Is it possible to transform health during COVID-19 using marketing strategies?

COVID-19 poses a direct health threat to nearly everyone in the world and affects our well-being in countless ways. As we continue to respond to a global emergency that is both driving up the demand for basic health services and constraining access to those same services, the lessons we’re learning about how to communicate health messages during this unique pandemic are helping us rethink how we communicate anytime about health—especially sexual and reproductive health (SRH).

Only a few months into implementing the Delivering Innovation in Self-Care (DISC) project, we were forced, like nearly all other global health programs, to adapt to the outbreak of COVID-19. This meant shifting some of our time, energies and resources to the urgent task of preventing potentially deep losses for SRH. We concentrated heavily on reinforcing family planning messages that have resonated with women here in Nigeria and Uganda over the past years, and on raising awareness about where and how they could continue accessing SRH services during lockdown.

In August of this year, we launched mass media campaigns in collaboration with the Ministries of Health in Nigeria and Uganda and with the support of numerous local partners. In both countries, the campaigns had the identical objectives of helping women make informed choices about contraception and facilitating their access to self-care options. In Nigeria, urban women and mothers are now accessing an e-commerce platform to order contraceptive refill delivery, while in Uganda, they are clicking on a geo-locator to find the nearest SRH service delivery point, such as a clinic or pharmacy.

Our initial learnings are proving to be very insightful for informing DISC’s longer-term interventions. COVID-19 has brought self-care to the forefront as a solution to movement restrictions and overstretched health services. Our task now will be to continue building on this momentum toward making self-care a sustainable part of mainstream SRH—and ultimately Universal Health Care.

The campaigns in Nigeria and Uganda are a reminder that a multimedia approach that combines digital and non-digital channels is necessary to fully capture SRH target audiences. But early results also strongly suggest that social media has a positive and cost-effective impact. This isn’t that surprising given that the Pew Research Center was already reporting more than two years ago that people in emerging and developing markets are quickly approaching the levels of social media consumption that are more common to advanced economies.

In particular, paid social media can lay the essential groundwork for awareness-raising and then be accelerated by encouraging organic sharing. For example, in Uganda, we were able to reach over 1 million Facebook users with SRH messages over a three-week period for a moderate investment of about US$0.04 per recipient. Subsequent collaboration with local influencers to repost key messages allowed us to reach an additional 540,000 users on Facebook and Twitter. We’re excited to see how figures like these bear out as our campaigns progress, and how they will ultimately impact the adoption of key SRH practices.

Another important lesson we’ve learned is that the constraints consumers and health providers feel during health emergencies are also felt by program implementers. Forming partnerships that leverage expertise and funding is vital to success. Yet consensus building has traditionally been challenging due to partners’ diverse program priorities, bandwidth, need for visibility and financial mobility. Times of crisis resolutely deepen these challenges. It took longer and required more negotiation than we expected to forge agreements with local media companies, digital providers and SRH stakeholders, yet these partnerships will be among DISC’s greatest assets throughout the remainder of the project.

As we capitalize on our efforts to help Nigerian and Ugandan women protect their sexual and reproductive health and rights during COVID-19 and look ahead to strategies that will expand those rights, we are using today as a learning opportunity. We have come to recognize that some of the best and most responsive innovations for confronting new health challenges come from the way we adapt our existing approaches and tools. This strengthens what we’re doing right now and solidifies the roadmap we’re planning for our future.