For over a year, the COVID-19 pandemic has uprooted lives and workplaces around the globe. However, even as employees were sent home, conferences were cancelled, and mailrooms shuttered, healthcare marketers managed to adapt and even thrive.
According to a 2021 industry survey by MM+M HealthLink Dimensions, budgets grew, audiences shifted, businesses turned to the digital world, and new voices emerged. The survey, which included 129 respondents from pharmaceutical, biotech, devices/diagnostics, and other healthcare adjacent industries, represented companies from small businesses that support a single brand to those with more than six brands and $500 million in annual revenue.
Here were the key takeaways:
Collectively, and perhaps surprisingly, the 2020 marketing budgets for healthcare brands held strong at an average of $7.7 million for the year. In fact, just over half of respondents (51.9%) said they actually spent more on marketing compared to previous years while only 27.9% spent less.
However, the specific breakdown reveals more nuance. Even though pharma as an industry saw its average marketing budget decline from $13.2 million in 2019 to $12.5 million in 2020, 56.5% of Pharma companies reported that they grew their marketing budgets. On the other hand, average marketing budgets for both biotech and device industries increased, while just shy of half of respondents reported upward trends in their company budgets (47.8% for biotech and 48.6% of device representatives.)
In 2020, marketing money continued to target healthcare professionals, consumers, payers, pharmacists, and advocacy organizations. And while there was little overall change in where dollars were allocated, nearly half of respondents reported they had increased their targeting of physicians (46.5%) and patients/consumers (45%). Asked to rank audiences by perceived importance, physicians/specialists and patients/consumers took the first and second slots, respectively.
Entering a new year, the growing focus on consumers is unlikely to go away. In fact, 62% of respondents identified social media as an essential emerging channel for their business, 57.4% highlighted patient-direct engagement, and 55% touched on the growth of consumerism in healthcare.
Channel Mix Went Digital
What’s more, despite relatively stable budgets, marketers made some serious changes in the ways they got their messages into the world. One of the biggest shifts was from in-person interactions—sales calls, conference booths, etc.—to digital alternatives. The vast majority of respondents reported using digital channels to reach healthcare providers (94.6%) and consumers (85.3%).
Marketers increased spending on pretty much every digital option available to them, including video, mobile, machine learning, AI, analytics, marketing research, automation, paid digital, and websites. And for most, omni-channel approaches became indispensable.
For example, as sales calls and massive medical congresses were canceled or driven online, marketers had to reconsider how they wanted to spend money originally intended for office visits, booths, and in-person networking. But rather than simply moving one-to-one interactions into the virtual world, savvy marketers assessed provider needs and pivoted to offer multiple solutions.
Virtual meetings via platforms such as Zoom or GoToMeeting became the ultimate stand-in for in-person meetings. Not only do they offer real-time access to reps who are prepared with brand and product detail as well as clinically relevant information, such digital interactions allow for the in-depth, uninterrupted conversations many providers still seek. However, marketers also responded to a push for convenient educational tools. Podcasts and product videos that offer deep content and can be readily accessible for days or months after airing let providers and consumers engage with the messaging on their own schedule.
New Voices Emerged
Although 45.7% of respondents reported experiencing minimal change themselves, they 72.9% said pandemic’s impact on healthcare was challenging or extremely challenging. Thus, in a nod toward the breadth of the pandemic’s impact, healthcare marketers not only changed their channels and audiences, many companies also adjusted the voice and nature of their content to acknowledge the effects of the difficult times in which we are living.
There was a growth in the explicit expression of compassion for providers, newly viewed as vulnerable to burnout or loss of practice. In addition to the struggles faced by clinicians, pharmaceutical and other research and development operations have seen their timelines disrupted, with some projects losing funding and attention.
To help their audiences cope with the downsides, marketers are also highlighting the lessons that have emerged from these challenges. In particular, messages are promoting the unprecedented collaboration that has occurred over the past year, resulting in highly effective vaccines and a widening array of therapeutics. In addition to celebrating these successes, communications aim to encourage future partnerships as researchers and funders extend their ambitions into 2021 and beyond COVID-19.
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