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A framework for marketing’s essential role during COVID-19 and beyond (Part 1)

Hi, my name is Danny Fell and I'm a senior strategist with Optum Consumer Acquisition Services group. Over the past few weeks we've had a number of conversations with health care marketers about the role of marketing and communications departments at this time. We wanted to share a few of these ideas and insights with you today.

First, within CAS we look at everything through the lens of the consumer. So this is an article that appeared a couple of weeks ago in medical marketing and media and I think it highlights the very real challenges that we all face as healthcare providers. What's interesting is Tania Elliott isn't just an average consumer. She also happens to be a physician and lead a virtual health clinical task force in one of New York's biggest hospitals. So even she realizes the importance of good communication right now between healthcare providers and their patients and the community.

You know, there are a number of studies going on today looking at consumer perceptions around COVID-19, and I pulled this one from Revive Health to highlight two important takeaways.

The first is consumers have a high level of trust with local hospitals and health systems, and I think that's very important and hospitals can leverage that to the benefit of the organization and the community. The second is, consumers really want to hear from you pretty frequently, probably more so than we even imagine. In fact, almost two-thirds of those in this study said they'd like to hear from health care organizations on a daily basis or even multiple times a day.

So all of this leads into three big priorities for the role that we believe marketing needs to play and frankly is playing around the country today. The first is the idea of not going dark. Really, this is the time to be over communicating, if anything, with your community. You have a lot of different channels that you can leverage. We'll talk about some ideas around each of these in a minute, but the big takeaway is consumers are looking for both information and inspiration from trusted brands.

The second concept is leveraging your brand. Local hospitals already looked at as the go-to source for COVID-19 information by many consumers and you can use this to benefit the organization and the community. You can in fact influence behaviors in the community that have a positive outcome. And then finally you can leverage your brand to partner with other local organizations. And we'll talk some about some examples of this around the country.

Finally, you can focus both on the now while you're planning for what's next. And I think marketers are uniquely good at this. We're always thinking about where the organization is going, how the marketplace is changing, what consumer attitudes might influence behavior in the future. So marketers are in a good position to both serve the organization today, provide that vital communication to consumers in the marketplace, but also be working to get the organization aligned for the future and putting in place certain key strategies and tactics that will benefit the organization going forward as we come out of this. Marketing's role will be more important than ever as we emerge from this.

So let's go a little deeper on each of these and we've tried to give you some, some specific ideas as well as draw on some best practices around the country that are happening today. So under the heading of not going dark. Certainly when consumers are in a crisis, they're anxious, they're looking for information, and as I mentioned, they're looking to trusted brands for that information. But they're also looking for single sources of information that they can come back to frequently. Many hospitals around the country are finding that they're able to both provide information on their institution, but also on the community as a whole. So being an aggregator in your community for information around this particular crisis is a strategy that might work well for you. There's tremendous brand equity that can be won or lost depending on how well organizations communicate today. So think about are we visible? Are we transparent? Are we being proactive? On a positive note, many hospitals will emerge from this with greater recognition for their critical role in local communities.

The second is looking at the different channels you have at your disposal. Many of you have existing media plans, paid media strategies that are in the marketplace. It's a matter of pivoting some of those messages to focus on the messaging that you want in the community. So, for instance, they could be public health messages around social distancing, hand-washing, other health and wellness tips - or they could be more specific to your facility, around facility locations and hours, testing locations and options that you've set up, or even expanded services like telehealth.

In the category of owned media channels, think about all of the different media channels you use currently to communicate with patients in the community - your website, social media channels, existing print, email, newsletter channels that you use with the community to get out vital information. Those can all be used for up to the minute news, information and resources around COVID. We would encourage you to lean into digital, but also remember that there are many in the community who may have limited access to digital channels and you want to be able to accommodate for that. And then finally, there is a role for earned media at this time, many of the local media outlets as well as national media outlets are looking for stories. They want to highlight what's going on in the healthcare industry and they want good stories about organizations that are bringing innovation, dedication, sacrifice at this time. Be wary of making sure that you're not overtaxing your employees and your staff, but also you can use these to leverage your brand in many ways and get out very positive messages to the community.

And finally, again, consumers are looking for inspiration from trusted brands. Research has shown for many decades that consumers in times of stress and crisis turn to trusted brands and find comfort and encouragement when those brands are perceived to be providing relevant and appropriate content. Under the heading of leveraging your brand, think about a couple of strategies here. One is creating one single source of information that you're providing to the community. This is probably going to be in the form of a microsite, a landing page or a section on your website, and that can work very well. But also think about other channels that are frequently used by consumers to communicate with you. We're seeing a large uptick in call center volume right now, both around health care services, but also things like emotional support. So think about how you're leveraging your call center and whether that phone number is prominent in your marketing and communications materials. Also think about other self-service technologies you might be using or think about using - text-based messaging, chatbots. And also updating things like Google listings and third-party facility information that helps consumers navigate to the right levels of care and the appropriate locations. All of this is working towards having seamless communication with consumers as much as possible. There's been a lot written and talked about around telehealth, virtual care. We think this is a hugely important, marketers should be focusing on this right now and using it to the ability that you can in your marketplace, but also be thinking about the long-term implications. The investments you're making in telehealth today, and in signing people up to that, have big implications going forward and big opportunities for the health system as you enrolled more people in that particular channel.

