A few weeks ago, I described the communication objectives around the new vaccine as “the biggest marketing challenge in human history.”

In order to pull the US out of the pandemic, marketers at Pfizer and Moderna will have to triple the core market for the vaccine. Moreover, they have to do this in the midst of unprecedented levels of skepticism, fear, and disinformation. This campaign cannot look like anything that has gone before it. It cannot rely on celebrity influencers, political endorsements, crude social pressure, shame, or condescension.

Unfortunately, it’s already failing, and we have the numbers to prove it.

The Problem

As of mid January over 22 million doses had been distributed, but under 7 million shots had actually been given. This is consistent with my interpretation of the Pew opinion survey data suggesting that the actual core market of people who are truly willing to take the vaccine is just 30% of the population. Meanwhile, Dr. Fauci recently confirmed that the true threshold of immunization is at least 80% and possibly higher. Fears about vaccine safety, a “rushed process,” and widely varying perceptions of personal risk continue to be the primary drivers of resistance.

By the end of Q1, we will have exhausted the core market and will run into a hard wall of skepticism. Then what?

I start with the premise that persuasion is better than coercion. It is possible that heavy handed policy tactics could be brought to bear on skeptics, effectively forcing them to get the vaccine. However, the social cost of such an approach would be significant. Trust in our institutions is already at an all-time low. This campaign should be used as an opportunity to enhance that trust rather than further erode it.

The Experiment

Over the last few weeks, GeistM has run a controlled test of vaccine-related content to see whether people are persuadable and, if so, how they might be persuaded.

We wrote two articles, both using the same editorial voice and syntactic structure. One of them was a “pro-vaccine” piece while the other expressed skepticism. We used a number of different headlines to drive traffic to each of these pieces, some of them with a clear bias (e.g. “Why you should take the COVID vaccine” or “Was the COVID vaccine rolled out too quickly?”) and some neutral (e.g., “Here’s what you need to know about the COVID vaccine”).

The Results

First, the good news. We saw some of the highest click through rates and lowest costs per click of any campaign we have ever run. This tells us that the public is highly interested in vaccine-related content and are eager to educate themselves. As long as that is the case, it means that vaccine messaging should be relatively inexpensive via digital channels.

Interestingly, the neutral headlines performed best. This suggests that the large group of “skeptical but persuadable” people are still open to information regarding the vaccine. Clickbait-style headlines will backfire with this group.

We measured the amount of time spent reading each article. This is an effective proxy for “engagement.” Both articles saw an average of almost 5 minutes of user engagement—​nearly double what we see for a successful consumer branding campaign. People are willing to spend time reading vaccine content, so long as it is not condescending or superficial.

At the end of each article, we asked readers if they planned to take the vaccine or not.

These were the results after reading the pro-vaccine piece:

Here are the results from those who read the skeptical piece:

Clearly, the content had an effect. Those who read the pro-vaccine information were 2.8 times more likely to take the vaccine than those who read the skeptical article. By contrast, those who read the skeptical article were 2.5 times more likely to say that they would not take the vaccine.

Next, we ran a re-targeting campaign at those who had read only the original “anti-vaccine” article and indicated they were either unsure they would take the vaccine or did not plan to do so. The headlines for this follow-up article were specifically written for skeptics (e.g. “Unsure about the Covid-19 Vaccine? 3 Things You Should Know”). The article itself addressed the primary drivers of vaccine hesitancy, as identified in the Pew research. This part of our experiment was designed to demonstrate whether high-quality, persuasive content targeted specifically at skeptics could move the needle. The results were impressive. A narrow majority, 52% of the original group of skeptics said that they would be willing to take the vaccine. That is an improvement of over 3x versus the results from the original anti-vaccine piece.

Next Steps

What does this mean in practical terms? It means that people remain persuadable when it comes to taking the vaccine—​even hard-core skeptics. The key is to marry respectful, information-based persuasive content with sophisticated audience targeting.

The rollout of the Covid-19 vaccines has focused excessively on “awareness,” crude pressure tactics, and logistical considerations rather than leaning into persuasion. The more time that passes—​and the more content that people consume—​the less persuadable the public will be. If we are to have any hope of reaching herd immunity, it is essential that Pfizer, Moderna, and governmental agencies modify their marketing tactics.

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