Using content to motivate better health habits—well, it’s never been a cakewalk.
We know this, in part, because public health authorities have been trying it for decades. To get folks to vaccinate or exercise, they’ve used every tactic in the content rulebook. And because they’re in medicine, they’ve measured those under controlled conditions.
A review of those results can be sobering. In one landmark 2014 study in the journal Pediatrics, for instance, all four content strategies the authors tested—from well-sourced arguments to shocking images—failed to help any kids get their regularly scheduled vaccination shots.
In fact, some content made parents even less likely to vaccinate.
To make matters worse, poor information often has an easier time catching on. During the COVID-19 pandemic, outright lies and misleading information spread more quickly than data from trusted sources. And somehow those messages did lead to behavior change. A study from February in Nature Human Behavior showed that one exposure to wrong information about vaccines could make someone about 6% less likely to get one.
So what do people who spread health hoaxes know that Dr. Fauci doesn’t? Luckily for us, the past 18 months have been a golden era for communications research. We’ve distilled the best research from the pandemic to find four actionable strategies.
Lesson 1. Influencers work
According to one major six-week study of vaccine misinformation, two-thirds of the stories on social media came from just 12 people—“the disinformation dozen.” With their long reach and loyal networks, they have the ability to publish a landslide of hoax stories.
There’s no reason public health officials can’t play by the same rulebook—and in the past, they have. By 1956, only 0.6% of teens had gotten the vaccine to protect them from the polio epidemic. Then Elvis Presley went on the Ed Sullivan show, sang “Heartbreak Hotel,” and got his shot on camera. Within six months, teen vaccination went up to 80%.
Lesson 2. Vary the message
One of the most rigorous content studies of the pandemic-era, published in Nature, looked at 100 million vaccination opinions shared on social media. One thing worked in favor of bad information. It appeared in many more versions than stories from the other side.
This holds true for good information, too. If you offer more ways into a topic, readers can find the message that fits them best. This argues powerfully for a content strategy that works for all possible audiences—an approach that many public health offices are now following.
Lesson 3. Don’t get too technical
One major quantitative analysis from the spring sifted through dozens of studies about online conversations. Their biggest recommendation: simplify your message, speak from the heart.
While data has its place, it can’t overshadow the story. They looked at messages that failed to gain traction, and a chief takeaway for health organizations was “to adopt a less sterile, technical language when communicating with the general public.”
The group also looked at online speech from both sides of the vaccine debate. They also found that vaccine supporters had more much engagement—likes, replies and retweets—when the posters used emotional language when talking about their choices.
Lesson 4. Tell a story.
It’s hard to imagine a bigger red flag than when a social post starts with the phrase: “My husband’s cousin knows a guy…” But anecdotal stories catch fire for a reason. Bad vaccine messages center on experiences, according to the study above, and the pro-vaccine voices quote experts. Guess which messages win?
That lesson, thank goodness, is already catching on. The most recent Vaccine Messaging Guide from Unicef and the Yale Institute for Global Health has one big recommendation: tell stories. They cite a powerful study that shows how real accounts about kids and parents get more traction on vaccine sites than any other pages.
That’s something any good journalist would tell you: It takes a human story to bring the truth home.
Jason Anthony is the Executive Director of Science and Health Content at Foundry360 and runs Proto magazine—Content Marketing Association’s Best Content Marketing Program in Healthcare. He loves a good peer-review study and remembers to eat his vegetables.