Dating and hookup apps and sites are one of the more effective channels for distributing HIV prevention information to gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men (MSM), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found.
Data evaluated by the CDC has shown that, when looking at cost and click-through rates, paid HIV testing ads perform better on dating apps and websites than on general interest sites, CDC officials said at the National HIV Prevention Conference in December. To reach these findings, the federal health agency analyzed three years worth of online paid media performance data for its "Testing Makes Us Stronger" HIV testing campaign aimed at black MSM.
"The sites are a very smart, strategic way of engaging users in HIV/STI [sexually transmitted infection] prevention activities," said Jen Hecht, director of program development and operations at San Francisco AIDS Foundation, a member of the Building Healthy Online Communities consortium.
The CDC examined paid ad analytics from gay-specific dating and entertainment apps, including Scruff and GAY FM. They found that users on dating apps were twice as likely to click on HIV prevention ads than they were on general apps -- 0.30% compared with 0.15%. The cost differential was also significant: The CDC paid only 22 cents per click on dating apps compared with 74 cents per click on other apps, according to the data shared in December.
A recent intervention study published in Clinical Infectious Diseases supports the CDC's findings. Researchers behind the randomized trial found that over 63% of participants exposed to HIV prevention information through online dating sites reported post 12-month HIV testing. Only 42% of participants who did not receive intervention messaging reported the same. These results suggest that promoting HIV testing through MSM-specific dating sites could increase testing among MSM -- a group at great risk for contracting AIDS that, as of 2011, made up over half of people living with HIV, according to the CDC.
The CDC recommends that adults, adolescents and pregnant women get tested for HIV at least once a year. The agency also says that sexually active MSM would benefit from more routine screenings, anywhere from two to four times a year.
"The ads on the sites are reaching the people that folks who are working in HIV prevention are trying to reach," said Hecht.
The CDC was prompted to evaluate "Testing Makes Us Stronger," which launched in 2011, after concerns were raised in early 2014 about the lack of data showing the effectiveness of HIV prevention messages on dating apps and websites, said David Purcell, deputy director for behavioral and social science at the CDC's Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention. Due to these concerns, the CDC stopped purchasing ads in June 2014, officials said at the conference.
"Until further assessment could be completed, CDC's Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention didn't buy ad space on sites that could potentially contain sexually explicit content," said Purcell.
Despite its findings, the CDC is still not buying ads on apps or websites that contain sexual explicit content, according to an agency spokesperson. He didn't specify which companies meet this criterion or when the CDC might begin buying ads once again. (It should be noted that the CDC has never paid for banner ads run on porn sites.)
In an email to TheBody.com, CDC's Paul Fulton confirmed that "CDC is currently reviewing findings from the implementation evaluation. Final decisions on guidance for CDC's National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention programs are currently under consideration."
Through Building Healthy Online Communities, San Francisco AIDS Foundation and other public health entities are partnering with dating and hookup apps to promote HIV/STI education and testing and reduce stigma. A joint report released in September 2014 by San Francisco AIDS Foundation and amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research, noted that dating app and site owners are interested in and willing to distribute up-to-date HIV/STI prevention and testing messaging to their users.
"HIV remains a major concern for our community," said Scruff's chief product officer Jason Marchant, "and we feel we have a duty to promote awareness of and facilitate connection to resources that allow our members to better inform, protect and take care of themselves."
Scruff was one of the seven more popular gay-specific dating apps represented at the 2014 Building Healthy Online Communities meeting that informed the report. The New York-based social app, which has international reach, has already taken steps to promote HIV testing and prevention with BenevolAds, a free, self-service advertising platform that donates a quarter of Scruff's banner ad space to LGBTQ-focused non-profits and health organizations.
So far, Scruff has received ads from the New York City Department of Health, Alaskan AIDS Assistance Association, Cascade AIDS Project and Austin PrEP [pre-exposure prophylaxis] Access Project, among others, said Marchant. [Editor's Note: In the spirit of full disclosure, it should be noted that TheBody.com has also used BenevolAds to advertise on Scruff.] The CDC is not a BenevolAds user.
While he can't quantify how many ads are specific to HIV testing, Marchant did say at least 35% of the roughly 1,700 BenevolAds up currently mention "HIV," "treatment as prevention," "TasP," "PrEP," "PEP" [post-exposure prophylaxis] or "undetectable."
"These ads have collectively been shown to members over 1.38 billion times," he said in email to TheBody.com.
Both Marchant and Hecht stressed the importance of leveraging the popularity of dating apps and websites to promote HIV preventing, testing and treatment among MSM. Partnering with these sites, said Hecht, gives public health organizations the opportunity to reach a portion of a population that's at higher risk for HIV and STI infections.
"What we know is that the ads are a very powerful tool," said Hecht, "and at this point, we want to use all the tools that we have."