Understanding the state of vaccine confidence.

For the 11th year, Real Chemistry brought together leading health care innovators at SXSW to discuss the issues driving us forward. The virtual event was chock-full of robust conversations about important health care topics.

We were proud to present five official sessions, helping people go deep on what’s next in health care and how patient lives have improved as a direct result of breakthrough elements of health technology. We also hosted a two-day virtual Media Lounge that included panels and fireside chats.

Over the next few days, we’ll highlight some of these discussions, with links to where to watch the full sessions on YouTube. We look forward to seeing everyone at SXSW in person next year.

COVID-19 and Vaccine Confidence

The COVID-19 vaccines are our golden ticket back to normal, as Real Chemistry Founder and CEO Jim Weiss wrote earlier this year. Given that news coverage in recent months has been dominated by discussion of the vaccines, it should be no surprise that five of our SXSW panels covered that topic.

Real Chemistry advisor Jane Sarasohn-Kahn and renowned epidemiologist Dr. Michael Osterholm held a wide-ranging conversation about the pandemic, vaccines and lessons to take forward.

Dr. Osterholm, noting other problems the pandemic has exposed or made worse, such as hunger and mental health challenges, said he hoped there would be new investments in public health. “Public health, when it is done well, preventing these kinds of situations, actually has a spillover into so many other parts of our life we don’t think about,” he said.

He noted that the vaccine rollout has had troubles because the federal government did not give states financial resources to distribute the shots. He said it is getting better, but pointed out, “The vaccine isn’t a vaccination until it goes into your arm.”

What a Shot Meant for One Nurse … and for Its Developer

One big star of our SXSW panels was Sandra Lindsay, a registered nurse from Long Island who in December became the first person in the United States to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. On a panel focused on lessons learned, she described what it meant to her: “It represented to me the beginning of the end of a very dark time in our history, that hope is here, preservation of life, abilities for others to get that same feeling.”

Lindsay was on a panel that included Judy Sewards, head of clinical trial experience at Pfizer, a Real Chemistry client, and Dr. Reed Tuckson,  co-founder of the Black Coalition Against COVID, another client. Sewards said Pfizer set high standards for the science and safety of its vaccine and learned the value of transparency during the process. The result? “People are much more aware of the scientific process. We as an industry have figured out where we need to meet people, do a better job of educating others about what it takes to develop a medicine or a vaccine,” she said.

Surveys About Vaccine Confidence Show Rising Support

What we know about vaccine confidence is not just guesswork. A wide variety of public opinion surveys have tracked how people feel about the vaccines and how willing they will be to take them once available.

On a panel with leading health researchers, Ipsos’ Chris Jackson and the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Liz Hamel pointed out the rise in public confidence in the vaccines in recent months. Jackson said polling shows double-digit increases in confidence across the world.

Of those with a “wait and see” approach, many are not really “hesitant,” but they need more information from trusted sources, Hamel said. “Listen to people’s concerns, take them seriously and empathize with them. They come from not only a place of fear but a place of newness,” she added.

Scott McDonald of the Advertising Research Foundation noted that some of the movement reinforces “what we already understand about how opinions change and how advertising really works.” He pointed out that people get their cues from a “norm” that is now influenced on social media by people they never meet.

While confidence in the vaccines has grown, confidence in governments to deal with the crisis has not. “It has slowly eroded over the past year,” Jackson said.

(For the latest in vaccine confidence news, subscribe to Real Chemistry’s free Vaccine Confidence Weekly newsletter here.)

Messaging About the Vaccines

Messaging about the vaccines and what platforms to use to communicate to those who have questions and concerns was a major focus of most of the Real Chemistry SXSW panels.

“A big breakthrough is telling people it’s okay to have questions,” Dr. Tuckson said. He and Lindsay agreed that trying to understand where people are instead of lecturing them is critical. “We need to listen to people, spend time listening and educating them, dispelling myths. Word of mouth remains very powerful,” she said.

Usually, it takes nine months to create an Ad Council campaign, but the ongoing COVID-19 vaccine education initiative took far less, said Catherine Chao, the Ad Council’s vice president for strategy and evaluation. PSAs were out in two weeks after the Ad Council finalized details with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Ad Council (Real Chemistry is an Ad Council partner) is not just developing heart-tugging commercials, but also community-based activities to “get deep into communities” and help people understand what the vaccines will bring, Chao said.

