How could we deliver trusted public health information to millions of people in engaging ways in the pandemic’s very noisy early days? Our answer – #BeatTheVirus (#BTV) – was a social media campaign that provided online influencers with scientifically vetted public health messaging and leveraged data analytics to target underexposed audiences online. We developed #BTV with a coalition of experts in public health, data analytics, media and marketing aimed at empowering people with critical information and resources they would need in their fight against COVID-19. Established in March 2020 as the pandemic emerged in the United States and running for 6 months, the campaign received more than 625 million impressions and 5.5 million engagements across Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. The campaign’s focus was to communicate – primarily through social media influencers – science-grounded messaging on proven public health practices in a manner that was publicly engaging (through creative communications) and dynamically distributed (through best-in-class analytics) across all audiences.
In the spring of 2020, the US faced an unprecedented and rapidly evolving public health communications crisis. Life-saving public health messages about preventing COVID-19 transmission were not being heard, trusted and adopted. A deeply fragmented media and political environment was resulting in harmful rumors, incomplete information, misconceptions and misinformation that spread quickly and indiscriminately. Logical sources of trustworthy public health information were struggling to break through – at the cost of many thousands of human lives.
With this challenge in mind, we worked with longtime collaborators Dr. Susan Blumenthal (former U.S. Assistant Surgeon General; Rear Admiral ret.; Senior Fellow in Health Policy, New America) and McKinsey & Company to form a coalition of public health, data analytics, media and marketing experts with the goal to save lives by helping guide the public with important messages through the extraordinary challenges that lie ahead.
The #BTV campaign’s goal of empowering millions of people with critical information called for an approach that combined: 1) scientifically vetted messaging; 2) social media influencers with vast numbers of followers; 3) media analytics that effectively targeted messages to audiences.
– applied methods developed in our research group to map Twitter interest-based communities based on followership patterns;
– tracked the diffusion of COVID-19 public health messaging within these communities to identify those underexposed to credible information;
– developed, via a network of creative and marketing experts, science-grounded #BTV messaging that was responsive to the situation on the ground and vetted by public health experts;
– identified top influencers (entertainers, athletes, etc.) in these underexposed communities and invited them to share these scientifically grounded and vetted messaging;
– measured significant increases in community exposure when these influencers posted #BTV content.
All told, during the six months of the active campaign, #BeatTheVirus received more than 625 million social media impressions and 5.5 million engagements on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.