When Jane popped her head over the half wall separating our two desks and said, “Gotta second?” I had no idea what was in store.
We were offered a contract to work with the California Department of Public Health on a very specific initiative – deliver COVID-19 vaccine messaging to the 17 counties in California with the lowest vaccination rates. That sounded simple enough and totally in our wheelhouse, right? The wild card was that these 17 counties were the most rural and remote in our state making them some of the hardest to reach. I looked at Jane and said, “We can do this, but we’re going to do this right.”
These rural counties are very different from more densely populated counties. I know because I grew up in a very rural mountain area of Fresno County. Traditional marketing efforts like digital marketing, TV, and radio just won’t be effective on their own. We needed to physically go to these counties, talk to locals and see where and how to best get information to them. I knew that things like local community events, community boards at the local market, or post office where some of the grassroots ways to get information to those living in these areas. The only way to find the right messaging opportunities was to get the car, put some comfy shoes on, and hit the road.
The Task at Hand
This was a tall order since the 17 counties spanned from Inyo County on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountains, north to Del Norte, and Modoc County to Madera County here in the central valley. So in late summer of 2021, I took 5 road trips and was able to visit all but two counties due to wildfires. My goal was to gather information as to where locals frequent, and how they get important information. I visited the most populated 2-3 towns in each county. Here’s what I found out:
- Every community was very unique.
- Some had local watering holes (bars) that were central to how the locals socialized.
- Some had certain restaurants and coffee shops that were local hangouts.
- Each community had small local newspapers that were in fact, heavily read. This was unlike what was happening in larger urban cities where digital communication is more popular.
- Local racetracks, rodeos, and town fairs were highly popular, and some had these going on and some didn’t.
- I took note of all the local community boards where events and news were posted. They would often be found at post offices, grocery stores, the public library, outside the main gas station or market.
- Most of these towns had a main street where the local retailers had posters in their windows about important local information and events. These window postings were key for me to find out what local events were planned since websites weren’t reliably updated or even in existence for many local groups putting on these events.
- I talked to the Chambers of Commerce and Rotary Groups in person. Which proved to be more effective than just a phone call. The folks in these small towns are about in-person relationships and if I was going to gain any local advocates, it was good that I was there in person.
- I found out what cultural and ethnic groups populated these counties.
- I also found out about activities locals participated in. Some communities were huge fishing or hunting communities and so the local sporting goods and bait stores were frequented.
Each night I would come back to my hotel and download my extensive notes and photos from the day and organize them by town and county in JP’s cloud server. I gathered flyers, newspapers, magazines, and business cards as well. I had a team back at the office to make sure I gathered all the needed materials so that when it came time to plan our outreach efforts, we had our research ready to go.
Next Steps for Messaging
So how did we take all this research and apply it to our outreach efforts? Well, we now had the tools to target each county with the preferred media of choice. We even knew which print publications, theaters, and transit companies to call. We also knew what events to contact to inquire about sponsorships. And, equally important, we knew where to direct our street teams to post flyers and posters.
We blanked these 17 counties over a 6-month period with messaging tailored to this unique group of vaccination hesitant population. We saw a small uptick in vaccinations over this time frame. Although the campaign is still in progress, here are a few images of some of our hyper-local activations. One thing is for sure, through the deep research done on these 17 counties, I feel confident in saying JP is the expert on rural California! Bonus for me was I got to see some of the most beautiful parts of California I had not had the pleasure to visit until now.
Michele Meisch — Client Services Director