LAWRENCE — Health communicators, medical professionals, politicians and even average citizens have struggled to convince those hesitant about COVID-19 vaccines to get vaccinated. New research from the University of Kansas shows that conversion messages, or two-way narrative messages describing someone who was hesitant about getting a vaccine but changed their mind, are more effective at convincing vaccine hesitants than one-sided messages advocating vaccination.
The idea of the conversion message has long been examined in research on religion, philosophy, and rhetoric, but only recently has it begun to be studied in the communication sciences. In a religious context, messages often tell the story of a person who changed their beliefs and how they came to follow a different religion.
A study led by Jeff Conlin, assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at KU, examined whether such posts, in which someone recounted how they had changed their minds about vaccines, would be effective in encouraging pro attitudes. -vaccines and intentions to get vaccinated. Results showed that conversion messages increased pro-vaccine attitudes and behavioral intentions among those who reported high vaccine hesitancy before entering the study.
Written with co-authors Michelle Baker, Bingbing Zhang, Heather Shoenberger and Fuyuan Shen, all from Penn State University, it was published in the journal Health Communication. For the study, participants completed an online survey in which they provided basic demographic information and expressed their attitudes and intentions to get vaccinated against COVID-19. They were then randomly assigned to one of three two-sided conversion messages or one of three one-sided advocacy messages. Participants were asked about the credibility of the message source, counter-arguments and again attitudes towards vaccination, and whether they intended to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
“We found that conversion messages, compared to advocacy messages, led to pro-vaccine attitudes and behavioral intentions among participants with high vaccine hesitancy. This is probably the biggest lesson of this research, along with the credibility of the message source that mediates the effects of conversion messages on vaccination attitudes,” Conlin said. “Our results show that these types of health messages are not a one-size-fits-all solution to encouraging everyone to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Designing and using conversion messages requires a match of psychological states between the source of the message and the audience exposed to the message.
Participants who were assigned a conversion message read the story of someone named Jamie who said she was originally hesitant about getting a COVID vaccine. However, after a conversation with a brother-in-law who was a doctor and making sure the injections were safe and effective, Jamie changed his mind and signaled his intention to get the shot when available.
The post’s initial hesitation matched participants indicating strong hesitation to participate in the study, Conlin noted. For highly vaccine hesitant participants, the relationship between conversion messages and attitudes toward COVID-19 vaccinations was influenced by source credibility. However, for participants with low vaccine hesitancy, mediation occurred through counter-arguments, indicating that they were looking for flaws in the arguments of the message or that they actively disagreed with it.
The study was conducted in late 2020 and early 2021 as COVID-19 vaccines received emergency approval but were not yet available to the American public. The researchers wanted to test different messaging approaches because they knew segments of the public would not automatically be open to getting the vaccines.
“We knew that vaccines were on the horizon and that the concept of vaccine hesitancy was likely to play a role in uptake because it has done so in other settings,” Conlin said. “If someone is very hesitant, they are less motivated to get vaccinated, which has public health implications, so we wanted to examine this idea and test the persuasive effects of conversion messages in this emerging context.”
The results show initial promise of reaching vaccine hesitant people, but the authors said further research is warranted. First, the sample was not large enough to be nationally representative, and the authors said they would like to further test the messages with a more representative group of participants with high vaccine hesitancy.
Additionally, the study was conducted just before the vaccines became widely available, and they would like to investigate the effectiveness of conversion messages with those who continue to hesitate after more than a year of availability. In addition, mass media and social media have exposed people to far more information about vaccines, both in their favor and against them, and the availability of reminders may also play a role in attitudes and the intentions.
Regardless of what future research finds, the study shows there is potential for using conversion messaging to communicate vaccine availability and benefits, the authors said. It also confirms the importance of nuanced approaches to designing pro-health messages, especially about COVID vaccines, and the importance of using the right kind of message to reach specific audiences.
Image credit: Pexels.com