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What should be considered when using digital communication to communicate about COVID-19?
What should be considered when using digital communication to communicate about COVID-19?
Anika Jain avatar
Written by Anika Jain
Updated over a week ago

Social media as a delivery channel:

Social media are web-based or application-based platforms that allow their users to create and share content, leading to the development of social networks. Some examples of social media networks are Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, Snapchat and LinkedIn. The strengths of using social media as a delivery channel is that it is cheap, it can allow for a two-way dialogue (e.g. via comments and likes), it is easy to track and reach engagement (especially with the use of social media analytics, hashtags and the number of views), and it allows for different types of content (i.e. photos, articles, videos). Studies have shown that platforms like YouTube have a huge potential to reach and engage people on COVID-19 prevention messages. The challenges of using social media are that it can be difficult to regulate or moderate and it may only be useful in reaching certain parts of the population (such as people who have access to the internet or smart phones, suggesting it may not be a good option for the rural population, especially in low income settings).

Here are some tips and considerations if using social media as a delivery channel:

  • Develop content that can be delivered in a range of formats - Try to develop posts that utilise questions or polls, photos, graphics, and videos. As an example, Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) developed a multitude of social media cards with clear messages and graphics on a variety of COVID-19 topics.

  • Staff social media initiatives sufficiently - Make sure to allocate sufficient staff to your social media work to ensure that your organization can properly interact and respond to your target audience. This may include moderating and removing offensive or inaccurate content.

  • Develop a plan for engaging people in your content - At a relatively low cost some social media platforms provide the opportunity to do paid or promoted posts. These can be useful for reaching large audiences. However there are other ways of grabbing people’s attention on social media. For example, WaterAid Eswatini engaged a local comedy troupe to share COVID-19 prevention messages. The comedy element of videos like this helped to draw more people to their COVID-19 content.

  • Differentiate your posts from misinformation - Many rumours or misinformation often start on social media. It's important to think about how your content may be perceived and to actively differentiate your posts from other misinformation shared on social media. This might include stating the source of where information comes from, using consistent colours or branding, including multiple perspectives and opinions, fact-checking and correcting common misunderstandings and depicting situations which reflect the local situation. A recent study also showed that if you remind people to think critically about the information they are receiving then they will be more likely to distinguish between accurate and fake information.

  • Make social media sharing participatory - Think of ways that your population can create and share content based on their experiences of the pandemic. For example the World Health Organization (WHO) began a #SafeHands Challenge on social media. This encouraged people to record videos of them washing their hands. Strategies like this are effective because they help to normalise and celebrate preventative behaviours. The Vietnamese Health Ministry created a COVID-19 video and song recommending proper hygiene behaviours and limiting contact with crowds. This song and its messaging also became part of a popular TikTok handwashing dance challenge.

Online group chats as a delivery channel:

Online group chats are platforms by which groups of people can exchange messages with one another. Some examples of group chats are WhatsApp, GroupMe and Facebook messenger. Online groups are great for two-way information sharing, they are useful for communicating within an established social network and are quite highly trusted by users since the information comes from people they know. Online group chats can be leveraged by implementers and health care workers as a platform for communities to share best practices and keep up to date about rapidly changing information and regulations. The down sides of using group chats are that it is very difficult to regulate and moderate, it is not possible to track how information is shared, it is difficult to distinguish between your content and other misinformation and that existing groups are normally closed to other users.

Here are some tips and considerations if using online group chats as a delivery channel:

  • Develop content that can be delivered in a range of formats, including written content, photos, graphics and short videos.

  • If you are setting up a new online group chat, make sure it has a clear goal or purpose based on a) who is eligible to be a part of the group, b) how you would like people to use the group (e.g. ask questions, share ideas or experiences) and c) what types of content should not be shared.

  • Carefully consider whether to publish the links to groups chats as this may expose the group to hackers who may post offensive content and may undermine the legitimacy and trust in the group.

