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Ways to offer advice

There are numerous different ways people can seek help via the media. Recently I was reading Scarleteen (the sex and relationships advice website) and the different ways they offer direct support for those in need.

Their direct services include:
– Message boards.
– SMS/texting service.
– Live chat service.
– Advice column.

What interests me is how Scarleteen set out for their site users what each of these services involve, how and why they might suit different people at different times, and how quickly replies can be delivered via each service.

If you are considering offering an advice column or perhaps already have an advice service in one form of media you may want to think about whether you could provide advice on one or more of additional formats. Some of these also compliment existing services – for example a SMS/texting service that informs the content of a live radio show on people’s problems. Or a live chat service that can be used after a TV programme on a particular issue has been aired where people can get more information about their specific situation. Or the opportunity to view a website or be sent a help sheet after reading an advice column in a magazine or newspaper.

Offering different services is also dependent on the needs of your audience. So offering an SMS service may be highly effective in some African countries where SMS/texting is popular and access to mobile phones is high. But if your audience is made up of older people who’re not familiar with texting then this wouldn’t be a good use of resources.

The advantages of offering multiple ways to access information and advice means you’ve a better chance of reaching people at different times and in ways that suit them better. If you’re using advice giving to promote a particular issue – for example hand washing, or awareness of a particular infection or vaccination programme – then sharing the same message through a variety of platforms makes it more likely to be heard. Add to this a means for people to be actively involved in a dialogue around issues it’s even more likely your messages might lead to the changes you’re hoping for (e.g. fewer infections or deaths due to poor hygiene).

However this is costly and time consuming to get right. And important to note that providing different ways to deliver messages or enable people to ask for advice is not the same thing as people feeling involved with a service or actually using it or acting on the information shared. So all of this needs careful research and piloting before implementation and a thorough evaluation to see if the services suit your audience and are useful to them.

Whatever you decide you may want to follow Scarleteen’s example of making it clear to your audience not only what services you offer but how they differ from and compliment each other and what you can expect if you use them.