“Hey – It’s Cas! Need your opinion on something. In 2014, CVS stopped selling tobacco in its stores. Do you think that was the right move?”
It was a simple text message, but it launched nationwide action.
In December 2016, truth began to call attention to the issue of tobacco in pharmacies among “Finishers” – their army of young activists who are working to finish smoking for good. While CVS may have stopped selling tobacco in its stores, many health and wellness institutions have not.
truth launched a multiple-stage campaign that gave Finishers the information they needed, helped them imagine a better future, and then provided them the tools to fight back.
I spoke with Dio Favatas, Managing Director at Truth Initiative, the organization that directs and funds truth, to discuss how the campaign uses text messaging – along with every other tool in their digital arsenal – to engage young people around this issue and empower them to take action.
Informing the Audience
“With a name like truth, we make sure that everything we do is substantiated by a fact,” says Favatas.
And truth had a lot of facts to share. Even though pharmacies are a trusted source of health information, over 53,000 of them still sell tobacco, killing 1,300 people a day. CDC data shows that 66% of adults favor a ban on tobacco in pharmacies – including half of smokers. And when CVS went tobacco free, almost 100 million fewer cigarette packs were sold, while CVS net revenues actually increased.
In the war against smoking, truth knew that pharmacies could be the battlefield. Tobacco and retail sales are a major push point, because seeing tobacco at pharmacies helps normalize smoking. The more that young people see the tobacco on the shelves, the more likely they are to pick it up and use it.
truth first wanted to inform Finishers about the issue.
“We get people engaged, so they want to learn more. Then we can hit them with the hard facts about smoking,” says Favatas. “Often it enrages them – and people should be pissed off about the way that the tobacco industry markets their products.”
Young people trust the information that truth sends them, because the campaign builds a human connection.
While many brands can seem robotic and impersonal over SMS, truth built their outreach around a real person: Cas. Cas isn’t some fictional text bot. She’s an actual team member, who’s a fixture of truth’s Twitter channel and hosts her own “Ask Cas” section of thetruth.com, where curious Finishers in search of information can seek out real talk.
“The people on our list have actually come to know Cas,” says Favatas. “She’ll get text messages from supporters saying they broke up with their boyfriends and asking for advice. Because people are engaged with Cas, they’re more likely to connect with the information that she shares.”
Imagining a Different Future
After they informed their audience with the facts, truth wanted to help them imagine a future without tobacco.
The first stage of their campaign was called #TakeBackTheShelves. In partnership with DoSomething.org, truth asked young people to imagine what else might go on all that shelf space freed up from cigarettes, and spread the word over social media.
Young people took up the call. They flooded social media with images of fruit, health foods, books, jewelry, plants, roast turkeys (maybe not the best choice for a pharmacy, but still better than tobacco!) – and, well, pharmaceuticals.
Then, truth focused their campaign.
Mega-chain Walgreens is one of the pharmacies that still sells cigarettes. Fresh off a merger with Duane Reade, and a possible acquisition of Rite Aid, Walgreens is poised to become the nation’s largest pharmacy chain, the Walmart of pharmacies.
What was more, truth saw a major opportunity. The Walgreens shareholder meeting was coming up in just a few weeks. truth could rally the Finishers to make a direct impact on the Walgreens brass.
“We knew we had the opportunity to really bring this to Walgreens’ attention,” says Favatas.
Riffing on the Walgreen’s slogan, “At the Corner of Happy and Healthy,” truth developed a campaign called “Not Happy, Not Healthy.” Using all their digital channels, they distributed a petition demanding that Walgreens stop the sale of cigarettes.
Thousands of Finishers Took Action Against Cigarettes
truth set its petition to hold a maximum number of 1,000 signatures. They thought that was ambitious.
“We had never done an advocacy campaign before,” said Favatas. “We thought that 1,000 was a good bet. If you print out 1,000 pieces of paper, put it into a corrugated box, and deliver it, that would be very effective.”
Within an hour of going live, however, the campaign had already eclipsed 1,500 signatures and kept growing. truth changed their petition to allow the enormous influx of signatures.
Using the power of text messaging to precisely target their outreach, truth used a three-pronged message to help spread the word about the petition.
- If people had already completed the petition, they received a messaging urging them to forward it to their friends.
- If an activist had started the petition but not finished it, they received a message encouraging them to be a part of the campaign.
- And to those who hadn’t even begun the petition, truth sent out a message inspiring them by how many of their peers had already participated.
“We never want to shame or criticize anyone who doesn’t want to participate,” says Favatas. “But we do want to help inspire the people who are motivated, and normalize taking action.”
Within a week, truth had broken 5,000 signatures – five times their original goal.
Taking Action On The Ground – and Across the Web
The capstone of the campaign was a protest outside Walgreens offices during the shareholder meeting. Dozens of activists showed up, and the rally got television coverage. But truth also wanted to give those who could not attend a chance to be heard.
They created an online toolkit that allowed people to post across their social channels. They also provided a phone list and script for those who wanted to call in to the Walgreens meeting.
Using SMS and email, truth directed people to the online hub – offering Finishers everywhere the digital tools to stand up and urge Walgreens to take action.
“We’re in the business of working with young people who are super engaged,” said Favatas. “They’re changing the world, and we’re empowering them to do so.”
Why Text Messaging?
At every step throughout their campaign, truth used SMS to help engage their young supporters, and give them the tools to take action. From Cas’s first text message about cigarettes and pharmacies, to the direct links to the online hub, to the congratulatory broadcasts at the end of the campaign, truth used SMS as a key way to stay connected with the Finishers.
“Young people today live off their mobile devices,” says Favatas. “truth wants to invite them into any given issue, and a text offers everybody the opportunity to get involved.”
“Young people today live off their mobile devices. truth wants to invite them into any given issue, and a text offers everybody the opportunity to get involved.” – Dio Favatas
Indeed, truth found that text messaging was the best way to connect with their young activists. When they analyzed their petition, they saw that SMS drove more participation than any other platform.
- Email drove 23%
- Coalition partners drove around 7%
- Social properties drove 4%.
- Text drove a whopping 55% of total participation.
With text messaging, truth could first pique Finishers’ interest about a broad issue, distribute a petition where they could stand up, and then connect them with social media resources to be a part of the final push.
Using SMS as one key component in a multifaceted digital strategy, truth was able to mobilize thousands of activists across the country, and inform tens of thousands more about a vital issue and one way to be the generation to end tobacco use.