Social media is a primary source of information for much of the US public, especially youth and young adults. This includes people in refugee, immigrant and migrant (RIM) communities who may not utilize traditional media sources that are not published in their language. Many local public health departments (LHDs) and community-based organizations (CBOs) are not able to use social media for a number of reasons, including organizational rules against social media use, limited time or capacity to build a social media following, or perceived competition with existing platforms. The result is that a trusted and known presence is absent from this important space allowing myths, misinformation and disinformation to spread without competition. A solution that can help LHDs and CBOs reach RIM communities through social media, while saving time and effort, is leveraging existing social media influencers.
Who are social media influencers?
Social media influencers are individuals and organizations with large followings on a social media platform, such as TikTok, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. Individuals may be well known for their work outside of the social media platform (for example, celebrities, faith leaders, politicians, journalists). Alternatively, they may have become famous solely through their social media engagement. Some influencers may use their social media platforms to drive their business while others use it in a personal capacity. These details will be important to consider when you are looking to engage with an influencer (see “Steps to identify and engage influencers” section). Organizations can also be social media influencers--this could include local newspapers, radio stations, and blogs.
What constitutes a “large” social media following may be dependent on the context. For example, a local “micro-influencer,” such as a community leader, may have a relatively low number of followers compared to a Hollywood celebrity. However, in the local context, this community leader may have a significant community following who also reads, listens to, and trusts the community leader’s posts. Micro-influencers and their followers may also have more meaningful interactions due to micro-influencers responding to comments and participating in live events for a more direct and personal approach. In these instances, the micro-influencer may be more influential within the community.
Steps to identify and engage influencers
- Identify a working group responsible for this project. This should include individuals from within the RIM communities you are trying to reach to provide guidance on cultural nuances and to ensure authentic and meaningful representation of the community in decision-making. Also include organizational individuals who should be consulted throughout the process (e.g., if your organization has a communications team who should be consulted about branding guidelines).
- Define your objective. This will help you explain to social media influencers in a clear and succinct way what you are asking them to do. For example, “To raise awareness in ‘X’ community of the need for COVID-19 vaccinations.” Include a list of concrete requests you will ask of these social media influencers, along with a timeline: “Take a video explaining why you got the COVID-19 vaccine”; “Share these social media graphics with myth-busting messages”; “Share this flyer about our upcoming vaccine clinic”. The more explicit your requests are, the greater the likelihood you will have the impact you are seeking.
- Establish whether you will be paying the social media influencers or asking them to promote your messaging for free.
- Because you are most likely engaging with RIM individuals, and/or organizations, compensate them whenever possible so as to not contribute to social and economic inequities. This is particularly important for individuals of whom you have large requests (e.g., asking someone to create a video post). If your organization cannot pay the influencer, you could offer an in-kind donation such as graphic design services.
- Consider an agreement that outlines what expectations you have for the influencer (e.g., number of posts, which platform, timeline, how much control your organization retains over replies and comments made in relation to your posts) and what the influencer will receive in return so you can engage with trust and transparency.
- Think about who you are trying to reach with messaging (your target audience). If you have time, and ideally in partnership with community members, create a few quick example personas representing the community you are trying to reach. Give each persona a name, age and gender, describe what they think about COVID-19 vaccines, who they trust most, where they get their information, and their language preference. Use these examples to identify common themes to inform your criteria for influencers who could reach this community. Criteria to consider:
- Being a member of a specific language and/or ethnic community
- Having a certain gender, age, or other demographic characteristic
- Having a large following on a particular social media or media platform (for example, someone with a large Tiktok following because you are wanting to reach more young people)
- Use a community mapping exercise to identify a shortlist of potential local, respected individuals and organizations who match your criteria. Social media influencers can include business leaders, musicians, artists, community mobilizers, politicians, faith leaders, comedians, healthcare providers, fashion icons, local parents, and young people. Do not forget about local newspapers, radio stations and blogs that cater to RIM communities. Use specific hashtags to search for relevant people.
- Vet the shortlisted individuals using a checklist of requirements they must meet. Many organizations have social media policies for their staff members. See if your organization has such a policy that you can draw from for your checklist. Then use the checklist to review the influencer’s public social media posts and other online content. For influencers from a specific community who may be posting in a language other than English, you will want to have a staff member or translator assist with the vetting. The vetting process should include:
- Sharing the influencers’ names with your local community partners and asking them if they have any concerns or insights about the person/organization’s appropriateness.
- Using a web search, research the individual/organization’s name by reading through the first two pages of the web search results to ensure that there are no controversial or problematic results (e.g., news articles). You may find it helpful to also specifically search for the individual/organization’s name and “COVID-19” or “COVID-19 vaccine” to ensure that there is nothing that contradicts your organization’s key messages or general scientific consensus about COVID (for example, a guest blog post the person has written stating COVID isn’t real).
- Locate the individual/organization’s social media accounts and review the past year of their posts and posts they are tagged in. Use your criteria checklist to flag any posts that require a team discussion. Pay special attention to any COVID-related posts to ensure that the influencer is well-aligned with the messaging you are hoping to share. For example, anyone who has posted about COVID conspiracies, stated the vaccine is dangerous, etc., may not make for a good messenger, unless they are posting about how they used to believe the conspiracies and have now changed their minds. A community leader actively and currently posting conspiracy theories may not be a good fit for an influencer you want to partner with now. Consider reaching out to them to better understand their perspective--they may be a good person to try to meet to hear where they are coming from and to see if they are open to meeting with experts for a conversation (see our promising practice about engaging with community leaders). If you do find potentially problematic posts that require further discussion but do not disqualify an individual/organization outright, go back an additional year (two years in total) to ensure there are no other questionable posts.
- Approach the social media influencers who pass the vetting process with your clear and strong ask from #2. Arrange a time to talk with them, if possible, to discuss what you are hoping they can assist with.
- Track what the influencer posts on your behalf and note how many likes, shares, and types of comments their post(s) receives. Note any anecdotal data you can collect about the effect of the post(s), such as people mentioning the influencer at a vaccine clinic. Your influencer may also be able to provide you with other types of data, such as how long on average their followers watched their video before clicking away.
- Make sure to thank the influencer for their contributions and share with them some of the impact, if possible, to encourage future collaborations.
Example of engaging an influencer
Staff members at the International Rescue Committee in Tucson wanted to create messaging about the COVID-19 vaccine using “famous” faces from different communities. IRC used their personal connections to reach out to a social media influencer, Dr. Alok Patel, who is a journalist, producer and physician. His videos on Twitter have thousands of views. Together, Dr. Patel and IRC developed the idea for a video featuring healthcare providers explaining in different languages why they chose to receive the vaccine. Through his connections, he was able to invite other healthcare provider influencers with large followings to participate in the video. Dr. Patel then shared the video from his Twitter account, where it had over 4,000 views.