Your message is right. Now choose the right messenger.


“Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, I’m begging of you please don’t hesitate,” Dolly Parton sings. While Parton’s parody of her hit song “Jolene” makes COVID-19 vaccine supporters smile, it turns out a celebrity spokesperson may not be the most effective messenger. It may not be Mom, either.

Of course we know that the best messenger depends on who you’re trying to influence.

How resistant your audience is matters, too. Research shows that knowing just how resistant they are can help you choose the type of messenger so your message hits home.

Trying to change the mind of an “active skeptic”? Dolly with her long history of supporting mainstream causes may not be the right fit. A recently converted vaccine advocate may be more compelling.

How do you choose whether to have teen singer and actress Olivia Rodrigo urge COVID-19 vaccinations from the White House briefing room? “Trendsetter” Olivia might be just the choice to break through to unaware teens.

To put messenger selection into practice, we’ve adopted the audience-messenger matrix described in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. It uses simple audience categories—high knowledge, low knowledge; high resistance, low resistance—to guide you to consider the most effective messenger.

Let’s look at some examples:

Passive Skeptics are highly resistant and may be influenced by a messenger called “the affected.” An example is the Centers for Disease Control TV spots showing lung cancer patients trying to live a normal life—which isn’t normal at all. Their first-hand experience as a smoker carries credibility with other smokers.

Active Skeptics are highly knowledgeable and resistant to your message; consider “the converted” as a messenger. For example, we heard that a friend’s unvaccinated co-workers quickly decided to get their COVID-19 shots after former President Donald Trump confirmed his vaccination. This reinforcement from their network made it OK to take action.

The Unaware audience isn’t familiar with your message and their resistance is low, too. Take this opportunity to use “the friend” messenger archetype. For instance, you’ll likely try a new restaurant if your friend gave it a thumbs up. Or you might buy a manufactured home if you heard how it made homeowners of a young couple—people like you.

The Stagnant person is quite familiar with your message. It might take “the vanguard” messenger to challenge their values and move them to action. For example, to lead the way toward COVID-19 vaccination, the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department blog has featured first-person perspectives from local notables including a baseball broadcaster, Native American community member, college administrator, police chief, youth advocate, former county executive and others.

So before you pursue celebrities or allow the CEO to be your default messenger, study the people receiving the message. What influences them? What motivates them to act? Once you know this you can play matchmaker with the messenger and the audience.