Communication Currents

Are Videos for Health Websites Worth Creating?

April 1, 2014
Health Communication

Videos promoting healthy behaviors seem to be all over the Web. While today almost anyone with a smart phone has the ability to shoot videos, creating high-quality, professional looking videos still takes significant time, energy, and resources. But is this effort worth the cost?

We set out to determine if professionally produced videos placed on a health website promoting breast cancer risk-reducing behaviors had any added benefits beyond the text of the website alone. The reason we thought websites with videos might be more effective is that video is much “richer” than other forms of media (e.g., text or pictures). It can show people how to easily take actions (e.g., providing models for people to follow), while text can only tell them how. This ease of explanation is especially important when trying to communicate complex scientific information to the general public. 

For our study, we created a website designed to warn mothers about the potential future breast cancer risk to their young daughters from a substance called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), and actions they could take to reduce this risk in their homes. Used in the manufacturing of non-stick and stain-resistant coatings, PFOA is found in many household products such as flooring treatments, cookware, and furniture.

Rapidly replicating breast cells during puberty make this a crucial time for girls to avoid potential breast cancer risks. Something as simple as throwing out an old frying pan now could have long-lasting benefits for young girls in this window of susceptibility. Scientists believe that dangerous environmental exposures during youth may lead to an increased risk of developing breast cancer decades later. Environmental factors are estimated to account for roughly three-quarters of U.S. cancers in the United States, but the extent of risk from any given toxin is extremely difficult to determine.

Two versions of the website were created: one that had only text, and a version with identical text as well as four videos added among the website’s seven pages. Evan K. Perrault, a former television reporter, shot, edited, and produced the videos that ranged from 30 seconds to two minutes. The videos showcased a concerned mother and the steps she was taking to eliminate PFOA in her home, as well as videos of scientists discussing the latest research regarding the substance and the reasons mothers should try to eliminate it from their homes.

Approximately 200 mothers who had young daughters were randomly assigned to view one of the two websites (either the website with only text or the website with added videos). The results indicated that havingvideos on a health website like this can have positive impacts on the intended audience. Immediately after viewing the website, mothers exposed to the website with videos stated they felt their daughters were more susceptible to the harmful effects of PFOA, had greater confidence they could do something about it, and importantly, were more likely to indicate they intended to take future action regarding PFOA than mothers who saw the website with only text.

About two weeks later, the same mothers were surveyed again. This time we asked them if they performed any of the nine behaviors the website advocated, such as looking at labels of the products they purchase a little more closely or throwing away non-stick cookware with broken-down coatings. Mothers exposed to the website with videos stated they performed one more additional protective behavior (M≈3 behaviors) than mothers who saw the website without any videos (M≈2 behaviors)—a significant difference.

Analytics software was able to track the videos participants viewed the most. The video that was placed on the homepage received the most number of views, while videos placed deeper into the website were viewed much less frequently. Therefore, agencies looking to place videos on their websites might get more “bang for their buck” by creating one really comprehensive and compelling video to place on their homepage instead of multiple videos interspersed throughout their site.

The mothers also provided some helpful advice for future practitioners wishing to create videos to use on their own health websites. Some participants stated it would be desirable to have more cultural variability in the videos, as well as to include experts from outside of the academic setting. However, the majority of mothers indicated they thought the videos were a useful addition to the website.

Overall, this study provides some convincing evidence that placing videos on a website, the purpose of which is to translate complex scientific information into actionable health advice, may be worth the price. However, videos are not a panacea. In our second measurement two weeks later, mothers’ confidence in performing the recommended behaviors decreased significantly from the first time they viewed the website with videos, although it was still higher than those who viewed the text-only website. This shows that videos may be helpful in the short term, but public health practitioners should not expect the effectiveness of videos to last well beyond initial exposure. Therefore, to maximize the effectiveness of videos, practitioners should focus their content on behaviors that can be acted upon quickly, potentially neutralizing threats with just a one-time behavior, and not actions that need to be consistently repeated. 

About the author (s)

Evan K. Perrault

Michigan State University

Doctoral Candidate

Kami J. Silk

Michigan State University