  • Carefully consider how frequently you post in the group. Some people may leave if posts are too frequent.

Here is some information on how to send information to several contacts in WhatsApp. The WHO has partnered with WhatsApp to communicate news and information about COVID-19 in multiple languages on a large scale where users can opt-in to receive messages. Facebook allows you to send private messages and automated responses through Facebook Pages. During previous outbreaks, such as the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the BBC used WhatsApp as an effective way of sharing information.

Phone messaging as a delivery channel:

Phone messaging can be used in a variety of ways to deliver COVID-19-related messages to mobile phones. You can send short text messages via short message service (SMS) or text messages with multimedia content via multimedia messaging service (MMS). Interactive voice response (IVR) is a type of technology that allows users to interact with a computer-operated system through voice or the use of the keypad, and audio messages can be delivered to mobile devices as calls. Phone messaging can be delivered via a number of modalities. For example your organisation could partner with a mobile phone provider to disseminate messages in bulk, alternatively you could take a more organisation-led approach by sending messages to a known list of contacts from prior programming. Phone messages are a relatively cheap way of reaching a lot of people and it is relatively easy to send multiple messages over a period of time, allowing for repeated engagement. However, if people did not actively sign up to receive the messages, or if they are sent too frequently, people can easily find them annoying, uninteresting and may not even open the messages. Most phone messaging is relatively one-way, however IVR and other techniques can enable more dynamic engagement. There are also equity issues with using mobile phone messaging since access to phones can vary by geography, gender and age. Text messages are likely to be less effective in areas with low literacy and it can be challenging to convey more detailed or nuanced information by text or short audio messages. In some low income settings, people may have to pay to receive messages and if so, they may be reluctant to do so given the widespread economic impacts of COVID-19.

Here are some tips and considerations if using phone messages as a delivery channel:

  • Decide which format/s are most appropriate for your context - Your decision should factor in things such as literacy, mobile access and the type of mobile phone that people typically have (basic phone vs smartphone). Also consider what you would like to achieve through sharing phone based messages. IVR allows for more creativity for engaging populations. For example a COVID-19 campaign in Cambodia used IVR to ask users how they would behave in different scenarios, and in India IVR was used to capture and share real experiences from communities.

  • Design messages based on behavioural theory - Information alone is often not sufficient to change behaviour. When developing the content of phone-based messages try to think about how these can be shaped by behavioural theory. For example, think about how phone-based messages can be informative but also allude to social norms, aspirations, common barriers, planning and intention, and rewarding people for doing the right thing. This list of key behaviour change principles in relation to COVID-19 might be useful developing more creative phone messages, while this blog summarises key lessons from the Behavioural Insights team who used SMS messages to reach audiences in the UK.

  • Think about how to position messages as legitimate - Some previous work on phone-based messaging has suggested that messages may be more effective if they are seen to come from a character or persona rather than a general messaging service. For example in a study in Bangladesh they used the persona of a friendly medical professional to encourage preventive behaviours during a cholera outbreak and found that this was acceptable and seen as credible. In India they used an audio recorded message from a Nobel laureate to persuade people to seek care if they had COVID-19 symptoms and found that this was much more persuasive than standard government guidance.

  • Adapt and develop messages over time - Try to engage people through multiple messages spread across time. Where possible make sure that messages are iterative and reflect major concerns at that stage of the pandemic. If you are able to establish two-way interactions via your messaging platform consider trying to personalise or tailor messages to the individual (or to a group of individuals).

  • Build on formats that already exist - Lots of organisations are already sharing text and audio messages for COVID-19 prevention. For example, the WHO has an SMS message library of messages that can be translated and adapted to deliver by SMS or audio message. UNESCO also has some examples of audio recordings to combat misinformation about COVID-19.

Want to know more about maximising different delivery channels for communicating about COVID-19?

Editor's note

Author: Anika Jain

Review: Katie Greenland, Lara Kontos and Kondwani Chidziwisano
Version date: 23.09.20

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