our Snapchat account at a time.  And we had not thought of the fact that someone could be on filming a Snapchat and then another person who is, you you know, 50 miles away, decides that they wanna snap something. And so we'd have people bumping people off Snapchat and we'd have to keep logging in, and it was, it only happened a few times before we realized, "Okay we need to assign people a day. So, Monday is your day to make a Snapchat story." And then you don't have to worry about people bouncing people off.

Katelyn What other challenges did you face in using Snapchat and how did you overcome those challenges?

The initial challenge and it continues to challenge us is that Snapchat is not always the most intuitive. And I, I really it is because as adults, our brains work a little bit differently working with apps and on our phones. So there was and continues to be a good amount of headbanging with trying to figure out how Snapchat works. And Snapchat is always updating and changing. So, we, as a team, we meet often, say we say we meet every month or two and we go through the, the updates on Snapchat. And how to better utilize any of those updates. So, it makes life interesting and, you know, we all love a good challenge. 

Another challenge we had was just how to deal with direct messages. So, we liked the fact that young people could message us with questions. And nine times out of the ten, those questions were really simple and I'm glad they had a trusted resource to ask. And it would be things such as, you know, where I can I go to get this one, a birth control or where can I go to get no cost condoms? Those kind of questions. 


Thank you. I think those are some challenges that many of our audience members might be having thinking about what apps to use or if they were to choose Snapchat. 

So are there things that stood out to you in terms of what really worked well for designing or implementing your Snapchat campaign? 

Karen So, what works best with our Snapchat campaign for us is that because Snapchat embraces spontaneity and silliness and serious topics, it allows us flexibility to talk about something kind of mundane, or talk about something fun. For example, we've done multiple health center visits. We do a walkthrough. So, this is what our health center looks like. This is what it's like walking into the waiting room. These are the people you're going to meet. You're gonna meet someone at the front desk. There's going to be a medical assistant that welcomes you back. This is what an exam room looks like. These are some questions that the nurse or the clinician might ask you. And I really love that we can do that with Snapchat because the fear of unknown keeps all of us from doing things, not just young people. So, we are able to show young people through the privacy of their smartphones, that people in these health centers are there to help them. I believe it, it can help them to be more confident and proud of going in to get tested, of encouraging them to be honest with their nurse. And to know that the people in the health center are just there to help them and that they see young people every day. That's one of my most favorite successes of our Snapchat campaigns. 

Thank you. That sounds like a wonderful way to use Snapchat especially, I think for organizations who are working in one specific community or trying to help raise awareness of their services in their area to overcome that barrier and that fear of the unknown. That's a wonderful lesson learned. 

What are some of the other tricks of the trade or, really successful tools that people could use or community resources that they could leverage for uses on Snapchat? 


Oh, there're so many things. The first thing I would say is that having a good team is the best. Having someone that, people that bring a little bit of something different, everybody bringing something different to the Snapchat account. 

And then, getting guest stars on our Snapchat. That is something that is really fun to do. First of all, it gets young people who are following you to see somebody different than you or your team, introduces them to someone important in the community. And then also, we have youth guest stars. So, we have interns that create content for Snapchat. So, I really like having that, infusing different people, different guest stars onto our Snapchat. 

Some other things that we do that I have found successful is creating kind of like a series. So, throughout the year, there are different months that focus on different health issues or there's different times of the year where you know that young people are dealing with very specific things. So, for example, during the summer, around July 4th, we know from our health center that a lot of people come in for emergency contraception. So, the week before that and a few days after July 4th, we really focused on emergency contraception. We also focused on condom use. We focused on, you know, these are the places you can go to purchase emergency contraception. So, we just, every little topic that could perhaps relate to that and could help somebody, we focused on that. And having those monthly or bi‐monthly meetings to talk about the series that you wanna focus on. And creating and brainstorming you wanna talk about are something that helps us to be really successful.

Snapchat, you can be spontaneous. So, if you got a question on Monday from a young person and you think, "Oh, my goodness, that would be a great thing for me to post." You could do that or you can plan and storyboard and you know, kind of write out a story that you're going to create. So, there's quite a few options for how you can create content on Snapchat.


Thank you. It sounds like there are a lot of different things you can do with it. It's really exciting to hear you talk about your work. 

