While then premier Stephen McNeil implored people to "Stay the blazes home" during the first COVID-19 lockdown last year, Nova Scotia's social media messaging has consistently taken a gentler, often humorous approach to encourage people to follow public health restrictions.
Whether it's two amorous Nova Scotians looking to "take things to the next level" by getting tested for COVID-19 or on "the worst Noël, the experts did say, limit our social circles and stay six feet away," examples are abundant.
"In a heavy situation, it's a way to break the ice with people," said David Denny, the managing director of marketing for Communications Nova Scotia.
He said the province's social media channels have seen exponential growth since the pandemic began and record engagement on its posts.
For example, the province's number of Facebook followers has tripled to almost 110,000 since the pandemic began, while its Instagram followers have increased almost tenfold to more than 36,000.
Denny attributes that in part to the videos that private companies have produced for the province to share on its social media channels.
Besides these videos, the province has paid for promoted posts, mainly on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. These posts have included everything from geo-targeted promotion of a regional popup testing site to targeting a message to a specific demographic.
But it's unclear how much this marketing effort has cost taxpayers.
A CBC News access-to-information request for invoices relating to the province's COVID-19 social media marketing strategy revealed that 61 of the 196 invoices covering March 1, 2020, to July 15, 2021, did not have a total amount included. The incomplete invoices came from Facebook, Twitter and Google.
Invoices from the marketing firms and video production companies the province worked with included the full amounts. Part of that effort included working with paid influencers.
The use of influencers
"Sometimes people just don't want to hear from government and the message is going to resonate more from a peer or someone that they feel is a peer, that they they look up to … they also have a larger [following] than we do, so it gets more eyeballs on the message and it sometimes can be delivered in a way that only that segment of the population can deliver it," said Denny.
One of those influencers is Halifax's Alicia McCarvell, a body-positivity advocate who has 3.3 million followers on TikTok and 386,000 on Instagram.
The province paid Toronto marketing agency Shine Influencers $11,025 for McCarvell's services for this video, as well as $15,687.50 to Canadian Content Studios to produce the video, which encourages people to get tested for COVID-19.
Another influencer, Andy Hay of Andy's East Coast Kitchen, produced a video on how to make a Christmas dinner for under $50.
The province paid $3,955 to Toronto firm Diner Agency Inc. for the influencer partnership and video creation.
Dalhousie University marketing professor Mohammed El Hazzouri, who researches how people respond to public health messaging, said the province's social media strategy adopts the right tone.
"When you use humour, when you are funny in your advertising, I think people are more receptive to that advertising," he said. "People are not thinking about details of the advertisement or coming up with counter arguments to what you're saying and so the message becomes more accepted."
Denny said that was part of the aim.
"That's kind of our end goal because it was information that was important and information that at the end of the day was about keeping Nova Scotians safe," he said. "And anything we could do to make that more shareable, we looked at."
'It's a weird time'
At the end of some videos, a narrator thanks Nova Scotians for following public health restrictions.
"We know it's a weird time and we know you get it, so thank you for staying home, following health advice and looking out for one another," said the narrator.
El Hazzouri liked this.
"I think this is very important, this acknowledgement of, 'We're working together on this,'" he said. "This is not a highly common approach. I haven't seen it widely in Canada, so this one stood out for me, thanking Nova Scotians for following the rules."
As the pandemic has evolved from staying home during the first lockdown to gradual reopenings and vaccinations — with some more lockdowns sprinkled in — Denny said the province is working to get more people vaccinated.
As of Friday, 75.9 per cent of Nova Scotians were fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
"There are pockets of people who are harder to reach or who may be more hesitant," said Denny. "We've taken steps to reach them and through targeted marketing efforts."
But while the province's social media messaging has consistently offered a carrot to people, recent policies such as proof of vaccination to participate in non-essential activities and mandatory vaccinations for provincial civil servants amount to more of a stick.
"With these new policies in place … hopefully, that encourages people to to get vaccinated," said Denny.
View Nova Scotia's COVID-19 social media invoices covering March 1, 2020, to July 15, 2021.
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