The Sara Bellum Blog has been recognized by Juggle as one of the top government blogs on the web. Below you'll find an interview with the blog's editor, Jennifer Elcano.
- What was the impetus behind launching The Sara Bellum Blog? What were some of the initial goals?
The impetus was that we wanted to take advantage of social media, which seemed to be where teens were residing and blogging seemed like a good way to do that. We thought it would be a good strategy for conveying drug abuse facts and prevention messages to teens, because we could tweak a blog format to offer brief and regularly updated content and keep it current and interesting. And a lot of our other publications geared to teens were longer or in book or brochure format. The blog allowed us a way to post short and topical items of interest to teens and also to elicit their instant feedback on what they were reading about, what we were offering them, so we could continue to adjust it as time went on since it was such a new thing. So basically our impetus was to try a new strategy for getting our messages and our facts and content targeted directly to the teen audience.
- The blog is a part of the NIDA for Teens website; can you give a brief summary of this site's history?
NIDA launched the teen site in October 2003 as part of its NIDA Goes Back to School initiative. We learned through social networking sites that teens want to see photos and hear stories about other teens, so in 2007 we added an older teen look with lots of teen experiences. Later in 2007, we launched our annual Web chat (Drug Facts Chat Day) and we learned what thousands of kids wanted to know about drugs when they are able to ask anonymously. That information has been driving site content ever since.
- Your blog does an incredibly nice job of presenting factual information with scientific support in a clear and concise manner -- how are your posts written, and who do they target?
Well, the posts target teens and tweens, so 12-17 year olds. That being said, we also get a lot of older people looking at our blog. We’ve gotten comments from kids in college and even young adults. Some older people who work in the drug abuse field have also commented on it. But really our target audience is 12-17 year olds.
The blog is actually written by a team of NIDA scientists, science writers, and public health analysts of all ages, most of whom work at NIDA. I look at all the blogs before they go out, so I am kind of the gatekeeper for the blog. What I end up doing is substantially rewriting many of the posts to keep with the tone that we want for the blog and to have it be the voice of “Sara Bellum.” In addition to our staff, we also have guest bloggers. These have included people from other government agencies such as the Department of Defense, but also some celebrities, like Kerri Strug, a former U.S. gymnastics Olympian.
- Why was it important to create a character to represent the blog and give it a voice?
That’s a good question. I think Sara Bellum was chosen because we were trying to update a character that would be familiar to people who knew NIDA and us and what are mission was all about. So Sara Bellum has a long history at NIDA and has appeared in a lot of our print publications in prior years. If you Google her, you can see some of our past publications where she appears as a fictional NIDA adventurer, scientist, and explorer with a big looking glass. She would be investigating the science behind drugs and their effects on the brain and the body.
So what we did with the blog is basically update this character to be more of a “chic geek” type. If you go on the blog itself, you see an updated Sara Bellum, still with the looking glass, but not a cartoon and instead is this hip, young girl. We wanted her to be sort of a cool, nerdy type interested in science, but with a look that would appeal to teens. And because the original Sara Bellum was this adventurous person interested in science, her profile fit the tone that we wanted for the blog. So that’s why we chose to update a character we’d already invented. The other thing of course is we are doing a play on the words, since “cerebellum” is a part of the brain that is associated with the science of addiction.
- How do you determine what subjects or drugs to discuss? How do you work the most up-to-date scientific research into your articles?
Well there are several things that help us choose what we cover. For one, we have different categories for content on the blog that we thought would be meaningful to teens. For instance, we have a “Real Teens Ask” category, and those are actual questions that we’ve gotten from teens who have participated in NIDA’s annual Drug Facts Chat Day where a bunch of NIDA staff sit a computers and answer questions live from middle and high school students from around the country. We try to answer as many questions as we can (we get thousands!) while we are sitting there live, but we can’t get to them all. So, the “Real Teens Ask” category is made up of these actual questions, particularly the most popular ones. Like, “Is Marijuana really addictive?” and we will try to answer that on the blog. Two other categories called Know the Scene and Real Life reflect contemporary issues from mainstream headlines. So for instance, we have talked about Michael Jackson’s fatal prescription drug overdose and about the film Avatar and how it portrayed scientists smoking and why.
