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Trusted Messengers Drive Positive Social Behavioral Change on Social Media

Three Facebook ads featuring Veterans encouraging people to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Veterans prove memorable and effective in decreasing vaccine hesitancy.

The TL;DR Summary of Our Latest Myth-Busting Campaign?

  • Surprisingly, women (vs. men) converted at an astounding rate. Of the women that went to the landing page, 18% clicked to register for a vaccine, 800% above the campaign average
  • Based on both the marketing and brand lift study results, we believe that a mix of static and short videos was a winning combination
  • Our myth-busting campaign was well, just that – a bust. Scroll to the end to learn why.

What do Veterans, women impacted by COVID-19, and emojis have in common? Nothing! That was exactly the point.

Throughout 2021 and through its partnership with Meta, formerly Facebook, CARE USA worked on decreasing vaccine hesitancy by designing and running social and behavioral change communications (SBCC) campaigns on Facebook and Instagram. Incorporating learnings from campaigns that ran during the first half of the year, CARE ran two social and behavioral change communications (SBCC) campaigns on social media, one featuring distinguished U.S. Veterans as trusted messengers and a second featuring content that dispelled common myths about the vaccines. We wanted to discover which approach would drive a higher increase in belief that the COVID vaccines were safe and that getting vaccinated was important.


From September to December 2021, the Delta variant was rampant and COVID cases continued to spike, particularly amongst unvaccinated populations. Despite Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval of the Pfizer Vaccine on August 23, only 30% of the target audience for the SBCC campaign thought that the COVID vaccine was safe and that getting vaccinated was important. Therefore, we knew that our messaging and continued partnership with Meta was of the utmost importance.

Veterans Campaign

The first test in this series launched September 2 and ran through October 4, 2021. It featured seven decorated Veterans: Admiral William H. McRaven, General Stanley A. McChrystal, Admiral Michael Mullen, General Joseph Votel, Major General Charles Bolden, Admiral Cecil Haney, and Captain Florent Groberg. Each Veteran’s ad included messaging about the safety and effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines and personal statements about why each of them chose to get the vaccine to protect their health, families, and country. The ads emphasized their choice to get vaccinated demonstrating values of freedom, liberty, strength, and duty – all themes that we anticipated would resonate with our target audience based on insights from the UNICEF Vaccine Messaging Guide.

The campaign included three creative approaches – long video (over one minute), short video (approximately thirty seconds) and a static image. In addition to testing a new type of trusted messenger, we wanted to understand whether a specific creative format drove more impact than another.

Using Meta’s ad targeting, these ads were served to politically conservative adults aged 18-49 in twelve states where vaccine hesitancy was highest at the time according to Carnegie Melon University’s COVIDcast Data. Targeted states included Alabama, Arkansas, Washington, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, and Tennessee. Note that we excluded parts of Louisiana that were hardest hit by Hurricane Ida, which occurred at the onset of this campaign.

Veterans Campaign Results

Communication Metrics

  • Reach: The Veterans ad series reached 5.1 million people with a frequency of 2.3 views per person.
  • Click-through Rate: Our click-through rate (CTR) of 0.14% was 30% below our 0.2% benchmark from previous campaigns.
  • Conversion: Those that did click through to the campaign landing page were 23% more likely to convert to clicking to “register for the vaccine” (a button that directs people to the CDC’s vaccine finder page) than in our previous campaign that showcased faith-based leaders as the trusted messenger. Surprisingly, women converted at an astounding rate. Of the women that went to the landing page, 18% clicked to register for a vaccine. That’s 800% above the campaign average of 2%. What drove the significantly higher conversion? We wish we knew.
  • Ad Recall: Also surprising, ad recall was on 🔥🔥🔥. Static ads had an overall ad recall of +10.8pts, above the +6.1pt benchmark. Ad recall was the strongest amongst men aged 45-54, who had a recall of +15.3pts. This campaign had our highest ad recall of the year. This is a bit less surprising as CARE USA’s static ads are consistently bold graphics with attention grabbing pull quotes that are easily readable on an iPhone, where most media was delivered. Ad recall was the strongest amongst men aged 45-54, who had a recall of +15.3pts. This campaign had our highest ad recall of the year.

