Apply the Science of Narrative to Reach Underserved Populations

An older woman uses a mouse and a laptop
May 13, 2020
4 minute read
Digital Communications • Digital Inclusion • Equity

Given the inequitable impacts of the current crisis surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, it's more important than ever that we communicate with vulnerable populations. In particular, we need to reach folks who are at high risk for contracting COVID-19, those who come into contact regularly with high-risk populations, and those who are often overlooked in public health messages. Specifically, we need messages targeted to:

  • Older adults
  • People of color
  • Low-income people
  • The uninsured
  • Lower literacy adults
  • Caregivers.

How do we reach these audiences when in-person contact isn't possible?

At Provoc, we've learned it's not just a question of finding people online — we also need to build lasting relationships to sustain their engagement attention over time. In our work building message frameworks to recruit 340k+ older adults to health programs, we've learned several lessons that can help with this challenge. We applied the science of narrative to engage regular people in the fight to end a major disease and have tested health-related messages with diverse populations 55 and over.

Our goal with this post is to be of service to the NTEN community, knowing that many organizations are working hard to respond to the pandemic with communications that reach broad audiences. Here, we're sharing some of those lessons about how to communicate with older adults on any topic, and about how to communicate about ending disease. Some points to keep in mind:

  • Minimize the number of steps involved
    • Simplify visual complexity as much as possible
    • Provide all necessary knowledge and resources about each step in the process (e.g., if asking for sensitive information, let people know why they are being asked to provide it)
    • Put credible people out front with affiliations to well-known institutions.
  • Make sure to include lower-literacy populations in your communications. Forty-three percent of adult Americans are "lower literacy," according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy. Many people fear "dumbing down" their content, but that fear is misguided. In fact, improving the accessibility of your comms for lower literacy readers improves access for everyone.
  • Think about moving from a transactional to a relational to a transformational dynamic with your audiences. Be prepared to build trust over time, so that when your audience is ready to take action, you're ready and waiting.
    • Transactional: Users interact with your content to fulfill a specific need, and they immediately leave after they've found what they want
    • Relational: Users see you as a trusted source of high-quality content, which they seek out repeatedly over time. You've established an ongoing, durable relationship with your audience.
    • Transformational: Your audience has committed to your cause and are your partners in an ongoing effort to make a significant change. Like you, they know it won't be easy, and there will be challenges and uncertainty along the way. But they're ready to be part of the solution and see you as leading the way.
  • Despite its challenges, Facebook remains the most successful platform for reaching older adults — 46% of Americans 65 and older use the platform regularly. Our success in running health-related ad campaigns targeted at older adults bears this out.
  • Older adults see themselves as younger than they may appear to others. Whatever the age demographic of your target audience, use photos of people at a younger age than you might have expected.
  • Scientists and researchers can be compelling storytellers. Consider putting them at the front and center of your messages.
  • Coronavirus is scary. Language can help us overcome our fears and confront the challenge. Read more about language that can help bring people into health programs here. Some highlights:
    • Adopt clarity and transparency to achieve trust.
    • Emphasize action and create a sense of momentum.
    • Use language that cues hope and optimism.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic is the overwhelming uncertainty and bewilderment forced upon us by this mysterious, havoc-wreaking virus. The things we don't know far, far outnumber the things we DO know. Yet what we DO know — that a communications approach focused on building relationships of trust with audiences can succeed in getting broad audiences to do hard things — is itself quite significant.

To move forward through this crisis, we have to just keep putting one foot in front of the other, training our eyes and minds to the space directly before us. Think of the insights we've shared here as a flashlight, or maybe a rope line you can hold to steady yourself along the way.

Thanks for reading, and please contact me with questions or to learn more about how we can help

Rajneesh Aggarwal

Rajneesh Aggarwal


President, Provoc

Raj Aggarwal is the founder of Provoc, a communications firm whose vision is a world transformed by equity, beauty, and love. With over twenty years of experience as a communications and technology strategist, he has led internal and external branding, marketing, and customer engagement efforts for more than 450 nonprofits and social impact firms. Raj actively helps to shift organizations into a space of compassion and equity. Raj keeps Provoc rooted in empathy-driven work by forging partnerships with values-aligned, visionary leaders committed to social, economic, and racial justice. He has led workshops and talks at dozens of national conferences and continues to play a pivotal role in leading movements, communities, and organizations to be more equitable, inclusive, and aware of personal biases and prejudices. As a lifelong Washingtonian, Raj is deeply rooted in the local community. He serves on the boards of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, NTEN, Washington DC Economic Partnership, and the Ben’s Chili Bowl Foundation. He is also the proud recipient of B Lab's inaugural Anti-Racism and JEDI Impact Award. You can learn more about Raj’s personal story on NPR, and more about his professional work at Provoc.me.

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