WHO/Europe began testing its COVID-19 messages in Ukraine with the aim of reinvigorating public support for protective behaviours. The team tailored their messages to meet the needs of particular groups, and tested revised COVID-19 messages and visuals in individual focus groups.
As WHO Representative to Ukraine Dr Jarno Habicht reports, “Testing messages is vital because it allows us to provide messages that resonate with our audiences. People can feel overwhelmed with information about COVID-19, so throughout this challenging time it is crucial to engage effectively with them.”
Testing messages ensures that they are targeted towards an audience’s needs and preferences, which in turn fosters understanding and acceptance. In addition, message testing is an important way to avoid wasting resources on messages that do not resonate and materials that need to be revised. To support this practice, WHO/Europe has developed a guide for message testing.
Targeting messages based on behavioural insights
WHO/Europe sought to gain insight into how different groups react to messages on 3 protective measures: washing hands, practising physical distancing and wearing masks. They used this information to evaluate and adapt their communication materials, thereby increasing the relevance of COVID-19 messages for these groups and creating impact without causing anger or alarm.
Message testing builds on behavioural insights (BI) research conducted in a number of countries in the WHO European Region. In Ukraine, nationwide BI survey results revealed that only 1 in 4 people washed their hands regularly and only 1 in 3 followed physical distancing guidelines. The BI surveys also identified young men with low levels of education as a group with low adherence and low risk perception regarding COVID-19.
The first group included men and women aged 18–60 who had a high level of education. The second group included men only, in the same age range but with a lower level of education. Feedback revealed that the second group liked business-style layouts, but did not respond to key messages when the text was too small, there were no pictures or there was too much writing. Shorter, hopeful messages worked better, as did a lively colour palette and appealing, easy-to-follow visuals.
“Together, we can beat the virus”
Following these results, the team changed the background colours from dark grey to blue or pink, dropped overly complicated messages, shortened sections of text and added graphics. They also focused on hopeful messages, especially those which inspire a sense of community spirit as well as control over the situation, such as “Together, we can beat the virus” and “Only by means of a concerted effort can we go back to normal life”.
Messages also need to be adapted to local languages rather than translated word for word to avoid losing their nuance. In Ukraine, the adapted posters have been used in an outdoor and digital campaign and widely distributed across the country, including in areas with high COVID-19 infection rates. They have appeared on billboards in city centres, in one of the country’s largest supermarket chains, and on the metro in the capital, Kyiv. This campaign is part of WHO’s ongoing support to the Ukrainian Ministry of Health and the Ukrainian Public Health Centre to communicate risk in the country.
While focus groups provide a way to revitalize health messages that are otherwise well known and widely distributed, WHO/Europe is also looking at developing other methodologies to test on a larger scale using online platforms. The goal is to make message testing a routine process for any information campaign in order to provide messages that resonate with audiences. This is important given that sustained exposure renders messaging less effective over time. Five more countries in the Region are now testing their messages to address COVID-19 fatigue among the public.