Effective messages come with an empathetic tone, not focused on playing into fears about what the coronavirus might do to someone who is not vaccinated. “Not to say fear isn’t motivating but when leaning on it too heavily, it is not authentic,” she said.

Asked to create his own 30-second script for a pro-vaccine commercial, Dr. Tuckson said it would say: “Dear American households, would you like to get your life back? Kids go back to school? Have a job? Do you want to have Christmas and Thanksgiving with your family? You can’t do it without getting vaccinated. Let’s get our lives back. Today’s the day.”

Frank Washkuch, executive editor of PRWeek, struck a similar tone. “There are many negative messages, but one that really works is, ‘This is how we get back to normal’,” he said.

The Employer Has a Vaccine Confidence Platform

Employers – who can access a toolkit at – may not want to give ultimatums about vaccines, said Allison Weissbrot, editor-in-chief of Campaign US at Haymarket Media, but “employers have a huge platform and microphone to get employees vaccinated.” They can use other ways to persuade, including helping make appointments or giving people information about the vaccines, she said.

Jim Weiss said Real Chemistry would approach employee vaccination communication just as he would recommend to clients. “We’ll meet everybody where they are, listen to their concerns and have mutual respect,” he said.

Health Innovation at SXSW and Beyond

Boosting vaccine confidence is a path to help get us out of this pandemic, which has taken a terrible toll on so many. But one silver lining of this past year has been a rapid acceleration of innovation in health care. We will continue to share with you the insights gleaned at SXSW Online 2021 from our industry’s top thought leaders. Thank you for showing up and shaping the future with us.

This is part one of a three-part series recapping our health innovation content at SXSW Online 2021. Stay tuned for more!

The W2O Center for Social Commerce at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications identifies mental wellness, lack of confidence, and imbalance as byproducts of a global pandemic.

More than one year since the COVID-19 pandemic began, it continues to impact every aspect of our lives. As students at Syracuse University, we and our classmates have quickly learned to adapt to virtual instruction, social distancing guidelines and safety protocols to keep the campus community safe.

The W2O Center for Social Commerce (CSC), a partnership between the Newhouse School and W2O – an analytics-oriented, insight-driven healthcare marketing and communications firm, part of Real Chemistry, a global health innovation company – sponsored a research study to understand students’ attitudes and experiences during COVID-19. The study captured approximately 200 student opinions encompassing various years of study, academic programs, organizations and living arrangements.

For college students and the entire university community, the effects of the pandemic extend beyond the classroom. It has impacted students’ confidence, made it challenging to participate in extracurricular activities and forced a “pause” on many social activities.

The good news is that students are resilient. Each day they are finding new approaches to stay engaged in their studies, maintain connections with peers and work with faculty to share ideas and get support.

We invite you to explore the full research report here, and read below for key takeaways:

1. Social distancing guidelines impact mental wellness

Students are experiencing screen time fatigue and a decrease in mental wellness. Some students also report they feel less eager to attend class to log on to club meetings because of the challenging circumstances.

2. Uncertainty exists around adherence to safety protocols

While many students are doing their part to slow the spread, they felt it was unlikely they could stay completely safe from others who did not take the same precautions.

3. Utilizing in-person resources feels risky for campus community

While many resources moved to virtual settings, students struggle with the lack of in-person resources, resulting in a majority feeling disconnected.

4. Finding professional opportunities in an unstable job market adds pressure

Many discussed how COVID-19 has impacted their post-graduate plans and caused a pivot in their expectations of entering the workforce, especially upperclassmen anticipating graduation.

5. “Silver linings” exist despite challenging circumstances

Many students have found ways to make the best of a disappointing situation. For example, some students shared that the need to maintain small social “bubbles” brought them closer to friends and roommates. Others shared that more downtime and less pressure to participate in social events allowed them to gain new perspective on their priorities and enabled them to grow on a personal level.


Blog post by The W2O Center for Social Commerce Student Ambassadors: Frankie Sailer, Regan Talley and Karley Warden

We are grateful to Syracuse University, the Newhouse School and the W2O Center for Social Commerce for enabling us to explore this important topic. We believe it will be relevant for other universities looking to ensure progress in addressing current challenges and be better prepared in the future.

Learn more about W2O via our About or Healthcare pages.

The W2O Global Vaccine Confidence Dashboard is exploring the drivers of vaccine confidence and hesitancy across seven countries, sharing real-time learnings that can inform communicators about how to increase vaccine acceptance rates.

You can view the dashboard here.

