The Pivot: Can Healthcare Marketing Practices Evolve in the Wake of a Global Pandemic?

Most of the adages about change note that although it’s constant, necessary—and sometimes even welcome—evolution isn’t always easy. And as we’re witnessing amidst the response to the global coronavirus pandemic, unexpected change on a massive scale can be brutal.

Yet even the most difficult transformations tend to leave some form of benefit in their wake. In looking at early trends around how people are trying to adapt to life in the time of COVID-19, one of the lights on the other end of the tunnel may be an evolution in terms of how health-focused content and services are marketed and delivered moving forward.

While Advertisers Pause, Consumers Push Play

We don’t need a crystal ball to know that the global pandemic will impact ad and media budgets for the foreseeable future. Nearly a quarter (24%) of all the media buyers recently surveyed by the IAB said they’d paused their ads through at least June. And while nearly 7 out of 10 buyers in another survey said they expect the worst impact on spending in Q2, many also expect the ripples to flow into the latter half of this year.

At first glance, campaign pauses and budget cuts make perfect sense. Outside of the economic uncertainty, no company wants to appear tone deaf, insensitive, or worse—learn that they’ve somehow misdirected resources or attention away from content that might support medical staff, government officials, or other frontline workers.

But what’s also clear is that people are consuming lots more content. Whether they’re escaping by binging on Netflix, or subscribing to outlets like The Atlantic to stay updated, shelter-in-place requirements are driving media engagement metrics way up.

Search activity also increased around various wellness-adjacent topics. From DIY tips for makeshift masks, to queries for “living room concerts,” people are searching for information about contraindications and other conditions they should be wary of, as well as mental health resources (and distractions). On our own platform, we’ve seen a 519% increase in paid impressions for content associated with keywords like “respiratory” and “immune system.”

Meanwhile, media companies on the other end of the value chain are scrambling to fill ad space that would have ordinarily been taken up by travel and retail advertisers—even while searches (and boredom) are driving more eyeballs to their sites.

So what’s the plan for a healthcare or life sciences marketer?

Err on the side of being more nimble, agile, and data-savvy now, in support of a broader shift in the way health-related content and services may be marketed in the future.

A few questions that can help guide your thinking in advance of that evolution are:

1. How might we develop better tactics for enforcing brand safety as it pertains to context and targeting?

Keyword and content whitelists and blacklists exist for a reason—and in times of crisis, civil unrest, or natural disasters, marketers can take some comfort in knowing that these guidelines help ensure that their campaigns don’t run alongside questionable content. But how do whitelists and filters work when the catalyst is health-related?

As we’ve noted, global health events can lead to an increase in searches and the consumption of health-related content. If the knee-jerk reaction at the start of the crisis was to pause any ads that could run on sites with pandemic-related content, then marketers are missing out on the opportunity to provide valuable information at a time that people are looking for it.

For example, let’s say there’s a heart disease medication that can trigger mild headaches as a side effect at the start of treatment. In a time where older consumers are searching for information around coronavirus symptoms, understanding that the slight headache they feel may be due the new medication they just started—as opposed to a sign they have COVID-19—could save them a trip to a packed urgent care center, or even help them better inform a healthcare professional during a telemedicine consult.

Automated tools for brand safety and contextual relevance have their place, but having a manual process where the media team can actually examine and approve a few sites that a campaign may run on—think of it as a curated, crisis-driven whitelist—might be a practice to embrace moving forward.

2. Can we be more nimble in terms of content and ad creation and delivery?

Restrictions around what healthcare advertisers can say have led to equally rigorous standards and processes around how their creative teams and agencies develop campaigns. Creative reviews are a must—but marketing in the wake of coronavirus is pitting these notoriously lengthy approval processes against the crush of quickly creating high-quality, medically vetted content.

Continuing with the heart medication brand as an example, if their search team uncovered the spike in headache-related COVID-19 searches, the next step might be to create a keyword campaign that leads the audience to a custom, coronavirus-related landing page or guide. The question is how quickly each element of the campaign—from the keywords and keyphrases themselves, to the images and copy on the landing page—can be created, approved, and deployed. (And that’s not even factoring in that the team may still be adapting to the “new normal” of working together remotely).

While most pharma teams do have a slate of approved messages and campaign guidelines, they may also need to reconsider production standards if they’re going to develop content and campaigns on the fly. Moving forward, it might be useful to take a nod from other verticals when it comes to content production.

For example, quick-service restaurants (QSRs), have been able to use some UGC-style content to showcase how they’re safely handling people’s orders—a tactic that might well suit a prosthetic or medical device maker. Meanwhile, a few telecom providers have gone more bare bones in their approach, running TV spots that essentially feature just text and flash cards highlighting the days and times they’re open.

Figuring out how to craft and deploy timely, useful healthcare-related content is a must in a world where content farms and scrappy e-commerce vendors can flood traditional, digital, and social media channels with scams and misinformation.

3. Where and how can we leverage all the audience data that’s available to us?

Healthcare advertisers—like doctors, or even data scientists—must have access to data in order to understand their audience, their challenges, and what solutions or information will be most useful to them in any given moment.

And yet due to its very personal nature, healthcare data is often siloed within various proprietary platforms, whether it’s an HCP’s own CRM, or a pharma brand’s prescription-by-mail subscriber list.

At face value this lack of integration may appear to protect consumer privacy, but a closer look shows that the walls around and between health information impede collaboration—not just in terms of marketers—but between local and national healthcare providers and government organizations as well.

There are signs that the global pandemic is even driving change here though, as the OCR recently announced that it wouldn’t penalize practitioners if they needed to use telehealth solutions that weren’t fully HIPAA-compliant to deliver COVID-19-related care.

While it’s too soon to say whether this will drive a full HIPAA overhaul, healthcare and life science marketers might start to think about whether they’re fully leveraging the data that’s available to them right now.

Ultimately, this pandemic is making it clear that our increasingly complex and rapidly changing world requires equally novel ways of thinking, acting, and collaborating if we’re going to have a healthy population moving forward. And the systems we’ve established for everything from brand safety and content creation, to knowledge-sharing and data privacy may actually be holding us back.

A combination of nimbleness, agility, and interoperability will enable us to build a more effective system for delivering health-related content and information—accelerating the delivery of positive healthcare outcomes, and potentially even saving millions of lives.

  • Maria Simeone

    Maria Simeone is VP Marketing at PulsePoint, a technology company using real time data to transform healthcare marketing. In this role, she drives the marketing strategy and is responsible for brand and communications, growth marketing, and product marketing.

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