Using the power of minor internet celebrity to promote vaccines
Aug 18, 2021

Using the power of minor internet celebrity to promote vaccines

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San Jose officials say posts from local influencers helped the city's one-dose vaccination rate climb 12 percentage points this summer.

The Biden administration is reportedly considering recommending a booster shot of the COVID-19 vaccine. But almost a third of Americans over 12 haven’t gotten their first dose yet.

Some local health departments are pioneering a new way to reach the hold-outs through micro-influencers. These aren’t the big stars of social media with millions of fans and their own product lines. Rather, these folks have smaller, local followings in specific communities.

The city of San Jose, California, and the Knight Foundation recently partnered with about 50 Vietnamese, Latinx and Black micro-influencers to promote vaccines.

Andy Lutzky is the city’s chief communications and marketing officer. He says San Jose’s vaccination rate rose 12 percentage points over the summer, in part because of the influencers’ work. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Andy Lutzky: There was one incredible post from a small business owner here in San Jose. His Instagram is Marco.dmg, and his post was this incredibly heartfelt vulnerable post around how he has struggled in the last year and how important it was that his community got the vaccine, so that small businesses like his could prosper. So as you looked at the content across all these creators, it did a fantastic job of reaching these communities in ways that they wanted to receive information in ways they already trusted.

Andy Lutzky (courtesy of Lutsky).

Meghan McCarty Carino: What are the benefits of having them deliver this message versus someone with a really big following, like Steph Curry or something?

Lutzky: Not everyone is listening to Steph Curry. For some people, they get information and they follow personalities who are more specific to their interests, are specific to their backgrounds, specific to the kinds of people that they relate to. For some, it is a struggling Hispanic small business owner. For some it is a young Vietnamese artist. So, the goal is that influencer relations isn’t our single avenue to solve misinformation but it is one of several channels ideally that we can use to so that we can communicate things like pandemic safety in a trusted and in more high quality and accurate and timely fashion.

McCarty Carino: You mentioned that these efforts were coupled with sort of more traditional outreach, going door-to-door, working with clinics and that kind of thing. How do you measure whether the influencer campaigns really made the difference? 

Lutzky: We have a couple of direct measurement methods. We could always look at vaccination rate, infection rate. We can look at several indirect measures, engagement with the content that was created sentiment and positivity of the content, direct comments on the content. In terms of sentiment, we were really struck. The comments and content that was developed as part of this campaign were 98% positive. We expected a far lower metric than that. 98% positivity told us that we were on the right track as far as reaching communities with quality information that they could trust and use. Routinely, we saw comments that said: “Thank you for this, because of this post, I’m going to get my vaccine.” “Because of this post, I’m going to share this information with my family or friend or loved one, so they get the vaccine.” And as you see more of those, in some of these communities where vaccine hesitancy has been high, it shows that it’s working. Now bigger picture, influencer relations should be one part of the solution. I would not position influencer relations as a panacea to solve vaccine hesitancy to solve misinformation. Influencer relations is one channel that we hope to use to begin to build long-term lasting trust with communities that, for quite a while, we may have been missing.

This graph shows the number of daily impressions of social media posts, the one-dose vaccination rate for both the metro and county-wide populations over time. XOMAD highlights the correlation between the number of social media posts and the number of people vaccinated in San Jose.
A slide from San Jose’s report on its campaign, showing the number of daily impressions of social media posts, the one-dose vaccination rate for both the metro and county-wide populations over time. (XOMAD).

McCarty Carino: And it sounds like you guys are viewing this as almost a down payment in in terms of reaching these communities in the long term.

Lutzky: You could imagine 20 years ago, public sector communications folks were saying, “I need to have a website? I got to pay for web hosting?” And maybe 10 years ago, they were saying, “I got to have a Twitter and a Facebook?” Influencer relations is going to be one of those things in the years ahead that we’re going to see become more and more commonplace in the public sector and overall, just improve the government’s ability, particularly local government, to get the word out about important things and important causes.

McCarty Carino: What sorts of important things and important causes might you use these kinds of pathways for in the future after vaccine outreach?

Lutzky: With the amount of natural disasters we have here in California, we could see situations where needing to get the word out urgently about important action, will be very important, particularly for these communities that traditional public sector communications doesn’t reach. And hopefully our ability to create some of these trusted pathways now will improve our ability to get the word out when we really, really have to.

Related Links: More insight from Meghan McCarty Carino

An LA Times story about similar campaigns reports that the agency San Jose partnered with, XOMAD, developed a platform where influencers can fine-tune or change messaging to respond to events like the pause in the use of Johnson & Johnson vaccines, or respond to new online misinformation.

And speaking of misinformation, public health departments aren’t the only ones interested in using the power of influencers. The BBC reports that a mysterious marketing agency approached several YouTube creators with offers of money to spread misinformation about the vaccines. Some of the YouTube stars alerted authorities.

The New York Times later reported the agency was linked to a Moscow-based company and that some of the talking points it circulated were similar to promotional materials for Russia’s Sputnik-V vaccine.

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