If there’s one overarching observation to be made about social media and ICT, it’s that they’re constantly changing. New platforms and technologies appear, older ones stop working, others become popular and are eventually bought by Google or Facebook. Platforms change, rules change and trends change, as do the technologies and technological requirements that allow us to use them (chances are that you’ve already received at least one message today reminding you to update some software or an app.)

The ever-changing nature of these technologies can make starting (and continuing) to use social media and ICT for HIV work a bit daunting. Where does one start, and how does one know if one is using these technologies efficiently?

Just because the tools have changed doesn’t mean that the basic principles of project planning and community consultation have as well. Like any other intervention, it’s useful to carefully plan and reflect before, during and after you carry out work on social media and ICT.

Who are the individuals and communities that you offer services to? Are these the individuals that you want to reach in your social media and ICT interventions and if so, why? What will using social media and ICT add to the work and services that you already offer? Are you trying to reach out to new individuals and communities using these platforms and if so, how will you find them and how will you know what they want or need? Are you using the right platform(s) to reach your target audience? For example, in North America, Instagram is a top choice for youth – its visual content allows for self-expression in any language.

These may seem like complicated questions but thankfully, the answers are right there in front of you, it’s just a question of taking the time to ask them.

As with any project or intervention, it can be worthwhile to consult with the people you want to reach via your social media and ICT work. Find out what technologies your intended audience has access to, which platforms they use, and how. You can do this formally, by creating an online survey or carrying out focus groups and key informant interviews. You can also do this more informally, by exploring different platforms, googling things, analyzing data about your website and how it is being used, messaging people and studying how individuals and communities interact on these varied platforms and technologies.

Make sure you keep asking these questions throughout the project/process as well – what may be relevant one day, may be a thing of the past the next week. Social media and ICT are ever-evolving and to use them effectively, you should be as well. (For more information on how to engage your audience before and throughout the process, see the Yukon CondomFairy case study).

When the internet first emerged, a lot of fuss was made about the “digital divide” and all the individuals and communities who were or would be left out as this revolutionary tool took over the world. While it’s certainly important to consider who has access to what technologies and platforms, and how this is impacted by individual wealth and broader socio-political patterns, it’s also key not to make any assumptions. Everywhere around the world, people are creative and resourceful – they find ways of connecting and of participating in the dialogue. This is one of the key themes to have emerged in the process of developing this resource – often times, community-based organisations were surprised to note that the people that they were working with had greater access to social media and ICT than they had originally anticipated.

This said, it’s still important to consider the technological context that you and your audience exist within when setting up a project. For example, in North America, wifi networks are pervasive and free hotspots can be found fairly easily, but sending or receiving SMS may incur costs to the users. In this context, a mobile site might be more accessible to those you are trying to reach. Conversely, in Sub-Saharan Africa, where networks may be weaker and hotspots less frequent, it may be worth developing an app that can be downloaded onto the device but does not require live internet to function. Similarly SMS-based interventions may work well in lower-income contexts, where access to smart phones is limited but mobile communications are relatively inexpensive.

In addition to considering which platforms and technologies your audience is using and how and the broader context within which you operate, to set up successful social media and ICT interventions, it is also key to consider the resources that are available to you. For example, in order to use social media platforms such as Facebook or Twitter effectively, it is important to use them regularly, which means that yourself or a colleague will need to invest several hours throughout the week to monitor your account, respond and interact. If you have a limited amount of time, it may be worthwhile selecting just one social media platform and focusing on it, as opposed to setting up multiple accounts (for more information on the strategic use of social media, see the HIV Edmonton case study).

Similarly, if you’re planning on developing an app, then be aware that this is a very costly endeavour to begin with. Your budget will also determine how interactive your app can be, which will impact how the user engages with the tool, your ability to monitor how it’s being used, and how easily and frequently you can make updates (which are necessary and inevitable, as we learn about in the Sexposer case study).

Like any other project or service, social media and ICT interventions benefit from careful and continuous planning and evaluation, so you can triangulate the realities and needs of your audience with the broader technological context, and your own organizational resources.