According to new research conducted by Mitchell Olsen, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, there are numerous tactics marketers can tap to not only chip away at vaccine-hesitant populations, but also help prepare for future health crisis responses. MM+M sat down with him to learn more about the insights gleaned from his research – and, in particular, the role that market segmentation can and should play in the ongoing vaccination push.

MM+M: What motivated your research?

Olsen: My co-author and I noticed that the national conversation around vaccine hesitancy seemed to be treating vaccine holdouts as homogenous groups. There seemed to be this assumption that people were choosing to not fully vaccinate themselves for essentially the same reasons. News articles focused on either the reasons for hesitancy or potential solutions. We weren’t seeing many articles that were pairing the two, or examining what solutions would be most effective for different reasons.

We recognized – in a structured, marketing-specific way – that there are different segments of vaccine holdouts. The main point of the study was to offer something to the conversation where we’re pairing reasons with solutions and demonstrating how market segmentation could be used, then show some of the unique insights that would be unearthed.

How did you go about doing this?

In May of this year, we conducted a national survey of people who, by choice, indicated they likely would not fully vaccinate themselves. We recruited 1,080 people to take the survey, and we only included those who had either not received any vaccine or had only received one dose and indicated they likely would not or definitely would not receive the second dose.

In the survey, they were presented with 16 or 17 different reasons why people were refusing the vaccine. From there, we presented 18 different solutions that were being discussed, and they indicated their openness to them.

Among those different groups, we looked at the top reasons and the top solutions they were most open to, and compared them. We looked at what could be done with that information and how marketers could play a role in the process for not only the COVID-19 pandemic but for other health crises in the future.

How did market segmentation help whittle down solutions to different vaccine hesitant groups?

The top reason for vaccine hesitancy was a fear of side effects, and behind that there was a concern that the vaccines were developed too quickly. Another reason is the general lack of trust in the government.

But among those who are merely hesitant, versus those who are refusing, the degree of openness they had to different solutions was very different. The refusers might not be receptive to mandates, while the merely hesitant are much more open to convincing information and to mandates at work and school.

How can healthcare marketers use some of these insights in their work?

They can treat or approach this vaccine-hesitant population similar to what brand managers do with their consumer bases, and recognize that people’s motivations are different. What works with one part of the population in terms of encouraging vaccination is going to be potentially counterproductive with another portion of the population.

The source of the message behind these PSAs seems to be really important. For some segments of the population, if it’s a government official or a politician who’s providing a message – even if the content of the message is completely valid – it may be a counterproductive effort. So it’s important for healthcare marketers to effectively address this variant in terms of what sources of information these different segments trust the most.

Messages that bring forth a sense of empathy to the audience is an effective way to do that. From what I’ve seen, a lot of healthcare messaging is headed in that direction, which is encouraging.

What role can healthcare marketers play in not only overcoming barriers now, but in other health crises moving forward?

With market segmentation, particularly when it comes to health, empathy is incredibly important. Genuinely recognizing and validating concerns, and working to address them in a non-patronizing way, will go a long way in the COVID-19 pandemic as well as other pandemics.

As we think about other health crises going forward, COVID-19 has shown us the importance of experts in different fields coming together, and that includes marketers. Marketing strategists, healthcare marketers and consumer psychologists can play a role not only in the deployment of messages after a solution is developed, but in the development of the solutions themselves. Being able to anticipate objections and concerns – and map out a strategy for alleviating some of those concerns at the earliest stages – will have a big impact once that solution is ready to deploy to the larger population.

(This Q&A has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)