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Agencies Use Census Messaging Lessons in Service of Vaccines

Illinois’ state government is one of several agencies taking a data and analytics-driven approach to messaging around COVID-19 vaccine distribution efforts, similar to the same efforts for the U.S. Census.

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As state and local government agencies work to support national COVID-19 vaccine distribution efforts, some are using data-driven messaging strategies similar to those they deployed last year during the U.S. Census.

Essentially, during the Census there were segments of communities that were traditionally undercounted, and many agencies at the state and local government levels worked to help change that by reaching those communities with data-driven messaging. Now, as a national effort works to encourage all Americans to pursue and receive a voluntary COVID-19 vaccine, data indicates that some are hesitant to do so. As a result, there are stakeholders at the state and local government levels that are pivoting the messaging lessons learned during the Census to apply them to vaccine work.

The overall strategy involved here is a relatively simple one, putting message testing at or near its center. Basically, it works by taking a human-centered approach to reaching the groups within communities who might be resistant to getting the COVID-19 vaccine for any number of reasons. Researchers have found that these groups have a bit of overlap with those hesitant to take the Census, including immigrant communities and others who have long been traditionally underserved by power structures. 

So just as with the Census, government agencies and analytics companies who work with the private sector are conducting research and message testing with that hesitancy in mind. While some of the reasons that folks do not want to take the vaccine seem to differ from those related to the Census, researching what does work and why remains an effective approach, said Chris Dick, managing director of public-sector work for Civis Analytics.

The most important part of this work, he said, is using research and the resultant data to pinpoint barriers to taking the vaccine and effective motivators for overcoming them.

“Once we have those barriers and motivators,” Dick said, “we can start to develop a message either with a creative team or with the government.”

Other lessons about vaccine distribution as crystalized by Civis’ research include correcting misinformation is ineffective; repeat message testing over time is essential; and it’s a smart move to de-couple efficiency from safety in campaigns.

This might all sound a bit like common sense, and indeed, for private-sector companies with large advertising budgets, it is often standard operating procedure. The public sector, as always, functions a bit differently, with institutions that tend to operate with perpetually strained budgets, leaving little room for miscalculation. Accountability also functions differently without profit as a means of checking efficiency. As a result, government messaging efforts have long tended to rely on assumptions more than those launched by the private sector.

To help government in these efforts, Civis has created and recently launched a vaccine campaign toolkit for the public sector. The company has also been working on data-driven messaging campaigns closely with several public entities, including the state government of Illinois. 

Alex Hanns, a deputy press secretary with the office of Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, said the state has worked with Civis on data-driven messaging campaigns around mask wearing, contact tracing and now vaccines. One interesting piece of the work, Hanns noted, has been seeing that there are parallels in these campaigns that often do not change by topic. 

“With all the topics we’ve tested, we’ve seen that personal benefits are what resonate with people — meeting people where they are and giving them straight-forward reasons to do what’s right,” Hanns said.

Stressing personal benefits was also a powerful motivator within messaging for the Census, during which researchers found that people were more likely to be proactive about being counted when they knew the Census directly connected to local funding and political representation. 

This is all vital information that stands to become more valuable as the vaccine distribution process matures and injections become more widely available.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.