Lessons learned: Studying the effects of awareness raising campaigns in origin countries


By Jasper Tjaden – University of Potsdam, IOM GMDAC


Over the last six years, EU governments have scaled up funding for information and awareness raising campaigns addressing potential migrants in origin countries, particularly in Africa. Many leave without much information about the journey or the life at destination. While the number of campaigns and the diversity of approaches increased, there was hardly any solid evidence on the effects of awareness raising activities on the main target group (Tjaden et al. 2019) while many scholars doubted their effectiveness (Schans & Optekamp 2017).

Since 2018, the IOM’s Global Migration Data Analysis Centre (GMDAC) piloted a series of studies employing rigorous impact assessment methods (including randomized controlled trials and difference-in-difference approaches) to learn from campaigns and inform future programming in this field (see here for a summary). There are three broader findings based on this research that may be of value for policy makers and practitioners involved in awareness raising campaigns. 

Informed tradeoffs


Research shows that there is a particularly wide range of different types of communication channels being used in the field – from theatre plays, graffiti workshops and board games to radio and TV ads, leaflets and concerts to townhall events, community conversations and online campaigns involving social media platforms. Given the variety of options to choose from when designing a campaign, funders and implementers face a difficult tradeoff: What channel is the best?


Online campaigns can reach a very large audience very quickly at comparatively low cost. Facebook and other social media platforms can help to blast out targeted ads with video or text content linking to campaign websites. In comparison, community events may reach anywhere from 10 to 100 people per event. The costs are higher due to logistics and staff costs.


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A meaningful metric, however, for measuring effectiveness should not be limited to the so-called reach or size of the audience. Impact – the kind of change you want to see in the target group, such as an increased awareness for the realities of irregular migration journeys – is most important. Such impact is difficult to measure online (Lopéz 2019). IOM GMDAC conducted a study on the effectiveness of Facebook ads in three West African countries (Haarmann et al. 2020). 

Although the data show a relatively high engagement with Facebook content when it comes to generated clicks on links and video content, the results warrant caution. Many populations do not have access to the internet or the connection is too poor to watch videos.


Compared to the costs of offline events, Facebook ads are cheaper when considering who is exposed to the online content. However, the costs are equal or even higher compared to offline events when considering deeper levels of engagement such as leaving a comment, sharing the post or responding to a survey.


In contrast to online communication, offline events have the advantage of enabling communicators to get a precise picture of the direct reactions and impact their content is triggering, as they allow to directly measure the changes in perceptions, attitudes and intentions of participants (Dunsch et al. 2019; Bia-Zafinikamia et al. 2021). 

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Emotion trumps facts

A growing body of research in social psychology and behavioral science suggests that facts alone do not change hearts and minds (Kolbert, 2017). Traditional billboards and leaflets with ‘factual’ information, especially when disseminated through official (government) channels, are unlikely to change hearts and minds. Relatable, emotional content is more memorable and more likely to be taken seriously, especially when conveyed by peers (Dunsch et al. 2019; Bia-Zafinikamia et al. 2021).

While the campaigns that IOM GMDAC studied were able to increase risk perceptions and reduce intentions to migrate irregularly, they had limited effects on the factual knowledge of the target audience on topics such as costs, duration and legal procedures. This may not be surprising: The campaigns predominantly used personal and often emotional testimonials of returnees to convey information on the risks of irregular migration. While facts were mentioned in materials and discussions, the main approach focused on enabling the identification of audience members with the messages based on emotional connection.

Realistic expectations

Communication campaigns can be designed to provide information, raising awareness, sensitizing or reducing irregular migration flows. In order to be able to assess whether a campaign is working or if adjustments are needed, it is crucial for communicators to define the specific objectives of their campaigns right at the beginning of the design process. Furthermore, based on the metric defined, it needs to be determined what a “successful” campaign would look like in order to be able to make a meaningful assessment: Let us say the intended metric is “increased awareness of the risks associated with irregular migration”. How many potential migrants that participated in the campaign should report increased awareness (relative to those not exposed to any content)? 1 in 5, 1 in 10, 1 in 100? What is a realistic goal?

Beyond strategy and measurement issues, there are also ethical questions at play. Should potential migrants not be informed about how dangerous it can get if 90% choose to ignore this information later on? Is there an obligation to warn people regardless of their decisions?


All three points should be considered before designing or implementing campaigns. In addition, serious efforts to study existing campaigns should be made as the evidence base remains shaky (even if it has improved). Any campaign without a study is a lost opportunity to do better next time, being able to invest more efficiently in campaigns, make informed decisions on subsequent campaign phases and report back to constituents and other stakeholders. 


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