By Peninah Thande, Social Media Optimization Advisor, PSI; Alfred Samba Makavore, Project Country Manager-EpiC, PSI Sierra Leone; Emmanuel Jah, EpiC Communications Coordinator, PSI Sierra Leone
In the realm of healthcare communication, the power of digital marketing cannot be underestimated. Under the project funded by USAID, Populations Services International (PSI) in collaboration with Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Health (MoH) embarked on a groundbreaking project to leverage digital tools to promote COVID-19 vaccination (COVAX). With a target audience of social media users age 18-65, this endeavor sought to tackle the challenges faced in the implementation of Sierra Leone’s vaccination strategy.
Identifying the Challenges
Understanding the hurdles in the COVAX strategy was vital to tailor the digital marketing plan effectively. The MoH identified the following challenges to vaccine uptake in Sierra Leone:
- Low demand for the second dose of COVAX
- Access barriers, including transportation costs and access to information
- Misinformation about the vaccines and COVID-19
- Limited availability of vaccines due to stock-outs
To address these barriers to COVAX, PSI and the MoH identified target online market locations with low , including the districts of Western Area Urban & Rural, and the cities of Bo, Kenema, Makeni, and Koidu. With these target populations combined, EpiC aimed to reach over 1 million people with the COVAX digital campaign.
Building Capacity for Digital Marketing
We started by ensuring that EpiC staff and MOH officials understood the impact of and best practices for using digital marketing to improve health outcomes. The communications staff and MoH members enrolled in the Digital Media for Health Outcomes Course by Yale University; and later joined the Digital Media For Health Outcomes community of practice on Facebook, where health communicators learn and share best practices for using digital media for health outcomes.
Prior to launching the campaign, PSI conducted a comprehensive three-day capacity building session for the Ministry of Health officials, based on a needs assessment done within the MoH. The training encompassed best practices for online health campaigns on all major platforms, creating valuable content, defining the target audience, and utilizing data to make informed decisions.
A close collaboration with the Ministry of Health Sierra Leone from the beginning ensured alignment with the government’s objectives. The Ministry took a leading role in steering initiatives, actively driving efforts to enhance COVID-19 vaccine adoption and counteract vaccine misinformation.
This internal capacity building led to the designing and implementation of an effective campaign plan, starting with the launch of PSI Sierra Leone’s Facebook page, Instagram profile and Twitter (X) profile.
With the identified barriers to COVAX uptake in mind, including vaccine access, acceptance, and misinformation, we built a campaign to help individuals in the target populations overcome them.
The campaign unfolded in three phases: Phases 1 & 2 focused on vaccine acceptance and adoption, while Phase 3 sought to address vaccine misinformation. To make sure our messaging resonated with people of all ages, we tailored our approach for two primary audience segments: people aged 18-35 years, and people aged 36-65 years. Each segment was targeted using age-appropriate graphics and messaging addressing the specific COVAX misconceptions prominent within each age bracket.
For example, a common misconception among young people was that a lemon & ginger beverage could help prevent COVID-19, while pepper-based beverages were more commonly believed to prevent COVID-19 among older age groups. By segmenting the age groups, campaign messaging was able to effectively counter these misconceptions and communicate the importance of getting vaccinated. We included the local language, Krio, into our creatives and captions. This localized touch was instrumental in making our messages resonate more profoundly within the community.
In tandem with educational material, we also ran a community growth campaign throughout that led to the creation of the PSI Sierra Leone Facebook page growing to 11,000 followers. This platform will help us maintain health communications in Sierra Leone to bolster access to quality, reliable information.
Results and key takeaways – phase 1
The first phase was highly successful, reaching over 1 million people and growing our online community by 11,000 people in Sierra Leone. The average engagement rate for all campaigns was 16.5 percent, well beyond the industry indicating the success of the campaign in promoting COVAX education and countering misinformation.
With the second phase underway, the following are initial takeaways from the campaign’s first phase:
- Capacity building for MoH health communication officials ensured the digital campaigns aligned with government objectives and needs.
- Pairing the digital campaign with in-person education via the MoH network of health workers and COVID-19 champions localized the campaign by promoting campaign messaging in partnership with relatable community leaders.
- Localizing messaging by including Krio and age segmentation helped the campaign resonate with the target audience, leading to high reach and engagement rates.
- Digital marketing tools were effective in reaching the intended audience and addressing their concerns on easily accessible platforms.
This project’s success has laid the foundation for future endeavors to leverage digital tools for public health communication in Sierra Leone, including and beyond COVAX. Moving forward, PSI will partner with the MoH to integrate COVAX into routine immunizations, build a national health chatbot, digitize for community health workers, and develop These initiatives are essential in enhancing consumer powered healthcare and strengthening health systems in Sierra Leone.
This project showcases the power of digital healthcare by bridging the gap in COVAX information. By understanding barriers to health and tailoring interventions accordingly, we can use digital tools to reach people where they are, with the resources and information they need to stay healthy.
We will continue to share insights related to the COVAX digital campaign in Sierra Leone. Interested in learning more about the power of digital healthcare? Contact Cristina Lussiana ([email protected]).