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The Power of ‘Micro-Influencers’ in the Fight Against COVID-19

Informed by social media analysis and surveys, San Jose built a corps of trusted local messengers to boost vaccination rates in hard-to-reach communities.

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(Paul Maguire/Shutterstock)
During any crisis, and especially during a long-running one such as COVID-19, local leaders need to rally their residents and encourage them to take certain steps and adopt constructive behaviors. Local officials find themselves in an interesting place where they are more trusted than leaders of any other level of government but nevertheless also suffer from the general distrust for authority.

And, of course, even more problematic is that a large percentage of the population doesn’t pay attention at all to what local officials pronounce. In any case, official local government communications constitute only a tiny percentage of online discourse, and official messaging reaches disadvantaged communities even more infrequently. Those disparities have been highlighted as never before by the struggle to get COVID-19 vaccination rates up to the point where herd immunity is achieved.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) sponsored a recent sentiment analysis study of social media in 18 U.S. cities to ascertain attitudes about vaccinations and what influenced those attitudes. The RWJF initiative helped mayors in the participating cities understand the views of residents about vaccination and assisted municipal leaders in fashioning policies and shaping their messaging.

The study, conducted by Zencity, evaluated anonymous social sentiment, augmenting the results with surveys. According to project manager Sarah Graizbord, president of the Bennett Midland consulting firm, “relatability” is key. The data, she says, reflected that “messengers are most effective when they are seen as part of the community.” And as it relates to vaccinations, the messages must convey the direct benefits of the shots for individuals and their families. Therefore, mayors should not only craft messages that data shows will in fact drive healthy behaviors but also look to trusted local voices, both those of family members and community leaders.

San Jose, Calif., is one city that effectively combined the right message with the best messengers in a creative approach supported by the Knight Foundation. Facing slow adoption of COVID-19 vaccines among its Black, Latino and Vietnamese populations, especially in the Generation Z and millennial age groups, the city enlisted XOMAD, a company with experience in activating trusted local social media “micro-influencers.”

XOMAD helped the city create a sense of community by identifying and onboarding 49 “San Jose Community Messengers” and involving those individuals in the issues surrounding vaccine hesitancy. “What was so advantageous,” says Trevor Gould, a senior executive analyst for the city, “ is that they helped us reach populations through localized communications by nontraditional avenues.”

Importantly, these “trusted messengers” represented the hard-to-reach communities targeted by the city. They were 75 percent female, 61 percent ages 25 to 29 and 50 percent Latino. Over half of the messengers were micro-influencers with fewer than 10,000 followers, while two of them had more than 150,000 followers. The innovative program, bearing the hashtag #thisisourshotsj, produced 2.95 million views across Instagram, TikTok, Twitter and Facebook.

Andy Lutzky, the city’s chief communications and marketing officer, carefully points out that while his office provided the influencers with factual information related to the vaccinations, it did not infringe on the messenger’s independence or suggest content for their communications. “We definitely gave them some messaging decks with factual information related to vaccines,” he says, “but this only works if people feel like the message and the messenger are authentic.”

The San Jose project illustrates a broadly applicable set of principles applicable to all critical communications emanating from city hall. It shows that a mayor can influence behaviors and motivate actions by helping influential individuals utilize social media to accomplish public goals. But the voices of these micro-influencers must both be authentic and be viewed as authentic, so there exists an important boundary on what the city can do to influence those messages. Residents particularly distrustful of authority or who don’t speak English as a first language will look inside their communities for instructions and answers.

Clearly, a mayor’s adept and respectful partnership with such community leaders can produce enormous benefit. That’s what happened in San Jose, where the #thisisourshotsj campaign has boosted vaccination rates across the board among the targeted communities. The percentage of city residents with at least one dose grew from 73 percent to 85 percent over the campaign’s duration from May 6 to July 19. And of the more than 2,500 comments posted in response to the campaign, 98 percent were positive — responses such as “I’m now going to get vaccinated” and “Thank you for sharing this important info.”

Lutzky describes his job as driving positive outcomes for an audience by sharing information “that's accurate, timely and high quality, but doing it in ways that build lasting trust and understanding.” The San Jose vaccination campaign demonstrates this approach by meeting residents where they are already getting their information and doing it with voices that they already trust.



Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
A professor of practice at the Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Innovations in American Government Program. He can be reached at stephen_goldsmith@harvard.edu.
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