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The Delta variant has become the dominant strain of COVID-19 this summer, causing outbreaks in areas and population segments with low vaccination rates. This development has upped the ante for governments to promote vaccinations, especially after the U.S. hit its 70% vaccination rate goal a month behind schedule.
Vaccines have been available for everyone over the age of 12 in the U.S. since May, but fewer than half of all Americans ages 18 to 39 are fully vaccinated, and about 58% of children ages 12 to 17 have not gotten a shot at all.
Federal, state and local governments are naturally concerned. However, research suggests elected officials or appointees are not the best messengers to encourage vaccinations. The public’s trust in government dropped below that of business during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the spring update of Edelman’s 2021 Trust Barometer, the White House and state and local governments are getting creative by battling vaccine hesitancy in younger audiences with a roster of influencers.
A White House-backed campaign led by influencer marketing agency Village Marketing is encouraging young people to get vaccinated. It features more than 50 Twitch streamers, YouTubers and TikTokers.
President Joe Biden and his chief medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, held a YouTube town hall on vaccinations in May featuring a bevy of famous YouTubers. News cycles were awash with images of pink Chanel-clad pop star Olivia Rodrigo’s meeting with Biden at the White House in July.
At the state level, Colorado’s public health department brought on Denver-based Idea Marketing in February, which plans to use influencers in addition to traditional media to encourage minority groups to vaccinate. New Jersey and Oklahoma County hired Digital marketing agency Xomad, which specializes in working with micro- and nanoinfluencers.
In May, the Knight Foundation announced a $125,000 investment in an online influencer campaign to identify local San Jose influencers with under 100,000 followers and connect them with city officials to broadcast public health information about the vaccines.
The use of celebrities to spread public health messages has been happening since Elvis Presley got his Polio vaccine in 1956 on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” but the question remains whether these campaigns will be effective.
Today’s influencer campaigns seem to be an ideal way to reach a demographic that spends more time online than watching television, says Evy Lyons, VP of account based marketing at influence marketing platform Traackr.
The average American spends more than 1,300 hours a year on social media, and influencers are a large part of the average person’s feed, where they get information about things they love to do.
“It makes total sense for the government to partner with influencers for public health campaigns because these influencers are basically the hosts of the social sphere, and they have our attention and usually our trust,” Lyons says. “If an influencer has a track record of producing authentic content, we’ve seen engagement be just as high if not higher on partnership posts.”
Courtney Nally, EVP and North America director of Entertainment, Sports and Influencer Marketing at Ketchum, is intrigued by the effort to use influencers to counter the onslaught of misinformation fueling vaccine hesitancy.
“We know that influencers have been sources of misinformation, so it’s interesting to see them engaged to combat that,” Nally says. “Data and research show that the target audience is influenced by influencers versus celebrities.”
But the use of a handful of influencers is only one avenue that government officials should use when trying to spread health messages, says Michael Jacobson, SVP at influencer marketing agency ITB Worldwide.
“Whether it’s a public health campaign, a nonprofit or a commercial campaign trying to sell a product, the tactical use of influencer marketing by itself does not in and of itself make a successful campaign,” Jacobson said. “It needs to ladder up its goals and fit into an integrated campaign.”
A major challenge in messaging to this age group is that children under 17 need their parents’ consent to get vaccinated in most states.
Nally suggests complimenting influencer efforts focused on younger audiences by partnering with organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics to target parents and educate the community.
“Parents aren’t influenced by TikTokers and social media influencers,” she says. “If anything, they’re relying on their pediatricians and other individuals they trust to provide advice, counsel and information.”
The only option kids under 18 have is what Samantha Flynn, owner and chief strategy officer at Junipr Public Relations, calls the “nag factor.”
“The more informed kids are, they have questions that their parents have to be able to answer,” says Flynn, adding that Gen Z is very aware of social responsibility. “I would imagine that giving them the information would give them power.”
Finding the right influencer to share information about vaccines is another key to these campaigns’ success.
Governments should be looking for people who have audiences in the right age range, but also a track record of respecting public health guidelines, said Lyons.
“You probably want influencers who have engaged in transparent conversations with their audience already about masks and social distancing protocols,” she says.
While well-known influencers like Rodrigo get the headlines, they may not be the most effective at promoting behavioral change, according to Flynn.
“People sometimes think that influencers can do all things at once, but it’s like any other marketing tactic,” explains Flynn. “You have ones who are your billboards for awareness, like Olivia Rodrigo, but I really think these micro influencers are being used the same way we see them used with brands, which is to drive a specific action.”
Nally also recommends staying away from large TikTok personalities and influencers.
“While their audience numbers are significant, their engagement rates, particularly for this type of content, aren’t as strong or effective,” Nally says. “There has been such an increase in these types of partnerships that it’s not standing out in someone’s feed and people are just scrolling through.”
Using a group of micro- and even nanoinfluencers on a local level can have a stronger impact because authenticity is key with Gen Z audiences, according to Flynn.
“They only have, let’s say 300 followers, but all 300 of those followers know them or feel that they’re from the same small town,” she said.
Amber Pennell (@abcmissp), a kindergarten teacher who posts outfit ideas and teacher tips on Instagram was part of Colorado’s Power the Comeback campaign. She encouraged her almost 6,000 followers to get the vaccine now that those over the age of 12 are eligible.
“These vaccines are being proven safe every day, as hundreds of thousands of Coloradans – doctors, nurses, teachers, seniors, and others – have already taken them,” reads a post where Pennell shows off her vaccination card. “Nationally, many millions of people have received the vaccine and are working hard to power the comeback!”
One response reads: “Yesss queeeen! Thank you for sharing all of this info too. So important for everyone’s safety!!!”
But not all comment sections are so wholesome.
Ashley Cummins, a fashion and style influencer in Boulder, Colorado, announced she’d “joined the Pfizer club” with a post showing off her band-aided arm and vaccination card.
One commenter responded, “Congratulations, you are now a Super Spreader,” referencing the misinformation that vaccinated individuals could and would spread the original strains of coronavirus.
Anti-vaccine sentiment is an inevitability on posts by influencers who participate in these campaigns, but Jacobson says that the desire to share a positive message should outweigh the negative feedback.
“It’s a math that each talent is doing in their own head, whether they are passionate about this message, especially a social good campaign and if it’s in balance with the possibility of negative feedback,” he said.
The government organizations must prepare influencers to be aware that backlash is possible and offer tips for handling or not engaging with it.
“I would imagine most influencers are aware that this was a risk, but I think most of them feel it’s a duty,” Lyons says. “If they believe in the vaccine and these public guidelines, they know, ‘I’m going a public service here, and that’s not always easy.'”