Tanya Wood, Senior Communications Business Partner, King’s College London reveals how they achieved incredible levels of engagement for the ZOE COVID symptom app which now stands at 4.7 million contributors worldwide.
As 2020 started, the world faced the threat of a totally novel virus, COVID-19. From early reports, it was clear that there were a wide range of symptoms, which differed from person to person. Scientists were desperately looking for rapid access to data to learn more about the virus and gain insight into its manifestation and spread.
In March 2020, the ZOE COVID Symptom Study app was launched. Built by a team of developers from health science start-up ZOE over a sleepless weekend, its aim was to provide scientists at King’s College London with real-time data to enable them to track symptoms and ultimately slow the spread of the virus.
A joint PR campaign was launched between King’s College London and ZOE with the objective to engage and attract the media and public to the project. Timing was critical in order to rapidly spread the word about the app and encourage people to download and start logging their symptoms straight away.
But this wasn’t a short-term project and we needed to ensure that our media strategy took journalists on the journey with us, with the aim of achieving widespread and continuous coverage that would keep those signed up to the app engaged and continuing to log their symptoms, while also attracting new users.
A key part of the PR strategy was to provide the media and the public with access to the very latest research by press releasing pre-print scientific papers for the first time. Historically, these would have had to wait months for full peer-review and formal journal acceptance. However, given the fast-paced nature of the pandemic and the need for real-time information, this was justified, while ensuring that the appropriate caveats were made clear. This crucially meant that when the data from the app started to show that loss of taste and smell – anosmia – was a highly predictive symptom of COVID-19, we were able to publicise that straight away. Indeed, this finding and the resulting media coverage, ultimately led to the government adding this onto the official list of COVID-19 symptoms in May 2020.
We worked with a range of reporters across the health and science press in the UK and the US, successfully using our partnership to establish strong relationships with key journalists. By providing regular and reliable data and commentary on COVID-19, we were able to position the ZOE COVID Symptom Study app, Professor Tim Spector and King’s College London as a trusted authority on COVID-19 around the world. Crucially, users of the app also had a keen sense that they were making a vital contribution to the fight against COVID.
And that is why receiving this award from the MJA is particularly special. It has only been with the support of journalists and working in partnership with the media that we have been able to achieve incredible levels of engagement for the app which now stands at 4.7 million contributors worldwide. Users have collectively logged more than 434 million daily health reports, more than 13.4 million tests and 1.3 million vaccines, making it the biggest COVID-19 study of its kind in the world and providing near-real time information about the pandemic to the UK government and the public.