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Reaching your desired audience with the right message is the magic equation in marketing. Now, imagine that your target audience is nearly every age group, geographic area, ethnicity, race, gender, and unique differentiator—for example, parents of school-aged children, military, non-English speaking, rural—in the United States. And your message is to drive positive behavior change during the largest health crisis of our time.

That was—and continues to be—the challenge faced by Fors Marsh Group (FMG) starting in August 2020 when we were tasked with creating and implementing a public education and behavior change marketing strategy for the COVID-19 Public Education Campaign. The initiative is conducted for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Office of the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs (ASPA), with a follow-on contract awarded in August 2021.

The even bigger challenge, we learned, is finding the best messenger.

Applying Strategy to Unpredictable Change

The pace of change for the virus and health responses was unprecedented, from the introduction of vaccines to emerging variants over time. FMG’s strategic marketing approach followed the course of the ever-changing pandemic, sometimes pivoting quickly based on the latest data and guidance from HHS and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), availability of vaccines and boosters, and the approval of vaccines for younger age groups. FMG designed the We Can Do This campaign with 3 stages of strategic marketing, moving the public from understanding to attitude to action:

  1. Slow the Spread: Traditional tactics such as paid and earned media were leveraged in the beginning as cases and hospitalizations were rising and vaccines were in development. Our focus was on limiting the spread of COVID-19 before vaccines were available. We were careful not to promote the vaccine before adequate supply was available to avoid creating unmet demand and a negative outlook on the client and vaccinations.
  2. Building Vaccine Confidence: Since March 2021, when the first vaccines became available in the United States, we have targeted our marketing efforts based on vaccine and/or booster readiness and availability. Our focus has been on the undecided middle, homing in on impacted groups, such as the 65+ age group, those 50 or older with underlying health conditions, and currently, parents of school-aged children. We have not invested time and resources into targeting early adopters or those who have expressed no intention to ever get vaccinated.
  3. Preparing the Nation: This stage of the We Can Do This campaign primarily uses paid media to distribute information on new science, vaccine and test availability, and the course of the disease.

Building Trust Through Trusted Messengers

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the racial and social inequities in public health, and the virus has disproportionately affected racial and ethnic minority groups. Traditional marketing channels such as television and radio had a limited and defined reach, missing some underserved communities or not being trusted when coming directly from the government. We knew we needed to diversify our approach, leveraging individuals with trusted voices among our key audiences who could help build confidence in vaccines and amplify our messaging. These influencers included:

  • Medical experts
  • Digital creators with social followers
  • Local community leaders
  • Parenting role models
  • Media personalities
  • Artists
  • Musicians and other entertainers
  • Athletes

Influencer Marketing in Action

Leveraging our partnership network, we were able to use nontraditional storytellers in filmmaking—to produce videos with three NBA players. PlayersTV, an athlete-owned media network, then distributed the content across its digital platforms and the athletes’ social channels. The promise demonstrated by our initial efforts led to brainstorming on other ways to use digital platforms, community events, and local influencers to go hyperlocal with our marketing.

As the vaccine became available to school-aged children, we knew we had to apply this “out of the box” approach at a much deeper level and broader scale than ever before—and as quickly as possible for direct and immediate influence. How could we reach parents and children through trusted messengers within their communities? We worked with local agencies to identify tactics and influencers, for example, inviting physicians to speak at vaccine events or testing sites.

Based on our experience with other government health programs, such as smoking cessation, we know that mothers are usually the health navigators of the family. Many cities across the United States have local moms’ networks who use Instagram, Facebook, and other platforms to share vital information within their communities. These mothers are paid content creators with a trusted voice and a proven track record of influence. Partnering with mom bloggers in 27 cities, FMG provided these influencers with a creative brief of key message points and links to approved content but allowed latitude for creators to put messaging into their own voices for a “word of mouth” approach. With a reach of 2.1M impressions across website and social media, 21 of 27 sites reported no issues and only one lost a sponsor due to negative feedback.

Another national influencer campaign with Mom 2.0 reached 12.3M Instagram followers and 6.8M Twitter followers. We produced a YouTube video interview featuring singer-songwriter, actress, and television personality Kelly Rowland discussing her motivation for getting her 7-year-old son vaccinated. This campaign set the high-water mark for the entire initiative both in reach (+18.6%) and positive public sentiment (+56.5%) vs the next-closest benchmarks. Overall, the reach of parenting influencers went well beyond expectations.

Why FMG?

Although influencer marketing is not a new concept, it is an often overlooked or underused and innovative approach in large-scale federal government campaigns. FMG has more than 20 years of experience in applying data-driven strategies to some of our nation’s biggest health concerns. We have the relationships to quickly assemble teams with diverse expertise in marketing, communications, behavior change, technology, and program management. Learn more about FMG.

 

About the author

Kelli Hunter and Cate Mueller

KELLI HUNTER

At Fors Marsh Group, Kelli applies her passion for relationship building and innovative partnerships as an influencer outreach strategist overseeing influencer workstream strategy and execution for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service (HHS) Office of the Assistant Secretary for Public Affair’s (ASPA) COVID-19 Public Education Campaign. Before joining Fors Marsh Group, Kelli worked as a senior communications specialist on the Social Marketing team at ICF Next. In Kelli’s 10 years of experience, she has worked in the health marketing sector on public health communication campaigns for both federal and private clients, including HHS, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and Morehouse School of Medicine. In her work, she has reached a variety of diverse audiences across an array of topics, from COVID-19 to HIV and opioid overdose prevention. Throughout her career, she has had the opportunity to lead and contribute to activities in many other areas, including partnership management, stakeholder and community engagement, outreach strategy, event planning, content development, and formative research. Kelli earned an MPH and BS in community health from the University of Maryland College Park.

 

  

CATE MUELLER

Cate is an expert communications professional with extensive experience developing, implementing, and evaluating innovative strategies for communicating key messages to the public and across large, multifaceted organizations. Supporting the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service (HHS) Office of the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs (ASPA) COVID-19 Public Education Campaign since its early days, Cate finds innovative ways to explain difficult subjects through channels that resonate best with target audiences. She coordinates all aspects of outreach through local and constituent media outlets and with national partnerships, ensuring synchronization of campaign messaging for best effect. She also manages national partnerships that provide innovative methods to communicate through sports influencers and events.

Integrating a wide variety of activities to communicate strategically was the hallmark of Cate’s 26-year Navy career, during which she led Navy public information efforts that included introducing a new maritime strategy to creating a comprehensive approach to educate and inform the American public about multibillion-dollar defense acquisitions. Her extensive experience working with Department of Defense (DoD) public and legislative affairs teams—often in coordination with the White House, State Department, and Congressional committees—makes her an exceptional strategic counselor for getting things done in a complex environment. Cate earned an MA in journalism and public affairs from American University and a BA in public policy studies from Duke University. 

 

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