What advice do you have for our audience members who may be interested in using Snapchat to reach youth in their community? 


Yeah, great question and it's a question I hear so often because especially for youth‐serving organizations, just with some simple observation, you can see that young people are on their phones and that's where you want to be meeting them at.

So, for someone who would be interested in using Snapchat, my first question is just making sure that your audience is young people, high schoolers, middle schoolers. So, making sure that your target audience is also Snapchat's target audience. And then, you need to have the trust and support of your agency, of your departments. And another thing is that some people can think that, "Oh, it's Snapchat, it's really easy." Maybe, maybe they use it for their personal use and it doesn't take them that much time for them to use in their personal use. But when you're doing it as an educational campaign, you really do need to make sure that you have time to invest. First of all, in, you know, creating a good foundation, but then also to create content, you have to invest time. And sometimes, it won't take that much time. Some weeks, you'll be on a roll, creating topics and stories, things will just flow. But then other times, you really do have to collaborate with team members, you have to schedule like going to do my health center snaps, I, you know, you have to schedule with quite a few people to be able to do that. So, it does take an investment of time. 
And then I would say just being really clear with your intention going through and just creating, investing in time to create a good foundation. And know if you are working on a team that everybody is on board, and knows the content, the type of content that you want to create. 


Great advice. Thank you. 

How did you build your audience? 


Great question, yes. So, we did it very grassroots style. So, every time that we would go out and teach, we would take palm cards. So, we created, with our marketing department's help, we created a palm card with our Snapchat ghost on it. And for people who don't know how Snapchat works, you can follow someone by taking a picture of their unique ghost. And then, it very easily leads you to be able to follow them. So, we created palm cards and we passed them out each time we went to a different school or met with different young people or did a tabling or outreach event we would bring those with us. And it was a way for us to say, "Hey, we're only for an hour." Or, "We're only here for the six‐hour evidence‐based program. And we know that you have a lot more questions and there's so many more important things we'd like you to know so here's a Snapchat, you know, a way to follow us on Snapchat. So that's how we started, that's what we continue to do. And every time we do a new class, work with a new group of people, we get just a flood of new followers.

We also put up information on our agencies Facebook and Instagram. So, that was another way for people to follow us.

But I would say the most successful thing we've had is just having our, our in‐person participants start to follow us. The funniest story is when we first started, the very first time we did it, my colleauge, she was passing out the cards. And she was so excited to tell the students, "You know, all you have to do is take a picture with your phone and then you can find us on your Snapchat app." She was so excited to tell them and there were literal eye‐rolls from the high schoolers. They were just like, "Um, yeah, we know that." And we still laughed at how excited we were about it and how new it was for us. But for them, it was already integrated into their, their life and their phone.


Thank you for sharing that, the example of the palm card. I think that's a wonderful way to build your audience.

So as we wrap up, I'd love to hear from you, Karen, about what inspires you to continue your work with youth?


You know, as adults, we can all think back to how confusing adolescence was but I especially see now that young people have different challenges and increased challenges. And meeting them where they are at, not where we want them to be or where we think they should be but actually listening to them. And providing them the education and tools that they need. I find that a continual challenge, and something I love doing. I have always known, I kind of almost had a calling, that I wanted to work with young people. And I am just daily grateful that I have the ability to do this job that I love. And I just love to help young people, you know, equip them with the knowledge and skills to make good and healthy decisions for their bodies and relationships. I believe it is a right for young people to know how their bodies work and how to take care of themselves, how to protect themselves.

 What I do is something I truly love doing and I hope that the work I do is able to help young people just know that they are worth taking of themselves, taking care of their health. Hopefully that the knowledge and the skills that they learn from the education that here at Planned Parenthood we provide, that it can help them to pursue their dreams, their hopes and dreams, their career, their education and can help them be happier and healthier. 

Katelyn Oh, your passion certainly comes through and they're lucky to have you. So, thank you for sharing those thoughts with us and taking time to talk about your wonderful knowledge around Snapchat. You're definitely a leader in the field of using Snapchat with young people. So, we've, we've learned a lot today and I'm sure listeners will take a lot away from this podcast as well and our conversation. So thank you very much. 
Karen Thank you for having me, and I've really enjoyed you know, talking about this. I could, you know, talk for hours more about it. It is a fun way to communicate with young people. 

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Page last updated: March 2018