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While the Federal Government is committed to executing a comprehensive COVID-19 vaccination campaign, the distribution of vaccines falls individually on state and local government support. In our blog series on the vaccine rollout, Booz Allen’s Chief Medical Officer Kevin Vigilante and our health experts examine best practices and lessons learned from across the health landscape, including potential strategies and approaches that could help state and local governments improve vaccination rollouts.
Vaccine acceptance and uptake is critical for addressing the COVID-19 public health crisis. Vaccine hesitancy could produce a large reservoir of unvaccinated and unprotected people in the United States that could foster faster spread of variants resulting in a fourth wave of the deadly pandemic. To foster vaccine acceptance, state and local government health agencies and others need to develop and promote effective social marketing strategies.
Up to this point, vaccine demand has outpaced supply of available COVID-19 doses. Yet, as Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, recently predicted, “I think we’re going to run out of [COVID-19 vaccine] demand sooner than we think." Likewise, Air Force Brig. Gen. Paul Friedrichs, the Joint Staff surgeon and a top military health advisor, expressed concern in January 2021 about the levels at which troops were refusing to take the vaccine.
Social marketing can help promote vaccine acceptance and uptake. It offers a systematic approach to developing interventions that lead to measurable behavioral change—to the benefit of individuals and society at large. As a discipline, social marketing combines tactics from commercial marketing with theories from social and behavioral science to identify and address the motivations and barriers to change within a particular audience or audiences. Here are four ways social marketing can help persuade the public to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
Government agencies, insurers, and healthcare providers can implement social marketing approaches to incentivize vaccine acceptance. To start, COVID-19 vaccine messaging should be framed around combating falsehoods with facts, debunking common misconceptions such as that the vaccine isn’t safe. Messaging should also focus on urging those who qualify to obtain the vaccine, and raising public acceptance while efficiently recruiting and deploying a clinical and clerical workforce to administer vaccines.
Along with messaging, institutions can incentivize people to protect their own health and communities by making vaccinations a condition for participation. For example, domestic and international air travel could be conditional on getting the vaccine. Attending school or college in-person could make COVID-19 immunization a requirement. And anyone wanting to attend concerts and sporting events might need to be vaccinated to be able to go.
Dating apps and social media platforms, like Bumble and Instagram, could join the effort by providing users with virtual “I’m vaccinated” badges. We’ve already observed young nurses and doctors, former U.S. presidents and celebrities post photos and videos as they receive a “jab” in the arm. While social media is rife with vaccine disinformation, popular and accessible platforms, like YouTube, could also provide a channel to create and distribute valuable, shareable content with tremendous potential to increase vaccination rates among the most hesitant or resistant populations, particularly young people.
To be effective, it’s also important to continuously measure campaign progress by community, using high-tech methods such as artificial intelligence-powered natural language processing of key information sources, and adjusting messaging and approaches as needed. Reviewing where messages are circulated (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, dating apps, news outlets) helps to determine reach and knowledge of messages. Coupling reach evaluation with outcome assessments will show whether target audiences engaged in the desired behavior—obtaining a vaccine—after being exposed to messages. If audiences don’t get vaccinated, then messages need to be adjusted to better meet their needs.
Social marketing can be a powerful tool for state and local health authorities in their COVID vaccine rollout. By combining marketing tactics with social and behavioral science, they can build trust and foster vaccine acceptance. The right social marketing messaging and expertise will help them achieve the most pressing public health goal of 2021—getting more people vaccinated to stop the spread of COVID-19.