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  • 22nd Apr 2021

Vaccine communications: Equipping community advocates with behavioural science principles

Some countries are approaching the point where vaccine supply will outstrip demand, especially for people at high risk. While we are not there quite yet in Canada (and many other countries), the public health community is thinking ahead. How can governments, nonprofits, and others promote vaccine uptake among people that are questioning or hesitant? 

Addressing practical barriers to vaccination is at the heart of the challenge (e.g., time off work, transportation, ease of booking, etc.), but messaging can play an important, complementary role. Evidence on what messages work best is emerging rapidly. BIT recently ran a series of randomized controlled trials and focus groups in the US, culminating in a 20,000 person trial. It found four key messages that increased confidence in vaccine safety and efficacy among higher risk and more hesitant groups. Other researchers are rapidly publishing additional high-quality studies

Governments cannot do this alone — and they aren’t. Community leaders and organizations are mobilizing to develop and implement messaging campaigns and strategies. This is critically important; community-based organizations have channels, credibility, and insight that cannot be matched.

One size does not fit all when it comes to effective messaging, and the best tailors are the ones that know your size. In recognition of this, the Public Health Agency of Canada recently launched the Vaccine Community Innovation Challenge. They solicited applications from groups and individuals and will provide 20 finalists with $25,000 to create and implement their campaigns. At the end of the campaign, one winner will receive a grand prize of $100,000 to reinvest in the support of the protection and promotion of public health in their community. 

This initiative represents an innovative approach to leveraging government resources to support community-based campaigns. Other governments and funders may wish to consider similar programs.

We know that nonprofits and other groups are facing incredible challenges right now trying to keep their communities safe. Most do not have the time to review research papers and reports and pull out the most important findings. We imagine that 40-page evidence summaries may not be much better. Given this context, how can we help community organizations apply the latest and most relevant behavioural science evidence? 

BIT is helping the Public Health Agency of Canada solve this challenge. All applicants receive a 3-page reference guide on applying behavioural insights to vaccine uptake. The guide distills five key principles, four things to avoid, and four evidence-based messages for inspiration. It is freely available in English and French, and we encourage all organizations promoting vaccination to review it, use it for their campaigns, and share it with other groups.

The guide is far from comprehensive, but we believe it is accessible, evidence-based, and practical. Note that most of the research informing this guide was conducted in North America and therefore may not be accurate in other contexts.  

For those of you with more browser tabs open than you could get to in three lifetimes, here are the five key principles

  1. Make your campaign easy to understand and easy to act on
  2. Grab your audience’s attention
  3. Tell stories and use positive emotional appeals
  4. Make it social
  5. Use trusted messengers