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Each text message can contain up to 160 characters, make them count! To start, think about your audience and what information you want to share with them.

Suggestions for topics and types of messages are below. Scroll to resources to download a starter set of messages.

Selecting topics

Common topics include nutrition, physical activity, stress management, sleep, drugs and alcohol and 5-2-1-0 messaging (5 fruits or vegetables a day, 2 hour limit on screen time, 1 hour of physical activity, and 0 sugar-sweetened beverages). If you have an audience with more specific needs, focus on those.

Lessons from Ballard

For our pilot, we offered four categories of messages: Eat Right, Get Active, Stress Less, and Dealing with Drugs and Alcohol.

Type of messages

Also, think about the type of messages you would like to send. Common types of messages include: facts and statistics, suggestions and recommendations, reminders, and announcements.

To send links in a message, use a free application like goo.glbit.lyow.ly, or tinyurl.com that shortens long links. This will save you characters. Links could be to recipes, instructions on how to do exercises, resources for quitting smoking, or information about local activities.

Lessons from Ballard

We sent facts and statistics, suggestions related to each topic, and announcements from the Teen Health Center, which included messages from student groups about meeting places and times.

Targeting messages

What is targeting? Targeting is creating messages that are more relevant to your students than generic messages. For example:

  • A generic message might be "Eating breakfast will improve your performance in school."
  • A targeted message would be "Eating breakfast will improve your performance in school. Try grabbing a breakfast item from the lunch room this morning before heading to class."

Targeting your messages to your school population by making texts specific to your school and surrounding area by, for example, recommending a healthy entrée at a nearby lunch spot, reminding them to join a club at school, or suggesting that they go to a fitness class at a local community center, will make it easier for students to follow through on healthy activities.

Use your knowledge of your school and student population to your advantage when creating messages. You can also hold focus groups to ask students questions about what they want text messages on and if they have any suggestions.

Lessons from Ballard

We targeted messages to Ballard High School students. We recommended a local grocer as a place to get fruit and vegetables, told students where the weight room was located in the school, and encouraged students to visit local parks (including a link to parks nearby). This approach was popular with the students—they rated this type of message high.

Writing messages teens will like

Teen-centered text messages should be funny (when appropriate), non-authoritative, clear, provide interesting facts or statistics (not common knowledge), and be motivational, realistic, and relatable.

You can also think about getting student groups involved in writing text messages to ensure that they are relevant and in the appropriate tone.

Offering topics

Through your planning process, you identified topics that you will be sending students messages about (such as eating right or stressing less). Before you send out messages, you will need to determine if you will provide students with a choice of topics that they can select from or if you will just run one program with all topics combined. Consider limiting the choices you offer to either all topics or one topic.

*All topics combined means you send the same text message to each student every time.

*If you provide separate topics and allow students to choose only one topic, then you will have a small number of distinct groups that you send the same messages to (for example, students who choose the drugs and alcohol topic will get drugs and alcohol texts).

If you provide separate topics and allow students to choose more than one topic, you will have a larger number of distinct groups that you will send the same messages to (for example, students who choose eating right and stressing less will get messages on both subjects, and students who choose eating right, getting active, and drugs and alcohol will receive messages on all three subjects.) With a simple text-messaging program, this would require a more complex messaging schedule. More expensive programs may offer you enhanced capabilities in terms of text scheduling.

Topic selection

One way to find out which topics students want is to prompt them to select topics via text message, for example: My Way starts next week. It's time to choose your topics! Select from: A-eating right, B-staying active, C-stressing less, or D-dealing with alcohol & drugs. REPLY with A, B, C, or D.

Before you do this, however, you will need to ensure that your text-messaging application allows you to see responses from your recipients. If it doesn't, you may have to stick with the same messages for all or find another way to learn student preferences, such as on an enrollment form. In your text-messaging application, you will be able to group students based on what they selected. That will make it easy to send messages to, for example, the "Staying Active Group."

*Recommended

Lessons from Ballard

We allowed students to choose any combination of the four topics we provided. We sent a text message before the program started to allow students to select their topics from our list of four. Student contacts were then grouped by selected topic in our text-messaging application.

Students chose every combination of the four topics provided, meaning we ended up with 15 distinct topic groups. Our flexibility with topic choices made scheduling texts very cumbersome within our simple text-messaging application.

The table below shows the top six topic groups.

Topic groups # of students
All 15
Eat Right, Get Active, and Stress Less 12
Stress Less 9
Eat Right, Get Active 7
Eat Right 6
Deal with Drugs and Alcohol 5

Resources

Don't know where to start? Download our text messages! (They include message templates for targeting.) For more on developing your own messages see, What 2 Put in a Txt: Creating text messages for teens to promote healthy eating & active living.

Have questions about what kinds of information you can send and receive? Some client communication via text could be protected under federal and state privacy laws. See Text Messaging to Communicate with Public Health Audiences: How the HIPAA Security Rule Affects Practice for an analysis of the legal implications of texting in public health settings.