The marketing of healthcare and medical services has always stood out as a discipline with its own unique characteristics and challenges.
Unlike most mainstream commercial marketing activity, the end goal of healthcare marketing is not to simply drive sales and make money (although, of course, the financial imperative is very important to tens of thousands of healthcare businesses and providers operating in a global market economy).
But selling healthcare products and services is really a means to another end — keeping people healthy. Writing in the Journal of Medicine and Life, Professor VL Purcarea argued that the success of healthcare marketing should be judged “in the image of a healthy population.”
A healthy population isn’t just one that buys the right products and accesses the right services. It is, ultimately, a population that is well informed about health issues, that knows where and how to access to the right solutions, that is engaged in its own well-being and trusts that the solutions provided have been developed with its best interests in mind.
These are the unique challenges that face healthcare marketing — educating, engaging, building trust and shaping care to meet the needs of patients. And in the wake of events of the previous year, it has become more crucial than ever that marketers working in and with the health sector rise to meet them.
The COVID impact
COVID-19 has shifted the healthcare landscape in a number of ways which have direct relevance to marketing. People are more aware and more anxious about issues around health than perhaps they have ever been, triggering an enormous demand for information on the virus, its effects, potential cures, how to stay safe and so on.
At the same time, coronavirus has significantly changed the way people engage with healthcare, driving down visits to clinics and walk-in hospital departments as people seek to minimise person-to-person contact in general. Instead, people are looking to digital options, whether it is virtual consultations, online triage or finding diagnoses and advice for themselves.
Thirdly — and this underlines how essential trust is in healthcare — the swift arrival of vaccines for COVID-19 has opened up a huge public debate about the efficacy and safety of inoculation programs. This alone illustrates how essential it is for healthcare marketers to win the battle for hearts and minds by getting the right information out there in the right places — educating, engaging and convincing the public that COVID vaccines and other treatments have been developed with their best interests at heart.
Nothing less than resolving the biggest health crisis of our lifetimes is at stake.
It’s time to take healthcare marketing digital
One of the headline consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic across the board is the way it has accelerated digital transformation. One estimate claims that we are now five years ahead of where we would have been in our adoption of digital technologies had the pandemic not happened.
More people are shopping online than ever before, more people are working from home using cloud-based apps, more people are relying on video platforms to keep in touch with friends and family. And yes, more people are looking to online, digital healthcare solutions than ever before.
This was a trend that was already very apparent before the pandemic struck — as I’ve said, COVID-19 has just sped things up. Here are some stats that underline just how important digital has become in healthcare:
● More than three quarters of patients (77%) use search engines prior to booking an appointment.
● One in 20 Google searches are healthcare related. That works out as close to 300 million health-related searches every day.
● According to Deloitte, three quarters (74%) of people are open to the idea of virtual health visits, and 60% of millennials expect telehealth to replace most in-person appointments.
● Nine out of 10 18–24 year olds say they trust healthcare information they come across on social media.
These stats underline the channels and strategies modern healthcare marketers really should be focusing on for reach, for engagement and for building trust. But digital also has another benefit. Because of the data it makes available, because of the direct connection between providers and end users it facilitates, digital also lends itself to a high level of personalization.
With sophisticated AI tools now able to guide web users through carefully curated content, with social media, instant messaging and other platforms giving individuals direct access to trusted professionals, there are more opportunities not only to improve satisfaction with health services, but also to fundamentally change thinking and awareness around health for the better.
How to make a success of healthcare marketing in 2021
So, what should you be focusing on to ensure your marketing activity meets the challenges of the post-COVID ‘new normal’? Here are four areas I believe are essential.
Create great content
As I have mentioned, people are more hungry for reliable information on health than ever before, be it advice on COVID, mental health, fitness and exercise, or researching specific conditions independently. There’s an obligation but also an opportunity for healthcare marketers to present facts in a reliable, accessible way — those who can cut through the noise on sensitive issues like vaccines will secure a great deal of trust and see organic traffic increase accordingly.
Push the voice of professional experts to the front, and make the most of popular formats like infographics and video that work well for presenting complex factual information in an accessible way.
With 300 million health-related searches on Google every single day, search engines remain the number one way people are going to find your brand and service. You simply cannot afford not to be prominent in the rankings.
Rich, informative, engaging content helps because Google algorithms judge content on quality. They also like fresh, regularly updated content, so make those blogs, infographics, videos and all the rest a routine part of your activity.
Link building is another key SEO discipline that will help to drive traffic from other trusted sources and build your reputation. The fact that people are increasingly looking for practical health solutions rather than just general information online makes local SEO an essential trend for 2021.
Supercharge the patient experience
Don’t lose sight of the fact that, for many patients, digital represents something brand new in healthcare. This is especially true of telehealth options, be it digital prescriptions, virtual consultations, talking through their condition with an AI bot or whatever. Some patients will embrace it readily, others will not be so keen.
Marketers therefore have an essential role in making the digital experience as attractive, as seamless and as patient-centric as possible, promoting its benefits and listening to people’s concerns. Convenience and simplicity are key. Remember that the majority of people now use the internet via a phone, so optimize solutions for mobile and make use of apps to create a unified, one-stop experience.
Get on board with social media
If you haven’t already, 2021 is the year to take social marketing seriously. Again, there is an element of responsibility here. With nine in 10 young people saying they trust health information they see on social media, the industry needs to make sure that credible facts and opinions are readily available. The ability of questionable ideas to take root on social media is only too well documented.
Social media is also an opportunity to engage with people on their terms. Yes, advertising on social is a big thing. But the general public is increasingly wary of direct sales tactics and many will automatically ignore ads. The real value in social media comes in generating engagement and trust. This works on a number of levels:
● Authenticity. Social media offers organizations the opportunity to step outside the transactional mindset of always trying to sell something and interact with audiences for its own sake. People react negatively on an emotional level if they feel they are being pressured or manipulated to buy. Particularly at the present time when people are placing such a high value on honest, objective, useful information around health, there is conversely a strong emotional pull towards voices that people feel are credible, honest and interested in their needs. Again, pushing reputable expert voices to the front on social media works well.
● Transparency. Social media is ideal for keeping people right up to date with the latest information. The more you share and the more transparent you are, the more trust you will earn.
● The Community Effect. Finally, the digital age has revealed just how much more people trust their friends, family, colleagues and other members of the public rather than brands. 90% of people look at online user reviews before booking a medical appointment these days. Social media is a tailor-made platform for user feedback. It’s great for pushing out information to your audiences, but much of the trust in the quality of that information will come from the positive comments, likes, follows, re-tweets and so on that you earn.