Smoke alarm messaging: Facebook ads versus phone calls

Study shows automated calls are more successful than Facebook ads in getting residents to request a free smoke alarm install

Posted: Oct. 4, 2018

Facebook logo and a cordless telephone

Researchers from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health recently looked at two novel approaches to promote the installation of free smoke alarms: Facebook ads and automated calls1.

They coordinated their effort with the Baltimore City Fire Department’s (BCFD) One Call Center, where calls or web inquiries to 3-1-1 are routed to create a smoke alarm request. The request is dispatched to the nearest fire station and personnel then respond to install a smoke alarm.

About Facebook ads

Facebook ads are used in numerous public health initiatives but no previous study had looked at how well a Facebook ad converts a passive viewer into an active participant. For this study, researchers developed and paid for three Facebook ads that ran for one month. They targeted adults with a Facebook account living in Baltimore.


of American adults use Facebook

Study results

Conversions (installation requests)

Facebook ads

The Facebook ads reached 128,339 residents (99 percent on mobile devices) and resulted in 6,075 click-throughs to the website that received smoke alarm installation requests.

 = 25

Only 25 click-throughs led to a request for a smoke alarm installation.

Automated calls

During a one month period, a prerecorded call from the BCFD’s fire chief went out to each Baltimore residential landline on the city’s automated call system (about 90,000).

 = 458

The automated calls generated 458 requests for smoke alarm installations.

Facebook was very effective in putting that message out there. What we didn’t see was those messages being converted into actions.

— Shannon Frattaroli, Associate Director for Outreach, Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy, Bloomberg School


The Facebook ad campaign cost $3,100, which breaks down to $124 per each of the 25 participants who were called to action by the Facebook ad.

The automated calls used an existing system, so there were no expenses associated with them.

Mobile device issues

The Facebook user rate for smoke alarm requests was disappointingly low. It is possible that the website that received smoke alarm installation requests was not well suited for mobile devices. More research is needed.

There was a clear preference among Facebook users for mobile devices, so ad content and interactive features used to request smoke alarms must be formatted for mobile platforms.

Automated calls were far more cost-effective but as landline use decreases, automated call systems will be less effective unless they can adapt to mobile devices.

Study takeaways

Automated calls are a potentially low-cost, effective method of advertising smoke alarm programs for fire departments.

Facebook ads may be successful in raising users’ awareness of smoke alarm programs, but in this study they failed to get people to take action to request a free smoke alarm installation. More research is needed on how to better target Facebook ads and achieve more success in converting the Facebook users to action.

Learn more about this research

This research article is available through our library by contacting

1Frattaroli, S.; Schulman, E.; McDonald E.; Omaki, E.; Shields, W.; Jones, V.; Brewer, W. (2018). Utilizing Facebook and automated telephone calls to increase adoption of a local smoke alarm installation program. Journal of Public Health Management and Practice: JPHMP: May 17, 2018.

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As such, the content does not reflect any official positions, policies, or guidelines on behalf of the sender, the U.S. Fire Administration, FEMA, DHS, nor any other federal agencies, departments or contracting entities. Similarly, this summary does not represent in any manner an official endorsement or relationship to any private or public companies, organizations/associations, or any authors or individuals cited or websites associated within the article.

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