While tackling the spread of the COVID-19 disease takes a multi-faceted approach, behavior change—especially around personal and respiratory hygiene, proper handwashing, social distancing, and so on—remains a critical need across countries where DAI and our clients operate. Further, as organizations and individuals increasingly embrace digital-based approaches to collaboration, communication, and information gathering, we are presented with an opportunity to incorporate these technologies across behavior change communication strategies. However, as many organizations have experienced since the start of near-global lockdowns, this transition to an all-digital way of working comes with unique roadblocks.

Over the last few weeks, the DAI Center for Digital Acceleration has been exploring how digital communication tools can be used to build communications campaigns aimed at stemming the COVID-19 tide and spreading accurate information about targeted behaviors. We’ve pulled together some quick thoughts on the topic, but frankly, these are principles that apply in most any effort of this sort.


Know Where People Are, Digitally Speaking

While mobile penetration and internet access have grown rapidly, especially in the last few years, national statistics often hide regional or demographic variations in access, usage, and digital inclusion. To target digital communications, we must first have answers—even notional ones—to some basic questions:

  1. Who are we trying to reach? Who are the target populations whose behaviors need changing, and can have the widest, most positive impact on infection rates and other critical metrics?

  2. What kinds of digital tools do these groups have access to? What barriers (access to devices, mobile bandwidth, electricity) are limiting when and how they can be reached?

  3. Which digital channels—social networks, user-generated content (like YouTube), or others—do these groups use the most?

  4. How—if at all—has COVID-19 affected digital access of users (e.g. is wifi access no longer a given in urban areas?)

Understand Local Context and User Motivation—and Design Appropriate Message

All behavior change communications must contend with—and cut through—a crowded digital information ecosystem. Users’ attention is limited, and in an era where COVID-19 material is being broadcast by federal and local governments, private companies, local community leaders, and family networks, any new messaging needs to be based on a clear understanding of the local information landscape and users’ motivations. Messages need to be tailored to this context, using local languages, idioms, and content, ideally generated and vetted by trusted, influential local people. For example, information from the World Health Organization (WHO) may be trusted and helpful for us sitting in capital cities such as Nairobi or New York, but will not likely resonate with some of our most important constituents in rural Mexico or Cambodia, for example.

Messenger is Just as Important as Message—Don’t Try to Build Trust from Scratch

In the COVID-19 era, trust will be the defining characteristic of any successful attempt—digital or otherwise—to change behavior. In many developing markets, users are flooded—via WhatsApp messages, social networks, etc.—with a lot of information, and not all of it is based on science or best practice. For example, in certain Sub-Saharan African countries, there is a great deal of misinformation including the idea that people with black skin cannot get coronavirus. The basis of this myth is that COVID-19 hit predominately Asian, Arab, and “white” countries, and the first few cases were imported by people with the means to travel. There is a secondary undercurrent to this misinformation—that the virus cannot survive in hot temperatures, which accounts for most of sub-Saharan Africa.

In the era of digital misinformation, users have to be able to trust the sources of their information, and this becomes all the more important when using digital channels, which are often impersonal or attempt to reach a wide variety of audiences at once. But trust is not simply a function of good audience segmentation. Digital communication channels must tap into and build on foundations created by real-life relationships, the kind that are created and fostered by agricultural extension networks, community savings and cooperative units, local civil society, and religious institutions. No attempt at quickly replicating these trust networks is likely to change the skepticism that often meets digital communications. The good news is that, in many cases, those same networks are also going online, adapting to the new reality. Building relationships with these networks to share and influence the behavior of target audiences will be critical, especially in the next few months of response.

Complement Digital Campaigns with Traditional Outreach

Much like the trust networks mentioned above, local media and advertising channels—radio stations, television channels, billboards, or other media—often have direct links to target audiences. While digital communication channels can be better targeted or more widely distributed, these traditional channels play a critical role in establishing trust and providing different ways to configure content, especially where long-form content is needed. For example, in Zambia, the Ministry of Health has worked with all three mobile networks to send daily WhatsApp messages to all its citizens. Included in these updates is the status of COVID-19 in Zambia, measures the government is taking, and specific measures individuals can take. Further, these text messages are translated into seven local languages and turned into radio/TV readers for national and community broadcast.

Use Digital Data to Monitor and Improve Campaigns

Digital tools, in addition to being effective output channels, can also serve as valuable input channels for behavior change campaigns. By conducting baseline surveys (say, through texting) of current knowledge, attitudes, and behavior, programs can identify priorities, establish targets, and measure progress over time.

While we’re glad that donors and implementers are beginning to incorporate digital tools into their COVID-19 response strategy, our philosophy remains pragmatic: Digital technologies are only one piece of the puzzle that must comprise the international community’s response to the pandemic. When they are well-designed, digital behavior change campaigns can turn everyday technologies of mobile phones and social networks into powerful, life-saving tools, even in the most difficult developing countries.