In our first report, we set an initial baseline for future dashboards and then looked more closely at the findings in the UK. We noted three key learnings for public health officials and the biopharma industry:

  • Self-interest remains the top driver – People are keen to return to a life without restrictions, and the drive for personal protection strongly correlates with vaccine acceptance rates. With the impact of COVID-19 affecting elderly people at a higher rate than younger people, this population will see the greatest value from a vaccination. Younger people who have experienced symptoms are more likely to need to be convinced of the value of vaccination to ensure high uptake.
  • Proven is key – Safety concerns remain the biggest barrier in shifting the hesitant towards acceptance. We believe that people are most concerned about the rapid speed of regulatory approval of vaccines and the dosing schedule. But as the world continues to vaccinate and positive real-world evidence about the safety of COVID-19 vaccine increases, we expect that vaccine confidence will increase. A key challenge will be how to ensure high vaccine confidence both nationally and globally so enough people can be vaccinated to eradicate the disease.
  • Scientists and pharmaceutical companies are the most trusted experts –The selection of spokespeople for vaccine messages is extremely important. In the UK, where there have been multiple lockdowns and one of the highest mortality rates in the world, it is no surprise that politicians rank as one of the lowest trusted sources, especially among Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities. Across all seven countries, scientists and pharmaceutical companies consistently rank as the most trusted experts. Campaigns to increase vaccine confidence will need many and varied voices to convert all audiences, and spokespeople that reflect the interests and composition of BAME communities and younger people will be especially important.

In future dashboards, we’ll assess what is disrupting and causing change in the vaccine conversation and its impact on acceptance. We’ll also look at the differences between the seven countries. If you have a particular interest and would like to dive into an aspect of our data further, or you would like to discuss implications in more detail, please contact us. You can find out more about vaccine confidence in the United States by downloading our recent report: Using Social and Search Data to Build Vaccine Confidence.

Learn more about W2O via our About or Healthcare pages.

In the absence of physical interactions, COVID-19 is forcing shifts in the pharmaceutical industry from more traditional field-based models to digitized programs designed to engage with patients and providers. Some may say this is a “Tipping Point” but I’d argue it’s a “Forcing Point.” Digital approaches have been around for years, but weren’t implemented to the degree needed to truly change how the industry engages with its customers, runs its businesses, or thinks about technology. Investment in field sales models and tactics has stayed relatively consistent.

So how and why did the pandemic drive a more aggressive shift to digitally transform businesses? Likely because it takes 66 days to change and/or form a habit. As we settled into the second month of quarantine, companies had that necessary time to live without their field-based models and could see that their old-school approaches would no longer work. This realization is forcing mindset and behavior changes and, hopefully, fostering an openness and vulnerability that encourages a new way of thinking.

But how best to accomplish this?

Simply providing iPads and interactive sales aids, and investing in CRM platforms such as Veeva and Salesforce, which many companies have done, hasn’t changed people or their behaviors. Transforming an organization takes a dedicated and measured approach to digital education—encouraging curiosity and problem solving, resulting in ownership of new thinking and behaviors.

It also incorporates a human-centered approach called Design Thinking.

Design Thinking starts with understanding end users (reps and healthcare professionals) while remaining empathetic to their needs and stated problems. Instead of just providing iPads, for example, it involves understanding whether HCPs want to see a rep at all. Did they want a 13” screen to review clinical data held 6 feet away from them? Did reps want a device designed to track their performance vs. improve their engagements with HCPs? No, not in the least. But therein lies the issue. The very thinking was flawed as it focused more on how to use an iPad in the field to track rep and HCP behaviors than on better understanding the end users, their needs and how technology could enable net-new behaviors that would benefit HCPs and pharma brands.

Much of the conversation that we’re seeing today in light of the pandemic is not about reinventing approaches or the use of digital technologies in pharma marketing and sales. Rather, we’re seeing a willingness to embrace approaches that have been proven and well established but lacked adoption. The challenge now is to wrangle strategic partners together who are best suited to execute these types of strategies and corresponding tactics.

Partners who can:

  1. Design their firms using data to uncover deep insights about audiences.
  2. Understand that it’s not just about being creative, but about delivering engaging experiences via digital platforms.
  3. Create, develop and integrate technology platforms together into a seamless digital ecosystem.
  4. Put the power of the data and insights back into the customers’ hands for use across business functions.
  5. Understand the complex web of digital media channels and tactics, how they can be customized with data, and provide personalized experiences in micro-moments that matter.
  6. Harness the ultimate power of digital to demonstrate measurable return on investment (ROI) down to real business metrics such as new prescriptions, total prescriptions and sales.

