‘New Normal’? Higher Expectations: 2021 Healthcare Digital Marketing Trends

Sandra Fancher

Sandra Fancher

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One stark reminder that healthcare marketers faced in 2020 is that complacency is an anchor – and flexibility drives success. So, it should come as no surprise that the marketing strategies we implement in 2021 cannot easily build off of 2020 happenings in the same way 2019’s projects stemmed from prior years.

There are many reasons for this tactical change. Most notably, all consumers and professionals have had to reimage our approaches to digital, from both a consumer and a delivery perspective. And patient audiences are receptive to new ways of engaging with your brand.  

Right now, the healthcare industry has a unique opportunity to ride the waves of public good faith. According to The Harris Poll, 54% of Americans view the healthcare industry more positively after COVID-19, and 71% believe healthcare had a good response to the pandemic. That’s good news, and with good news comes great responsibility. 

What once was labeled the “new normal” is now the expectation. Providers and marketers are charged to deliver results – and delight patients – at this raised benchmark. 2020 required fast-acting change to telemedicine. Excuses of adaptation or uncertainty on how to handle billing will no longer be accepted by patients. Healthcare marketers and organizations are striding with greater confidence into once off-limits territories. 

In that spirit, here are three trends we anticipate in healthcare based on 2020 through January 2021 insights from our clients and other industry experts. 

Return to “Following the Science” 

It was a remarkable feat to bring a new, safe vax to market in 10 months. Many people got their first chance to witness the scientific process in 2020, opening their eyes to a world of expertise and thought leadership they might not have known existed in hospitals and research labs.

In 2021, there is a renewed national interest in following the science, which in marketing terms translates to “following the data.” Not necessarily historical numbers, but current trends. Agencies and healthcare marketers must be prepared to pivot based on real-time data from A/B testing, heatmaps, and user feedback.  

And we must be comfortable seeking proactive insights, too, using approaches such as social listening and continual monitoring to glean everyday insights into what users are experiencing, needing, and wanting from us. 

As such, our clients have expressed increasing interest in digital campaigns focused on current topics with an evergreen long-tail presence. Some of the hottest topics for February through April are expected to include: 

  • Diversity, equity, inclusion: Health and social inequities are finally receiving the tip of the attention these issues deserve. Organizations are peeling back layers of outdated protocols and working toward improved processes and education – and consumer messaging that effectively conveys their resolve.
  • Preventive care: Particularly related to vaccination, ongoing prevention protocols, and programs to combat comorbidities such as obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
  • Thought leadership: The Harris Poll results show that Americans view their own healthcare provider as their second most important source of healthcare advice, following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Patients are listening, and they are hungry for your words of wisdom.

These substantial shifts will lead to less mechanical and more subjective, personalized shifts in marketing budget allocations – with much more going toward digital advertising. 

Increased Ad Spend 

According to eMarketer, ad expenditure has increased steadily from $5.94B in 2017 to $9.53B in 2020. And in 2021ad spend is expected to increase almost another $2B.  

Why? In 2020, marketers were forced to pivot away from traditional tactics. We were forced to meet users where they are – not on the channels we’ve always used. We had to lead with strategy.  

Rather than generic, scheduled emails to a large group, which a lot of organizations unfortunately did, savvy marketers invested in relevant, personalized, interactive digital ads and emails that could be laser-focused on specific groups with expressed needs based on self-reported online information and geographical user behavior trends.

Over the past year, we helped our clients launch strategies like these to build on as their data amasses in 2021: 

  • Non-native English speakers could be funneled to translated condition or action pages in their language.
  • Targeted content could be delivered through native ads to expecting parents, patients in certain age or industry sectors, and other demographics.
  • Highly optimized service line landing pages with brand retargeting. 
  • :15 and :30 second ads to target audiences on Connected TV.
  • Promotion of health information classes and virtual events on healthy living to website visitors through retargeting.

With much to learn about user behavior expectations this spring through summer, we wouldn’t be surprised if 2021 spending redirected in the fall to more wellness and proactive procedures. However, we fully expect that tightening of the coin purse to be due to increased efficiency and improved strategy, freeing up those dollars for additional marketing or branding endeavors. 

And that same philosophy – tied with delivering better user experiences – brings us to our third trend. 

Hybrid Everything 

Capitalizing on the more efficient/more effective wave will continue in 2021 in the form of telehealth and hybrid conferences. This shift, from digital care being a future ideal to becoming the only feasible way to keep seeing patients is one of the most impressive healthcare feats we’ve seen in our collective careers. 

Previous concerns about telehealth such as insurance, technology, access, and aging patient adaption were forced to be quickly resolved during COVID-19. Patients young and old, pre- and post-op, prenatal and postpartum, embraced telehealth and are adamant that they would be grateful for its continued implementation.  

Providers generally agree – they love being able to see more patients with less scheduling woes, and they, too, probably enjoy saving an hour or more in daily commuting. Plus, telehealth offers the opportunity for geographically dispersed families and specialists from around the world to come together and collaborate in patient care. 

Similarly, once only in-person events have shifted to hybrid conferences, saving time and money in travel expenses and overhead that could be otherwise allocated. While we expect and look forward to the return of in-person events later this year or next, we anticipate that hybrid will be here to say.   

This transformation gave birth to opportunities to look at other change management ideas that are blocked by internal resistance. There is a strong sense of urgency to build on this momentum and embrace this culture of change. We can’t allow ourselves to revert back – for the future of innovation and most importantly for our patients’ best interests. 

Our clients are exploring strategies to improve user experiences across hybrid and telehealth channels: higher platform security; video plus non-video options; database management tools; HIPAA compliant nurture streams; and chatbot utility and strategies, just to name a few.

As we progress together into 2021, we can look back from a marketing perspective with admiration for the grit, integrity, and passion embodied by our fellow healthcare marketers and the providers we all represent. Let’s carry that torch into 2021 and beyond by continually listening to our audiences and constantly innovating to deliver the right information to the right person at the right time. 

If your online content needs a revamp to better support your digital strategies, we’d love to share success stories such as 555% increase in new users for a children’s hospital after crafting new audience focused content.  

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