Pharma marketers looking to make connections with stakeholders, particularly patients and target consumers, can take a leaf out of the 2012 Presidential campaign playbook. Most political analysts would agree that the race to the White House was won at the grassroots level. President Barack Obama and his team built the largest community outreach effort in history using a powerful combination of the old and the new: Feet on the ground and face-to-face communication in trusted environments plus sophisticated technology. The pavement pounding resulted in word of mouth and volunteers who came out in historic numbers; the technology and social media provided the scale. When geared for building disease awareness or encouraging a specific action, a grassroots strategy can have a similar impact.

High engagement is virtually always followed by positive behavior toward an issue or a brand. To be sure, there are many ways to engage. Mass media campaigns use paid print, TV, billboards and digital vehicles for advertising or sponsorships to reach a wide audience. Grassroots outreach, on the other hand, is highly targeted and provides individual touch points for people who already care or should care about a specific issue, all within familiar contexts and sometimes in the company of others who are like-minded or there for similar reasons. Andy Levitt, founding partner of HealthTalker, refers to these two strategies as “broadcasting” and “narrowcasting.”

Narrowcasting provides a positive, educational, typically in-person experience for a specific group who are motivated to be involved for themselves or on behalf of a loved one. Therefore, they are most likely to take the desired action, whether that is to talk to a friend or family member, have a discussion with a doctor or healthcare provider about an issue or drug, or visit a website. Another critical benefit for marketers is the trust fostered by a satisfying interaction. Consider these statistics:

  • According to the Pew Research Center, 68% of people with a health question or concern say they consult a friend or family member.
  • 74% of prescription drug word of mouth takes place in person, says the Fay Keller Group, a consultancy focused on word of mouth.
  • The 2012 Nielson report on Global Trust in Advertising found that 92% of consumers around the world say they trust earned media, word of mouth or recommendations from friends and family, above all other forms of advertising—an increase of 18% since 2007.

“The magic happens face-to-face,” explains Levitt. “It is an alchemy of message, context and body language that cannot be duplicated any way other than at the grassroots level. The audience is there because they want to be there. There is engagement that you can never be sure of with other vehicles.”

When considering a community outreach approach, however, some marketers are concerned about scale and ROI, believing they get far better bang for their buck shooting wider and that the cost-per-person reached on the local level is too high to justify its potential value.

Deanne Melloy, MBA, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at Shionogi Inc., is familiar with that point of view. “Depending on the brand and the message to be delivered, we have found the level of output we get from small group engagement at the local level far exceeds not only our expectations, but also the ROI of national tactics. We have to divorce ourselves from the assumption that with eyeballs you get activation.”

The highly private and, according to Melloy, “intimate” nature of healthcare today demands more personal communications. Mobile apps, for example, pair very well with grassroots programs. Digital assets, customized regionally and perhaps partnered with a trusted, local third-party organization, pay off against a call to action by providing the information, resources and further engagement that are in the neighborhood or a click away.

Six points to keep in mind when considering a grassroots engagement strategy include:

1. You Can Gain Local Insights

Engagement on the community level affords the marketer an important opportunity to listen, learn and observe.

“We hear all the time how healthcare is really local,” says Emily Denney, Senior Director, External Affairs and Brand Corporate Affairs at AstraZeneca. “Spending time in communities provides valuable insights about how healthcare, in general or in reference to a specific condition, is being delivered. The information you learn here can change the way you think about patients or the patient journey.”

Listening to the experiences of patients, family members, at-risk consumers, physicians and third-party leaders in various parts of the country can reveal a myriad of differences that can help shape any marketing or communications plan. These include, but are not limited to, words or the lexicon used to describe a condition or its symptoms, primary influencers, nutrition and forms of recreation.

“What’s required in an approach executed in Massachusetts may well be very different from what you’ll need in Texas,” Denney adds.

2. Audiences For Whom Community Outreach Is Especially Effective  

Community outreach can be shaped for virtually any disease state or audience. It is especially effective in reaching customers who:

  • Suffer silently because they may feel embarrassed to talk about their condition.
  • Are disengaged or disenfranchised.
  • May not know about the kinds of help available to them.
  • Have rare diseases.
  • Are unlikely to be engaged by national tactics.
  • May be suspicious of or apprehensive about traditional medical authority.