Health Impact Metrics

Using Meta’s brand lift tool, we surveyed audiences exposed and not exposed to the campaign to look for a difference in their attitudes. Because research shows that people’s knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors can be shifted by increasing their perception of social acceptance and norming, we hoped to see a 2-point lift or better with our audience, meaning that the people who saw the campaign were more likely – by two percentage points or more – to express positive attitudes toward the promoted behavior or question. Again, CARE’s target audience was vaccine hesitant 18–49-year-old adults.

  • Vaccine Importance: The static ads showed a +3.9pt lift for females ages 18-24 and +3.6pts for males ages 45-54.
  • Vaccine Safety: The short videos had a +4pts lift for females ages 35-44 and the long videos drove a +3.6pt lift with males ages 18-24 vs the control group.

Veterans Campaign Conclusion

Based on both the marketing and brand lift study results, we believe that a mix of static and short videos was a winning combination. We launched this campaign days after American troops exited Afghanistan and some of the featured Veterans were also in the news being interviewed on their point of view about the situation. We’re not sure whether the cultural context in this moment had a positive or negative effect on the performance of the ads. We know that cultural events certainly had an impact on the SBCC campaign in the Czech Republic.

It would be interesting to run Veterans as trusted messengers at another moment in time to see if performance changes occur.

Myth-Busting Campaign

In November, CARE focused on myth-busting. The tactic was one identified via social listening, particularly in other countries, to combat misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines and it seemed to be effective in driving online conversations. Would myth-busting work as an SBCC tactic?

A series of GIF ads were created that aimed to dispel the most talked about myths about the vaccine and its side effects.

Prior to launch, we ran a quick test using Meta’s A/B testing tool to determine the top creative for myth-busting ads. Of the original twenty ads designed and tested, CARE ran the eight top performers in the full campaign. These eight were separated into ads that included an image of a real person vs. ones that had a happy face emoji featuring a fact about the vaccine and a sad face emoji featuring a myth about the vaccine. We wondered if emojis, a now ubiquitous form of communication, would outperform images of people.

At the time, November 1 – 23, 2021, the climate around COVID remained similar to the previous campaign, with the addition of eligibility for children five years of age and older announced on November 2, 2021.

The target audience remained similar as well. This ad series was served to politically conservative adults 18-49 years of age in the twelve states with the highest levels of vaccine hesitancy according to Carnegie Melon University’s COVIDcast Data. Targeted states included Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.

Myth-Busting Campaign Results

Communication and Health Impact Metrics

While the Emoji GIFs were not memorable, the “Real People” ads were recalled by men 18-24 (+7.1pts) and females 25-34 (+5.5pts).

Interestingly, while the Emoji ads did not have strong recall, they slightly outperformed across click-through rate (CTR) and engagement.

In weak performing campaigns, we continue to see the diverging results between advertising and brand lift metrics. Across metrics, very few correlated. Ads featuring real people drove higher ad recall, yet Emoji ads drove stronger engagement (such as social shares). Conversion to click to register for a vaccine was flat between the two versions.

According to the health outcome questions in the brand lift study related to perception of the vaccine’s safety and importance, these ads did not show any lift. The Performance metrics were also poor with a CTR of 0.08%, a 43% decline vs. the Veterans campaign.

Compared to Veterans, landing page sessions were down 54% due to low CTR, clicks to register for a vaccine were up 186% and thus conversion rate (CVR) to register was +12% (2.3%). Curiously, men converted higher than women.

People visiting the landing page from these ads spent 57% less time on the page than those visiting from the Veterans ads. It is possible that those for whom these ads resonated were earlier in their vaccine planning process and still looking for research vs. being ready to register for a vaccine.

Overall, this campaign was a bust. We wondered if people interested in learning myth-busting facts were still too early in their behavioral change journey. And, despite doing our best to avoid reinforcing myths, we wondered if the existing campaign.

What Next?

In our final campaign of 2021, CARE created ads featuring women who had been impacted by COVID-19 sharing personal stories. Originally, these were slated to run in August alongside the Veteran campaign ads; however, because many of the stories talked about the impact of COVID on individual families, we decided to run these ads in November, ahead of Thanksgiving and holiday travel, when we knew many would gather with their families. We hoped this timing would give these ads greater weight and driver more impact. And, we were right! See the results of one of our top performing SBCC campaigns here. 

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