Here’s a prime example of a forcing point.

Telemedicine has been around a long time but lacked adoption, in many cases because insurance companies didn’t have reimbursement models for these types of appointments. The pandemic created the forcing mechanism to make them a necessity. One Medical and other companies made this investment many years ago and are well positioned to capitalize on COVID-19. And it won’t stop there. We’re likely to see the uberization of healthcare, via an app-like experience that lets a patient call a physician to their house and have their pharmacy deliver medications without any physical interactions. Forcing points like these are going to further impact how we market therapies and how pharma and healthcare as an industry adopt digital approaches.

So how do companies achieve true digital transformation? 

At times, and depending on the organization’s Digital IQ, it may be more efficient to accelerate progress to centralize efforts in a high-functioning group working with technologists and digital evangelists throughout the organization. Once incubated, members of teams with higher Digital IQs can be dispersed into project teams throughout the organization, bringing their knowledge into groups that reach customers. Project teams will learn what actually happens in a website build, a digital media campaign, or an analytics assignment other than what the final product looks like. They’ll learn by listening, asking questions, and learning the range of possibilities of these new avenues of communication.

Unlocking curiosity.

When I was 10 years old, I took apart every doorknob in our house. Not because I wanted to be a locksmith, but because I was curious to learn how they worked. How did the knob trigger the latch or dead bolt? How did it keep the door shut? That same curiosity must be encouraged to drive teams to learn the possibilities of digital communication, how they can be used in new ways to reach customers, setting them free to brainstorm ever more effective ways of engaging and converting them.

To drive true transformation and changes in thinking, we must understand the following:

  1. Digital is the new traditional must be an ingrained belief within an organization. Digital is central and immediate to current communications.
  2. Each employee is the digital person in the room. The days of “bringing the digital person” into the room must become a thing of the past. Dispersing employees with higher Digital IQs into project teams (see above) uplevels everyone’s understanding of technology and ensures that digital solutions will be woven into every tactic and strategy. Digital is in everything we do. It spans every form of communication. It’s no longer an afterthought or nice-to-have. It’s foundational for business.
  3. There is a symbiotic relationship between technology and digital engagements. Voice skills and actions wouldn’t have taken off without the invention of the Amazon Echo and Google Home. Mobile apps and basic features such as SMS wouldn’t exist without smartphones. And services such as Instagram and TikTok wouldn’t exist without sophisticated cameras in smartphones. Understanding the connection and potential between the two will help us create even better user experiences.
  4. User-centric and design thinking approaches are mandatory. Rather than what we want to say, or what we want people to do or buy, we must be empathetic to users to better serve their unmet needs, by communicating the benefits of our products through meaningful digital experiences. We must fundamentally shift the way we think, behave and operate. We also must deliberately hire, train and educate staff to be curious, ask questions, sit with and learn from the practitioners. The organizational changes discussed above will be required to make this happen, but the payoff in output and results will be huge.

Yes, it’s unfortunate that a pandemic has forced the acceleration of digital innovation, but it’s a great time to capitalize on the momentum. Hopefully, this crisis will pass so we can all get back to a sense of normal. However, if organizations do things right, the transformation to new ways of thinking and communicating will stay with us for a long time to come.

–Adam Cossman, Group President and Managing Partner, W2O

Learn more about W2O via our About or Healthcare pages.

The pandemic that’s right next door.

COVID-19 has become the context in which we’re living, the focus of every media outlet, and the worry on everyone’s mind. However, what many don’t realise is that there is another pandemic that has been both ignored and exacerbated by COVID-19 and is likely to last much longer with no hope of a vaccine to prevent it. That pandemic is loneliness, which is a silent enemy[1] and one that leaves those over age 75 especially vulnerable.

Personally, I didn’t know much about the true effect of loneliness until my grandfather was diagnosed with stage III metastatic bladder cancer. Soon afterwards, I began spending my days caring for him while watching news about the second wave of the pandemic and local lockdowns. My grandfather had lived alone since 2012, after both my grandmother and great-grandmother passed away. He was never very sociable and previously relied on my grandmother’s boisterous ability to make friends quickly. Unfortunately, he never recovered socially after her passing and has been unable to forge any new connections in the years since. My sister and I are his only remaining close relatives, and over the years it has become more and more apparent that we are the only people who speak to him on a regular basis. My grandfather is sadly just one example of many in this situation.

