A new healthcare reality is upon us. More than 35% of patients self-diagnose using info accessed online; nearly 250 million health-related mobile apps were downloaded in 2012; and three out of five people prefer the advice of fellow patients, friends or family to professionals when seeking emotional support for a health issue.

It should come as no surprise that the way people access and use health information has gone through a dramatic shift in recent years. In short, patients are acting more like consumers than ever before. This shift raises challenging questions for healthcare marketers trying to keep their brands relevant, let alone competitive. How should they promote their brands in a way that leverages this new pull-based marketing reality? What are the implications for brand messaging and communications plans? How should they reach and engage patients in a constantly evolving environment? Four guiding principles are offered to help healthcare marketers effectively reach, engage and have an impact on the ever empowered and self-directed ePatient.

1. Use Insights to Understand How Patients Want to Engage With You

Patients, like any consumer, want to engage with brands on their own terms. To determine when, where and how patients want to engage, it is critical that more time and effort be devoted to the gathering of info and analysis. To be actionable, this analysis needs to go beyond a basic evaluation of media habits and technographic profiles, and beyond making assumptions about the types of information patients might need to make more informed decisions.

After all, a myriad of factors influence human decision-making and behaviors, especially when it comes to a complex and emotional topic like healthcare.

Considering more insight rich variables such as the context for decision-making, or the generational differences, motivations and emotional wants of patients will provide a platform for campaigns that are more relevant and meaningful. Leveraging even more nuanced insights, if available, such as patient perceptions and attitudes towards a specific health risk, or the unique social and cultural norms of a patient group, will further improve the odds of effective patient engagement.

Investing the resources to understand a patient’s wants and preferences will help deliver info and utility in a practical way that both builds trust and confidence in a brand. It will also inform messaging, design and tactical decisions that give brands a leg-up on ensuring greater relevance and higher patient engagement levels.

2. Prioritize Patient Needs When Planning Campaigns

Many healthcare marketing teams make a critical mistake when planning patient marketing programs in that they over-emphasize product attributes and transactional outcomes in their communications and creative strategies. This too often results in campaign ideas or engagement strategies that are irrelevant, fail to differentiate, or worse, fail to drive the better patient decision-making or health behaviors that were the ultimate objective.

To change this, marketers need to overcome the desire to prioritize the needs of their brands and business before those of the patient when developing their communications plans. The obvious solution is to put the patient at the core of the planning process and relentlessly focus on their needs and wants throughout. Several innovative methods to patient outreach and insight gathering can help with this reorientation. For instance, some innovative brands enlist the feedback and input of patients through online collaboration tools to validate, or even co-create, marketing program ideas. Other brands create design personas that are highly descriptive archetypes of a brand’s most important patient types. These personas are then used to inform brand communication and creative strategies that will resonate with their intended audience.

Of course, the objective of patient-centric planning is to determine what content, tools or services patients will value depending on where they are on their treatment journey. Maybe it’s as simple as creating an easy to understand video explaining the MOA of a treatment a patient is considering. Or, maybe it’s a mobile app that helps a patient track their symptoms and treatment progress. What’s important is that the content or tool addresses the needs of the patient in a way that is easy to access when and how they want it delivered.

It is also important to consider where and from whom they want to access this value. Sometimes it is optimal if it is delivered through a branded message or experience. Other times, depending on the condition, topic or context, patients will not trust brand-sponsored information. In those situations, it is important to identify the best sources and manner of delivery. Is it from a fellow patient? Or maybe it’s better coming from a physician or other HCP? Either way, it’s not only important to understand what patients will value, but how and from whom they want to receive it.

3. Leverage the Power of Mobile and Social Media Tools

Mobile technologies and social media have significantly changed the healthcare communications landscape. Regrettably, the level of investment and commitment of many healthcare brands to these important, yet evolving, tools is nowhere near commensurate with their influence. A primary reason may be that leveraging mobile and social media tools in a healthcare setting requires a conceptual shift in how marketers think about and plan brand communications and experiences.

There is absolutely no doubt that uni-directional, push-based communications still play an important, albeit diminishing, role in healthcare communications. But the contemporary self-directed ePatient also expects and demands multidimensional experiences that are characterized by participation, collaboration and feedback. For proof, look no further than the explosive growth of the Quantified Self movement, which is characterized by the use of Wi-Fi enabled digitized watches, clips and bracelets that monitor an array of physical and biological functions. The objective of all this technology is to provide its users with a steady stream of information about the state of their health as a means to motivate them to adhere to healthier lifestyles.

The challenge for many teams is that planning and designing these types of tools on behalf of their brands requires an approach and set of skills that they are unaccustomed to using. For instance, teams planning to integrate a mobile or social media tool into their marketing plans need to carefully consider how these tools will affect patient attitudes, beliefs and, ultimately, behaviors. The key question is no longer: “What is the objective of this communication?” Instead, teams now need to ask: “What is the design and desired health outcome of this mobile or social media intervention, and what mechanism will we use to facilitate that outcome?” Is the mechanism message based? Game based? Community based? All of the above? These are tough questions that require an entirely different frame of reference than that considered during traditional marketing and communications planning exercises.

4. Align Communications and Brand Experiences With Patient Journeys

For years patient marketing programs were designed on the premise that more message frequency and more touch points were the recipe to success. This frequency and “surround-sound” model was based on the idea that it would be only a matter of time (and budget) before bombarded patients would eventually submit to a brand’s message.

Eventually, the efficacy of this push-based promotional model diminished due to a variety of factors, but mostly because it no longer worked in an environment where patients could easily get health information from an endless array of digital or other sources. Regrettably, too many healthcare marketers cling to this dated model despite diminishing results and lower ROIs.

To respond, healthcare marketers should take a more empathetic approach to communications planning by spending time understanding the journey patients will go through when considering or using their product. More importantly, marketers need to appreciate the needs and wants of these patients (whether informational, emotional or financial to name a few), as well the barriers and drivers to the desired response or action at each stage of the journey so they can align their communications and tactics accordingly.

In this way, marketers will be able to design brand experiences and communications that better address the needs and wants of patients. Of course, the ultimate goal of this alignment is not only to help patients make more informed decisions and achieve better health outcomes, but also to help marketers meet the business and financial objectives they set for their brands.

Getting More Out of Healthcare Marketing Investments

To be effective, healthcare communications must work harder to meet the evolving behaviors and expectations of today’s ePatient. This undoubtedly puts increasing demands on marketers and their agency partners to bring more relevant campaign ideas and tactics to market. The four principles outlined above offer a starting point towards meeting these increasing demands. These principles should help healthcare marketers deliver programs that result in more informed patients who make better decisions and have clearer pathways to act in their best health interests. Ideally the payback for brands will be greater patient trust, loyalty and, ultimately, profitability.

  • Fred Petito

    Fred Petito is the Chief Strategy Officer for Eveo. Over his nearly 20-year career, Fred has developed expertise designing breakthrough digital and multi-channel marketing programs in the pharmaceutical, health insurance, high-tech and consumer good categories that tightly align client objectives, audience insights and analytics to deliver more relevant, impactful campaigns.


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