3. The Message Is Central to the Effort

Jim Messina, who headed the Obama 2012 campaign, insisted it was the President’s message that engaged people and drew them into the campaign. Volunteering was the desired action so the message focused on a key source of discontent among a majority of Americans (How will the middle class make ends meet?) and the role we have in choosing our leaders for the kind of America we want to live in (We have the power!). The message in a community healthcare campaign holds a similarly critical place. An overtly branded message may be perceived as heavy-handed and, therefore, a turn-off. Far more effective is an outward-facing message, something that speaks directly to your audience’s concerns and aspirations, and helps them articulate and take action against something important to them. Levitt puts it this way, “The smart marketer knows that their brand, its attributes and their company are not the stars in this movie—the audience is.”

4. Credibility and “Gentle Collisions” 

Trust is established with an audience when an effort is made to demonstrate you’ve done your homework: You’ve learned about their community, know what they like to do, how and where they spend their leisure time, and sources of information they believe. Armed with that knowledge, a marketer can then identify the points for brand, issue or message intersection in their daily lives. Those intersections are what I call gentle collisions. Barbershop- and hair salon-based health education grassroots programs are ideal examples of gentle collisions at work. The sponsors recognize and respect the trusted position the barber/stylist has within the community and that the shop is a comfortable, relaxing environment. That’s why, training  barbers to give blood pressure tests and be health advocates, as is being done in Washington, D.C. through a program called “Hair, Heart and Health” is so effective.

5. Building the Program

Community outreach can take many forms, from the traditional sponsored health screenings and educational talks partnered with local non-profit organizations to more creative tactics such as street theatre or an attention-getting display at a highly trafficked location. Alternatively, community outreach can be more individual. This can include arranging simple get-togethers hosted by people trained to deliver a message to their like-minded friends or people they know who are in the same demographic and likely to be having similar experiences or concerns. Either way, the type of execution selected must be driven by the answers to the following questions:

  • Who are you trying to reach?  Existing patients? At-risk consumers? Consumers with co-morbid conditions? Caregivers? Parents or partners of patients?
  • Do you know what they like to do, how they spend their time, what their primary concerns are regarding their health or a specific condition?
  • Where can you find them? Where will they be comfortable and most receptive to receiving health messages?
  • What do you want them to do after participating in your program? What is the desired action?
  • What are the other elements of your marketing mix that can either enhance or be enhanced by a community outreach effort?
  • What does success look like?

6. Scale

An effort using a basic model that moves from city to city and is adjusted as necessary helps marketers looking for reach achieve “scale.” Localizing a multi-city effort could include tweaks in language or dialect, especially if the program is targeted to multi-cultural audiences. For example, a digestive health program we designed to reach Hispanic communities was based on a flexible turn-key model that was tailored in each market to account for local language differences, venue selection and local third-party partners. Another approach to achieve scale is to pair a traveling grassroots program with local DTC and/or a mobile or digital pull-through.

Of course, “scale” is a relative term. Narrowcasting to smaller numbers of people—whether 20 or 300 at a time—who are the most likely to care about the message and act, may be all the scale needed for that particular definition of success.

As proven in the Presidential campaign, community outreach can be a powerful and highly personal amplifier of a message whether as a stand-alone program or when paired with other elements as part of an integrated effort. The reach of grassroots programs often exceeds expectations; most people like to talk and share positive experiences. Finally, a benefit that should not be underestimated is the opportunity for a marketer or member of the team to have a human interaction, actually see engagement take place, watch and hear the responses of the target audience, and follow how it translates into desired actions. It can be very satisfying. For everything else, as they say, there’s DTC.

  • Sandra Stahl

    Sandra Stahl is a Founding Partner of jacobstahl, inc., a full-service PR and marketing communications agency. In addition to co-founding the PR agency, Sandra is also an adjunct professor in the Branding + Integrated Communications master’s degree program at The City College of New York, and author of The Art & Craft of PR (LID 2018).

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