Loneliness may seem to be a subjective and immeasurable concept, which could explain the apparent lack of scientific study in this area. However, there is a widely agreed upon definition in the UK. A government-funded report on loneliness defines it as “a subjective, unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship, which happens when we have a mismatch between the quantity and quality of social relationships that we have and those that we want.”[2] In addition, loneliness is known to have serious physical health consequences[3]– including high blood pressure, high cholesterol and increased cortisol – and is associated with increased comorbidity for people with mental health issues.[4]

In England, more than 2 million people over age 75 live alone.[5] While it can be assumed that there has always been a degree of isolation for some members of society, it is believed that loneliness has increased as a result of 21st century social practices and technology. In Noreena Hertz’ recent book, “The Lonely Century: How Isolation Imperils our Future,”[6] she discusses how recent technological advances and changes in society have placed self-interest above interest in others, contributing to a feeling of isolation for those who are less tech savvy. This technological divide leaves senior populations at an increased risk of loneliness especially during COVID-19 lockdowns. Even when restrictions were lifted for others in the UK, seniors were asked to remain home. For those who have a difficult time adapting to technology, it can feel like they’re left on the outskirts of society.

The odds seem doubly stacked against pensioners – many of whom suffer from anxiety, have mobility issues, or have comorbidities that make it unsafe to leave their homes. As we move into the winter season with COVID-19 case numbers in the UK rising again, it’s likely we will see the implementation of more restrictions for pensioners.

Several initiatives have been created to address loneliness in the UK. One initiative from the Campaign to End Loneliness provides patient questionnaires designed to be used in a clinical setting for GPs to refer patients to social prescription workers if necessary.[7] This initiative highlights the need for greater social prescription in primary care and was instrumental in setting a goal of hiring 1,000 new social prescribing link workers by 2020/2021.[8] In the context of COVID-19, the Campaign to End Loneliness has begun researching whether a phone call will help pensioners with lockdown-related isolation.[9] Another initiative is the Silver Service, which also provides this option. Founded by television presenter Esther Rantzen, the Silver Service allows pensioners to call a number and speak to someone about anything, whether it’s about the loneliness they’re experiencing or just the weather.[10]

Other initiatives to combat loneliness also have been trialled elsewhere. In Ireland, the charity Engage with Age has started People Against Loneliness (PAL), a service in which volunteers conduct a half hour call with a senior each week. Unlike current interventions in the UK, the service requires seniors to register in order to be matched with a volunteer, but allows for the same volunteer for each senior.[11] In Canada, a program is in place in which volunteers stop by seniors’ homes and keep them company once a week. To date, this service has received positive feedback from the community.[12] These initiatives are encouraging, but there is no time to wait as we endure another lockdown.

Unfortunately, the challenges with existing interventions regarding loneliness is that they rely on pensioners to take the first step, either by raising the issue with their GP or picking up the phone. For many, denial or pride may stop them from asking for help, or they don’t realise they suffer from loneliness, or that it may impact their health. Additionally, some studies have shown that existing interventions, such as group activities and socialisation, are ineffective in meaningfully treating loneliness.[13]

It’s clear that new, effective interventions need to be created. University College London (UCL) has taken a step in that direction and is currently looking to fund research into initiatives that can make a difference.[14] The Campaign to End Loneliness has reported on an intervention that is being trialled to help those affected by loneliness and depression.[15]

Ultimately, what these examples show is that there is not enough research into loneliness and what can alleviate it, and more proactive steps need to be taken. The studies by UCL are a great start, but they’re only the tip of the iceberg for a problem that is a pandemic of its own.

As we look to end loneliness in seniors, three key issues must be addressed:

  • There must be different ways for people to access interventions, ranging from hospital visits to phone calls to dedicated technology.
  • Interventions must be continually evaluated for their effectiveness, including asking those taking part what has worked best for them and then implementing those changes.
  • All of us must actively reach out to those in the community who may be suffering from loneliness.

Although I know my grandfather is grateful for the connection we’ve maintained over the years, I will always wish I could have done more to make him feel less lonely. Loneliness is an issue that is so common and that we all experience at some point in our lives. Staying silent about it won’t lessen its impact. It’s time for us to be more emotionally aware so that together we can help make the world a healthier place.

Additional information provided by Shanda Kopp.

Learn more about W2O via our About or Healthcare pages.
















Say “hi.”

Contact Us