An image illustrating the concept of vaccination incentives.

As awful as the last year and a half has been, for us data geeks it’s been something of a golden era. The amazing data crunching around COVID-19 has produced some truly incredible uses of data. It’s also sparked an increased awareness among the news media and some parts of the population that data is really important: it can play a huge role in saving lives and changing health outcomes.

Which is why we are fascinated by the live, ongoing health communications effectiveness study currently underway in the U.S. Of course no one is calling it that, but the rollout of various vaccination incentives will eventually provide an unprecedented data set for communicators to better understand how to motivate people to do what you want them to do.


Jolted into getting a jab

When vaccination rates began to lag in early May, governors from Maryland to Ohio to Colorado started announcing major vaccination incentives. They are offering chances to win everything from sports tickets, to $1 million, to full ride scholarships at a state school. President Biden has kicked off a national “Month of Action,” pushing daycare centers to stay open later, barber shops to offer vaccinations, etc. Early indicators suggest that these incentives have been working, but long term results are unclear.

What questions to answer?

All of these are essentially forms of communications persuasion, now being tested in a gigantic real-life experiment. It’s not the first time health communications experts have studied incentive programs. And clearly, from the perspective of cost-per-life-saved, there’s little doubt that spending money to save lives is a good investment.

But the questions are, of course:

  • How much is enough?
  • What techniques are most effective?
  • What’s the cost per vaccinated individual?

I’m excluding brands from this part of the discussion, since for them it’s mostly a publicity stunt designed to improve perceptions, preference, and their overall reputation. At worst they’re counting big silly numbers like impressions and AVEs, and are just happy they’re getting bigger. At best they might actually be effective, like, hopefully, Anheuser-Busch offering everybody a beer if we hit the targeted vaccination rate.

The vaccination incentives data so far

From a cost-per-shot-basis, one easy early conclusion is that publicity around incentives appears to be a lot more effective than paid advertising. The paid campaigns that states ran have not been particularly effective, which is why they went to lotteries.

Another early result is that vaccination rates went up immediately after the announcement of the incentives. Almost every state that offered incentives reported an increase in the percentage of population vaccinated immediately after their announcements.

But not all the data is in, nor is it being properly analyzed. The results are clouded by the fact that many of the incentives went into effect around the same time the CDC announced that it was safe to vaccinate children over the age of 12, prompting its own surge in vaccination rates.

In addition, early success may not be sustainable. Many of the states that saw an initial spike are still below average compared to their neighbors.

Looking at state-by-state maps one might conclude, as the NY Times did, that how one voted might be a the strongest factor in predicting whether or not one gets vaccinated. Which is something that no amount of incentive is likely to overcome.

However, data also shows that rural counties, where vaccine distribution is still relatively limited, were more likely to vote for Trump. So are their vaccination rates lower because of their political beliefs, or because it’s harder for them to get to a vaccine site? Time will tell.

Vaccination incentives or publicity: which is more effective?

My biggest questions are more fundamental, and have to do with the effectiveness of coverage. I hope that at least one, if not several, university professors and their students are taking all this data and working on the following:

RQ1: Are vaccination rates increasing because of incentives, or because of the publicity given to the incentives?

RQ2: Does the press coverage around incentives mean that more people pay attention and then get vaccinated?

RQ3: If the ultimate goal is herd immunity, are lotteries and gamification more or less effective than just bribing them to get vaccinated?

Here are my hypotheses to test:

H1: Locally based media coverage and influencers are more effective than paid advertising in persuading people to get vaccinated.

H2: Voting habits alone do not predict vaccination rates.

H3: Where people get their information and who they trust to provide accurate information is a predictor of vaccination rates.

H4: The best persuasion technique is closely tied to knowledge of the local population.

Good luck with the research and let us know when you have some results. ∞

Photo above by CDC on Unsplash.

Recent Posts