Many of the blogs try to be open-ended, not preachy, and just try to get kids to think. We covered Mark McGwire’s admission of steroid use and talked about Eminem and Elton John’s friendship based on Eminem’s drug abuse. That generated a lot of comments. Then we have another category called Let’s Talk where we just throw questions out there and get kids to try and talk to each other, to get a conversation going. And as far as the science that you asked about, there is just so much to choose from. . I mean we can talk about the brain itself and how various drugs affect it, and about various categories of drugs and how they affect the brain differently. We talk about how addiction develops in the brain and we really try to just stick to the science, so we aren’t coming across as big daddy, don’t do this, don’t do that, because that doesn’t work. We also offer alternatives and positives and ideas for keeping your brain and body healthy.
- How have you worked to spread the word about the blog to teens across the country?
That is something that we are changing right now. Up to this point we have only done what’s called organic, or “soft,” marketing, so the blog has really grown on its own merits. What’s been used so far is search engine optimization and word of mouth, along with limited external coverage and cross publication among our other NIDA web properties. The blog has only been around for one year, so for this second year I think we are going to do more active marketing of the blog and hope that we can keep up with the comments. That has been the main issue limiting our marketing—having staff available to handle the interaction.
- What kind of feedback have you received from your readers? What has been the most inspiring or interesting story or comment one of your readers has shared?
We get a lot of comments, like if we talk about the extent of drug abuse in high schools for instance…recently, we shared some results from our Monitoring the Future Survey, which is a survey of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders conducted every year around the country. It gives us information about trends and attitudes toward drugs among teens. What we found in the survey was actually good news in that illicit drug use in general was continuing to decline in teens; however, prescription drug use was holding steady and is still a problem. So anyway it was interesting that many commenters to that post said that they saw something completely different in their schools.
And we had really touching stories from people who told of their experiences with being addicted and how hard it was to stop whatever it was they were doing. It is sad sometimes since in some of the stories you can see them struggling with wanting to stop and not really knowing how. It was kind of a jolt to see these really young kids sometimes realizing that they have gotten into some kind of addictive behavior, but had never really thought of it that way before. We’ve also heard touching stories from older kids who—through the help of a teacher or through their own sort of realization about where their lives were going—have finally turned their lives around.
- Sara Bellum is celebrating its first year in the online community -- what kinds of things have affected the development of the blog over that year (what things have changed?) How do you foresee the blog growing over the next year?
Well it’s definitely grown like crazy. So, within the first t2 weeks of the blog going up, that was in July 2009, we got 50,000 page views and within 7 months we topped 1 million page views. A really great outcome for us was that the blog generated a 55% boost in traffic to our teen website in general. The teen website is really where we like to drive teens to, so a lot of our blogs will often have links to other places on the teen website to try and get kids to explore that, because it is really so full of interesting and informative stuff, including YouTube Videos, webisodes, and downloadable stickers and t-shirt transfers. On the website itself, we had an average of 100,000 -160,000 visits per month. To date, the blog has received over 1.3 million page views and was also listed on all top dot-coms over the world for top teen blogs. We are trying to figure out how to extend our success and continue to grow the blog, and still handle it. As a federal government agency, we are limited in what we can do staffing wise.
In addition to increasing outside marketing, I hope we can get more guest blogs, and as the blog grows invite more people from other disciplines and walks of life to participate. That would be great. It would also help with our staffing issues, because it takes a lot of manpower to write the blogs, edit them, and find images for each post. That has also been a key part of keeping it interesting is having snappy images, and we’re working with a contractor to make sure we keep the right look and feel. So, I guess my hope is to continue to improve it, and the look of it, and to make sure it stays contemporary and interesting to our target audience.
- Is there anything else you would like to share with us today about the Sara Bellum Blog?
I am really proud of the fact that we took a risk as a federal government agency in allowing a blog where moderated comments were permitted. We have fairly liberal guidelines, so we will only not post comments if they contain profanity, denigrate people or groups of people, or contain spam or link to outside websites. They are very basic rules mainly to protect the site’s integrity and the commenters themselves, who sometimes disclose identifying information that should stay private. I am glad we have been able to do this in a climate that tends to be averse to taking these kinds of risks. We are actually the first federal government blog to be targeted to teens and to allow comments and two-way interactions. I hope it can be a model for other government agencies to follow, and I feel like it fits well with this administration’s desire for more seamless and instant interactions with people.