Kaitlin Cuccinelli is one of many "nano influencers" working with the state of New Jersey to promote safe public health practices to their followers on social media.
CNN  — 

Consider it a uniquely 2020 public service announcement.

A woman in a pretty yet understated dress. The wind catches her perfectly curled blonde hair as she stands in front of a gleaming car and aspirational home. The perfectly styled, pastel-hued Instagram photo topped with the words: “Paid partnership with Choose New Jersey.”

This is not a typical advertisement from an Instagram influencer. But the minds behind #MaskUpNJ hope this pilot program between influencers and the state they live in can shape a new kind of public service announcement. And reach more people than ever.

The state of New Jersey embarked on a new frontier of PSAs this fall, all to emphasize safe Covid practices.

Instead of hawking workout plans, clothing or cleaning products, these Jersey-connected content creators encouraged their thousands of followers to stay safe during the pandemic. The aim is to highlight five key points: Wear a mask, wash your hands, social distance, return the contact tracer’s phone call and download the state’s contact tracing app.

“This is not political in any sort of way. It’s just pure, fundamental PSA public health messaging,” said Jose Lozano, CEO of Choose NJ, the state’s privately funded non-profit dedicated to promoting New Jersey at home and abroad. He helped spearhead the effort, which just finished its two-month pilot phase on December 7.

For the influencers, the content is paying off. Sometimes literally.

A more ‘authentic’ messenger

Efforts began as infections among New Jersey’s young people began ticking up over the summer.

Eager to reach those probably not tuning in to New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s daily coronavirus briefings, state leaders wanted to get creative. Businesses have increasingly partnered with influencers on social media with success – why not do the same here?

Lozano and his team turned to a California-based marketing company Xomad that specializes in working with “nano influencers.” These social media content creators have follower counts in the low thousands, larger than the average casual user but still miniscule compared to celebrity influencers with followers in the millions or tens of millions.

“Their followers don’t see them as hired guns,” said Rob Perry, Xomad’s CEO. “That’s why we like them. They can speak with a great deal of authenticity. Their content is more organic.”

Kaitlin Cuccinelli promotes mask wearing as part of Choose New Jersey's campaign to promote safe public health practices.

And, crucially, nano influencers’ messages resonate: “Their engagement rates are much, much higher,” Perry said. His company has worked on similar influencer-aligned Covid PSA campaigns in California, Oklahoma City and Columbia, South Carolina.

For the New Jersey program, ideal nano influencers kept messaging contained to followers in-state and specifically targeted to the under-40 crowd, Lozano said.

The teams built a list of more than 2,000 possible nano influencers before vetting and whittling the list down to more than 400. The ultimate goal was to reach Garden State residents across geographic and socioeconomic spectrums, keeping posts apolitical and family friendly.

Each chosen influencer was given a set number of posts for social media, with specific hashtags to use and language about mask wearing, social distancing and downloading the state’s contact tracing app – all designed to be authentic to the person posting it.

In the pilot program’s run from October to December, more than 444 local influencers created at least 2,047 posts across TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat – racking up 35.1 million views across the platforms, according to Xomad’s data shared with CNN.

Audience’s positive response

For the most part, audiences have been receptive to their mask content, the influencers say.

Sumaira J. Khan, an influencer based in Middlesex, New Jersey, with more than 16,300 followers, mainly posts content about herself and her family to an audience that is 90% women. The response to her #MaskUp post featuring her child wearing a face mask was overwhelmingly positive.

“No matter how much we wish and pray for the world to return to normal, it can be made possible only by our collective effort to follow the guidelines,” she wrote in the caption.

“I know there are people who are against it, but thankfully, I have not been trolled for it,” Khan said.

Sumaira J. Khan is an influencer based in Middlesex, New Jersey, who has more than 16,300 followers.

Some say mask critics are more vocal on TikTok. Daniela Sablon, a 22-year-old special education high school teacher in Union County, shares photos and videos about her life on Instagram and TikTok, where she has 115,400 followers. While the comments on her Instagram post have been overwhelmingly positive, the reception to her TikTok video about masks was more mixed.

“I didn’t realize how many anti-maskers there were (on TikTok). There was a whole debate and then they brought politics into it,” Sablon said.

Despite the negativity, Sablon said it’s important to promote mask wearing on TikTok because the app reaches significantly more teenagers. Sablon said the majority of her TikTok viewers are young people.

“I didn’t realize how much I could actually have an influence,” she said.

As it works with these types of deals, there is some compensation for some influencers. Often, the higher the follower count, the larger the payment, potentially netting the creator hundreds of dollars, though some participated pro bono. Money for those that were paid came from Choose New Jersey, which is separate from the state’s coffers.

For Kaitlin Cuccinelli, one of the nano influencers partnering with Choose New Jersey, the pandemic’s impact is personal.

“Like a lot of other Americans right now, I lost my job during the pandemic,” she explained.

Although her Instagram feed with more than 3,500 followers is largely wholesome shots of her family and their home, she was eager to share #MaskUpNJ content because of the climbing coronavirus numbers in her state.

“I try and stay away from things that are really controversial, but for me, I don’t feel that this is one of those topics. I just feel like it’s important to set an example,” she said.

Julie Spero models a mask while holding a smoothie. New Jersey's PSA campaign wasn't limited to influencers but included Instagram food blogs like Spero's which is known as Hoboken Hungry.

Choose New Jersey’s campaign was not limited to lifestyle influencers. Hoboken Hungry, a delicious-looking Instagram account with more than 32,000 followers, was included in the pilot campaign. Run by Julie Spero, Hoboken Hungry’s feed now includes an avocado face mask post with a list of local stores selling masks.

Spero said that the devastation of coronavirus on the restaurant industry was the main impetus for her promoting the campaign.

This could help messaging around the vaccine

While the pilot #MaskUpNJ campaign was run separately from the state of New Jersey’s main social media strategy, it fits into the state’s overall unique approach to social media.

New Jersey is one of the rare states to embrace social media, with zany posts on Twitter and Instagram using memes that reflect a sense of humor not often seen in state government.

Those involved call the #MaskUpNJ pilot program a success, and hope it will be a framework for an even larger campaign slated to start later in December – the state’s messaging around vaccine distribution in 2021.

“By leveraging the creativity of our digital team and broad reach of our social media platforms, we can deliver public health information that has the potential to save lives in the most effective way possible,” Gov. Phil Murphy said in a statement to CNN. “This asset will be incredibly important as we build out our public awareness campaign to prepare for broad distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine.”