6 Points to Consider With Vaccine Messaging

Compelling marketing strategies rooted in behavioral science research are critical to ensuring that lifesaving vaccines for COVID-19 become widely adopted. Widespread adoption of these vaccines is by far the safest way to end the COVID-19 pandemic across the world and get our lives back to normal. Yet, many people are still reluctant to get vaccinated. Since no vaccine is 100% effective, these seemingly personal decisions affect us all.

Here are 6 points to consider with COVID-19 vaccine messaging:

Know that education isn’t enough.

Health behavior research shows that simply educating people about what they should or shouldn’t do is rarely enough to influence behavior. Education is a great place to start, particularly when it is aimed at promoting accurate perceptions of COVID-19 and the vaccines available. But education is not enough—people also need the skills and motivation to make a particular choice or make a change. Vaccine marketing strategies must go beyond education to provide people with the tools they need to make the decision to vaccinate. Then, they must provide the motivation that people need to follow through, especially in cases where accessing a vaccine is more challenging.

Uncover barriers.

To encourage healthy behaviors, it is necessary to first identify what may be preventing people from engaging in those behaviors. The challenge is that obstacles are often different depending on the person or group of people. While we may not be able to uncover what’s in the hearts and minds of every vaccine-reluctant person, we can segment them into meaningful categories and message to them accordingly.

Develop tailored messaging frameworks.

Once these categories are established, messages should be constructed to meet reluctant groups where they are—whether they are skeptical of the evidence or science, uncertain because of health inequities, or simply fearful of needles. Once the appropriate messaging strategies are crafted for each group, the next step is to determine which channels or platforms are most likely to reach them. Also keep in mind that some groups may be unreachable by even the most compelling messaging or delivery channels. These groups should also be identified to avoid allocating resources to those who are unlikely to change their thinking or behavior.

Empathize and normalize.

Arguably the most critical step in targeting the identified groups is to try to understand them. Messaging should reflect an empathic understanding of the audience’s point of view. In many cases, hesitancy may result from justifiable fears based on prior life experiences. The goal of the messaging should be to ensure that each person feels understood, heard, and respected and communicate that their reluctance may be normal, given their circumstances. Showing people that they are valued and not alone in their feelings can help them feel supported and more open to the message that follows.

Promote self-efficacy and perceived control.

One of the most challenging aspects of “pandemic life” has been the lack of control most of us have felt over things like remaining safe and healthy, determining where we can or can’t go to, or how others’ choices may affect us. When we don’t perceive that we have a lot of control over our lives, it is especially challenging to feel confident in our ability to manage difficult situations or decisions. But feelings of self-efficacy and perceived control are essential to promoting health-related behaviors.

Vaccine messaging should help people see that deciding to get vaccinated is a choice that they have the ability to make, follow through on, and exert some control over. It is possible to help them feel more in control while also nudging them toward vaccination. One tool for accomplishing this is to pay attention to “choice architecture,” or the way choices are presented. This can involve strategies such as making vaccination appointments a default offering when people encounter the healthcare system or framing their decisions in terms of what they stand to lose by not becoming vaccinated. Both the messaging and actual vaccination process ought to make getting vaccinated the easy option.

Facilitate communication from trusted sources.

We are often swayed by what we perceive as normal, so providing “social proof” by showcasing others who are getting vaccinated or promoting vaccinations can go a long way toward influencing people’s decisions. This is often more impactful if the messengers are people they trust, admire, or respect as authority figures. When it comes to medical decisions, healthcare professionals (HCPs) often fill this role, so they can play a pivotal part in COVID-19 vaccine messaging. However, vaccination campaigns shouldn’t leave these conversations to chance. Rather, they can support HCPs with communication strategies and tools to help them uncover and address their patients’ barriers to getting vaccinated and encourage patients to consider new information and reasoning.

Dealing with widespread vaccination hesitancy won’t be easy. When it comes to being motivated to act, facts will often take a backseat to individuals’ perceptions. For many people, making the decision to get vaccinated—and following through on it—is fraught with fears, beliefs about who is and isn’t trustworthy, miscalculations of the relative risks, and a near-constant exposure to misinformation. Combatting this will be a challenge, but messaging strategies rooted in behavioral science can be an important tool in helping people understand that vaccination is essential to their wellbeing as well as the wellbeing of their families, their communities, and the world.

Read more topics on vaccines from the Ashfield Health Network.

MicroMass | The Vaccine Paradox: Navigating “Can’t” and “Won’t”
— Mindy Vulpis, PhD, Behaviorist II

Mind+Matter | Vaccines bring us closer… except when they don’t
— Rhianna Goozee, Senior Medical Writer

Mindy Vulpis, PhD, is a behaviorist II at MicroMass, an Ashfield Health Company. She applies behavioral science strategies to help support patients in making decisions and changes that benefit their health. She is currently working with pharmaceutical clients in the oncology, fertility, and pituitary disease spaces.