Understanding behaviour to drive COVID-19 vaccination programmes

COVID vaccine

A snapshot into motivations, influences and barriers faced by young audiences; by Lynn PR

Vaccine hesitancy is a complex issue. For many who are hesitant about the COVID-19 vaccines, concerns are not around the efficacy of vaccines in general. Rather, research from IFF (commissioned by the ONS, May 2021) demonstrates fears around safety because of how quickly the vaccines have been developed, and a lack of understanding about long-term side effects of the vaccines, especially as they have been in use for such a short time.1 

The same study found that although safety was the primary concern stated by participants who were hesitant about COVID vaccines, the second reason cited was that they didn’t feel that vaccination was necessary, either because they were younger and felt they were unlikely to catch COVID-19 or indeed, develop serious symptoms, or because they felt they were already taking steps to avoid catching the virus.

At Lynn PR, when we conducted our own primary research into COVID-19 – ranging from protective behaviours, to vaccine hesitancy, and testing, especially with younger people aged 16-30 – we found similar themes. 

In qualitative interviews, young people told us of the many sacrifices they had made over the course of the pandemic, and stressed how they had done it to protect those older and more vulnerable than themselves. They told us that they don’t see the benefits of that sacrifice – older people were getting vaccinated and able to go on holidays. They told us they did not perceive it a necessity to protect themselves as they viewed themselves less at risk, and more able to ‘fight off’ the virus should they catch it. 

In quantitative surveys, they told us they understood why the vaccination programme was important, however, some remained hesitant or anti-vaccine (c. 13.1% of respondents in one study). Concerns remained around the long term impact of the vaccine (77%), followed by ‘hearing’ that the vaccine can make you unwell (32.4%), not being sure what is in the vaccine (31.1%), and a belief that the vaccine is not effective (29.7%).

In this blog, we have captured some key insights that we hope can help this next stage of communications and campaigns as we respond to the COVID-19 pandemic:

Young people feel ‘scapegoated’

Our research shows the impact the pandemic has had on young people – from missing key life events like graduation, uncertainty about job prospects, to deep isolation and loneliness. And yet they have often been vilified in the press, leading to feelings of resentment and being ‘scapegoated’. They feel they are being blamed for not following restrictions, when they perceive themselves as being compliant and following protective behaviours.

Young people would rather ‘give up their spot’ to help vaccinate others

They repeatedly told us about the sacrifices they had made to protect older and more vulnerable people. Although they mostly supported the vaccination programme, some did not understand how a vaccine affected them as they felt they were less at risk to catch the virus, or be seriously ill from it. Instead, they said how they would willingly ‘give up their spot’ to help others – those older, or more vulnerable – to receive the vaccine first. And within those hesitant or anti-vaccine, there remained real concerns about the long-term impact of the vaccine, uncertainty about what was in the vaccine, as well as experiencing social influences that confirmed their existing beliefs or access to misinformation that the vaccine can lead to illness. 

Young people feel rapid testing is for ‘exceptional circumstances’

Although the young people that we spoke to had a good understanding of why testing was important, they did not believe rapid testing could be adopted into regular routine; indeed they felt they wouldn’t remember to take a test twice a week. There also remained a lack of awareness about how to take a test with many unaware that you could order a home kit. Over 40% of respondents in one Lynn PR study were either unsure or reluctant to take regular COVID-19 tests. 

When reflecting on vaccine hesitancy, there is, however, cause for optimism. Findings from an April 2021 Ipsos MORI UK KnowledgePanel show an increase in willingness to take a COVID-19 vaccine among all groups, including those who have been more hesitant in the past.2 

The proportion of adults who said they would be unlikely to take a vaccine in April 2021 decreased by more than 50% since the previous polling in December 2020, from 14%-6%. 

Top tips to engage with young people to support vaccination communications

Reflecting on responses from our primary research findings, especially with young people, we can start to identify common themes to help inform where public health messages can look to focus, as the vaccination programme continues:

  1. Highlight the direct personal benefits (on top of health benefits) of being vaccinated, such as the likelihood that evidence of vaccination will be required for travel and will support in resuming other social activities
  2. Empathise with young people and acknowledge the sacrifices they have made
  3. Educate young people that there is a vaccine for everyone, and even though their offer to give up their spot is kind, it is not required. We need as many people in the UK to be vaccinated as soon as possible.
  4. Explain the benefits of rapid testing and devise campaigns that introduces this new behaviour and helps build it into a habit

By better understanding the causes of human behaviour, using a mix of qualitative insight enhanced by quantitative data, at Lynn PR we have been able to create campaigns that resonate with our audiences and deliver tangible change. 

For example, in our You Have a Choice campaign for Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Health Board, we generated a 9.95% engagement rate (6.5 x our target KPI and 11 x sector average), with a 93.3% positive sentiment. 

In this campaign, we proactively tackled barriers to action such as reverse altruism, collective outcome expectancy, and optimism and present bias (amongst others). We used behavioural tactics like personalisation, social proof, a loss frame, and a benefits frame to appeal to diverse audiences including young people (indeed, young audiences contributed to nearly 20% of all campaign engagement with upto 5.89% engagement rate; 21% of incoming traffic into our campaign microsite were from young audiences). 

It’s difficult to measure outcomes when tackling broad behavioural goals like promoting protective behaviours and decreasing vaccine hesitancy, however, we were able to evidence changes in intent and belief as a result of the campaign – decreasing hesitancy by 2% and increasing compliance to public health messages by 3%. Importantly, our client did not observe an increase in hesitancy, for e.g. when the AstraZeneca blood clot news broke. 

To find out more about Lynn PR primary research into COVID-19, including results from our online trials, please email contact@lynnpr.co.uk to arrange an informal discussion, or book your free 30 minute introductory meeting here.  

  1. IFF research, commissioned by the ONS, May 2021 https://www.iffresearch.com/ons-coronavirus-vaccine-refusal-study/ 
  2. Ipsos MORI UK KnowledgePanel, April 2021 https://www.ipsos.com/ipsos-mori/en-uk/vaccine-confidence-grows-month-month-latest-ipsos-mori-knowledgepanel-poll