NetReach: online peer outreach to virtual communities across Australia
Issues: NetReach was a peer-based sexual health promotion outreach program targeting Australian men who have sex with men (MSM) via Internet chat rooms and profile sites. It was a collaborative effort of the AIDS Councils of Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania and the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations.
Description: In essence peer volunteers and staff entered existing commercial online chat rooms in a similar way to peer outreach at social, community and sexual venues. The program was implemented in a way that aimed to respect and support the users of this virtual environment and the online community they had created. During the brief development and trial period there were 304 outreach shifts, with exposure to 27,672 people and 460 in depth online discussions. 18 months after the end of the trial period AIDS Councils were interviewed to discuss the sustainability of program and why some had maintained the interventions and why some had ceased Internet outreach in this format.
Lessons learned: The online environment may change significantly in as little as six months, requiring the delivery of online outreach programs to be modified. Planning, funding and evaluation arrangements need to reflect this. Involving participants from the online community in the project was critical to maintain a level of cultural acceptance and credibility, adapt to rapid changes inn culture and technology, and to sustain a reflexive approach. Feedback from AIDS Councils 18 months after the trial period focused around the challenges of sustaining outreach with limited numbers of participants or capacity to track direct impact verses the need to be part of the developing context of online communities.
Next steps: Organisations looking at online outreach need to consider their infrastructure, connections to online cultures, and flexibility of funding requirements before embarking on an investment into online outreach.