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Since the COVID-19 virus emerged in winter of 2020, policymakers and public health officials trying to communicate to the public have faced rapidly changing patterns of infections, challenges in reporting cases/infections, and the virus’ behaviors changing through rapid mutations. In this complex messaging environment, Fors Marsh Group (FMG) has been at the intersection of data science, public health communication, and behavioral change as the prime contractor for the COVID-19 Public Education Campaign, or We Can Do This. The contract was awarded in August 2021 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Office of the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs (ASPA), with an additional two contracts since.  

The Shifting Sands of COVID-19 

Saving lives in a time of emerging science and evolving regulatory and legal structures requires a flexible, nimble data system. As marketers, we can’t simply rely on what we did last year — or sometimes even last month, since pandemic patterns are unknown and changing frequently. In addition, access to data needed to change, for example as vaccines were approved for children whose data was protected as minors.  

Unlike other public health issues such as smoking cessation, where outcomes are measured in years and decades, the pandemic response evolves with the pace of the virus, which determines the next wave and target audiences. This is where segmentation becomes a necessary approach to achieving results. 

What’s Segmentation? Applied Science in Marketing 

FMG has gone beyond traditional data analytics or formative research to extract and apply insights through segmentation, which uses advanced information technology and expert analysis to identify unique groupings of segments within a target audience. We derive data about and from target audiences and align it in an actionable way from strategy and messaging development to message placement and execution, closely guiding the public education and behavior change journey through layered, integrated paid, earned, and owned tactics. 

Segmentation provides a nuanced picture of data so organizations can connect with their audiences in the right place with the right message at the most personal level possible, yet through mass communication channels. In so doing, your marketing budget is optimized across audiences, geographies, demographics, and psychographics, for example, as related to the underlying attitudes about vaccines and government.  

Data helps inform target audience, message, messenger, tone, imagery, and placements. The We Can Do This campaign combined outreach to at-risk populations, efforts to promote racial and ethnic equity, and communication to key audiences, including “movable middle” adults who are hesitant about vaccines but have not yet ruled out getting a COVID-19 shot, parents with unvaccinated children, and the booster-eligible population.  

FMG’s Deep Data Operations 

We merge data analytics and strategy, evaluating data to identify and track behavior responses and using data to inform the creative. Segmentation provides layers of insight for custom communications; FMG uses data strategy, analytics, modeling, and communications expertise to develop key insights to plan, execute, and optimize integrated communication campaigns. This includes detailed audience personas for media planning and creative messaging approaches. With our technology, personnel, and data-driven mindset, we have the experience to align communication.  

1. Technology 

FMG’s data infrastructure can be tailored to meet each client’s needs. For the We Can Do This campaign, we utilize a cloud-hosted database that combines data from more than a dozen government, commercial, and subscription-based data feed, including U.S. Census Bureau, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Johns Hopkins and Carnegie Mellon data sets, Google Analytics, an AdTech stack for advertising metrics, and much more. Where there are gaps in data, FMG relies on statistical models and in-house primary research, including surveys and in-depth focus groups, to fill in the blanks. 

2. Personnel

FMG has the in-house expertise to deliver actionable insights; we employ data scientists, statisticians, engineers, and subject matter experts to engage experienced teams to suit the clients’ needs. For the integrated COVID-19 communication campaign, the segmentation team developed the analytics to deliver weekly analysis of emerging COVID-19 data. These insights are used to prioritize communication across the campaign team including identifying priority ZIP codes for digital advertising and top media markets for earned media and partnership activities. FMG’s teams have the expertise and vast experience in health behavior change to distinguish meaningful signals and vigilantly question assumptions. 

3. Mindset 

FMG forms a point of view based on evidence and experience, bringing together real-time data, multidimensional dashboards, and strategic insight to produce actionable insights. We can quickly make course adjustments in strategy that are backed by robust data.  

All government programs are scrutinized, as they should be, but this campaign received a tremendous amount of attention. FMG ensures that decisions regarding target audience and resource allocation are based on tangible evidence, down to the zip code level. FMG has 20 years of experience in applying data-driven communication strategies to some of our nation’s biggest health concerns. Let’s work together. Learn more about FMG's segmentation and optimization work

About the author

Sam Hagedorn and Will Riley

Sam Hagedorn

Sam Hagedorn is an experienced data strategist and communications researcher with over 10 years of experience focusing on data analytics for behavior change public communication campaigns. He focuses on developing innovative data approaches that provide actionable insights for creative development and media planning activities.

Currently, Sam leads audience segmentation for Fors Marsh Group's U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) We Can Do This COVID-19 vaccination integrated communication campaign, where he focuses on communication planning and optimization activities.

Sam is a summa cum laude graduate of American University with degrees in Economics and Public Communications. He is a member of the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR).



Will Riley

At Fors Marsh Group, Will uses his expertise in marketing, strategy, and data analytics to convert raw data into actionable insights. In his current role as Segmentation Analyst for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)’s COVID-19 Public Education Campaign, he focuses on using the most up to date COVID-19 data from government sources and predictive models to identify which geographic areas and demographic groups are most in need of and receptive to HHS’s COVID-19 messaging.

Will earned his BA in Modern Languages from the University of Oxford and speaks French and Spanish fluently. 


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