I mentioned that you have an opportunity to influence behaviors in the community, and I think this is a very positive one. We see two real directives right now for health care organizations. One is directing existing patients to the most appropriate locations for care. And the other is directing potential COVID patients to things like free-standing test sites, online symptom checkers, telehealth, and other services like that. Both are unique and distinct and you want to have those in working in parallel, but there are more things you can do in the community from a messaging standpoint. For instance, investing in general public health messages, PSAs and the like. Again, around things that are positive for the community as a whole - staying home, social distancing, how to best access and utilize health care services appropriately. Right now, all of those have a positive impact both on the community and on your organization. We would also encourage you to think about unique segments in the community. Those that don't speak English as a primary language, seniors, other at-risk populations that you want to make sure that you're getting those same messages out to.

Finally, think about partnering opportunities in the community, perhaps most important right now, and number one on a lot of marketing and communications professionals’ minds, is internal communications. Employee communications and internal stakeholder communications. And a lot of this partnering can be done to benefit them. So think about community organizations, family support, things that will help your employees and your associates to perform their tasks in the organization. But you can also leverage those same partnerships in the community to benefit other populations. So for instance, some hospitals are partnering around messaging about transportation, childcare services, education, meals, general health and wellness, and managing chronic illnesses. So think about at-risk populations and other community populations, and you can still partner and influence whether or not they're in your facility today.

And then finally, a takeaway that we're seeing around the country is the incredible investment and support from individuals and organizations that are high-profile or celebrity. Think of sports teams, actors, musicians, artists who are stepping up to help partner with health care organizations to get general messages out or to deliver specific products and services that benefit employees and other organizations around the community.

Finally we would say this is a time for marketers to be focusing on what's happening now, but also planning for what's coming next. And again, marketers are uniquely positioned to be the leaders of the organization in thinking about what's coming down the pipe, what could happen. And we sort of see this in three stages.

The current is, the here and now - supporting your organization, providing the types of communication and marketing support that helps everyone in the heat of the moment. The second is anticipating in the very near-term what could come up. So there could be community disruptions, social media stories, media requests, things that maybe are days, weeks, even next few months out. And then the third level of that is really the longer term planning, let's say three months, six months, nine months out. What does the organization need to be doing to get ready? How can we best be positioned to move into the next phases of all of this as we go forward? Another important takeaway is not reinventing the wheel. There are a lot of free, and very good, sources of content - examples of marketing materials, tools, things that are available to hospitals around the country for little or no cost. So one example is a chat bot for COVID that's being made available at no charge. Others are communication materials that have been translated into multiple languages that you can find and download for your organization. So you don't always need to be creating things from scratch and right now during this crisis, you want to save time and resources as much as you can. So we would encourage you to share and tap into some of those free resources that are out there. Again, moving forward into the next few of this, as we emerge from this crisis and think about the next phase for hospitals and health systems in the community, there's going to be a need to both be consistent with your current messaging, while maintaining and refreshing that at the same time. So think about strategies around evolving current messaging, introducing fresh content and also measuring whether your community stakeholders and consumers are staying engaged with you.

One way to do that, that hospitals are utilizing around the country today is in terms of local market research. So consumer studies, pulse surveys that help you keep a closer feel for whether consumers are responding to and understanding the messaging and where you are in the cycle of things. And that local market research can be very helpful along with the national studies that we talked about. Also think about your communication strategies from a near-term and a long-term perspective. So as we move into the next phase of this as facilities start to open up services again, you'll want to have your organization ready to take advantage of that. You want to have things in the pipeline now or at least be developing them so that you don't miss a window of opportunity as things reopen. You want to hit the ground running. You want the organization to be up and going into the next phase as soon as possible. And so working on those things now, while they may not seem like a priority at the moment, will greatly advantage you going forward.

And then finally continue to think about how you can leverage partnerships, and also help others in the community. Those could be community physicians, social service organizations, other nonprofits that you rely on and that make up the whole ecosystem for health care. This is hugely important and hospitals have oftentimes the ability to make investments, to share research, to bring innovation, partnerships, human resources to other community partners that will in the end benefit your organization, but more importantly, benefit the community as a whole and get everyone back up going on, on their feet as we go forward.

So what does this look like going forward in terms of what's next? We really think about it in two areas. One is consumer readiness and the other is system readiness. So under consumer readiness, you might think about things like what are the emergent and urgent care needs that consumers are going to have coming out of this and going forward, and how do we serve those? What are some economic factors influencing consumers in your marketplace today? For instance, employment status or ability to pay, or their health care coverage. There may be access issues as well, either real or perceived that consumers have around accessing health care services and products. And they may be coming off of, or utilizing services in a different way. Think of telehealth or new retail services, drive-up health care or even self-care. And then finally emotional drivers. We think there's going to be considerable concern by some consumers in the marketplace about when it's time to re-engage with health care providers. They may be experiencing different levels of fear. And so those are all going to be a part of the consumer's readiness to come back into the health care system.

On the system readiness side, marketers need to be thinking about access and capacity within your organization and within different geographic locations in different facilities. How are you going to be staging your service lines as you come back online? What personnel and equipment and supplies are ready to go and which ones still need to be developed? And then finally, as I mentioned a second ago, the entire health care ecosystem has to be working together. So I'm going to draw on a great insight from a colleague, Erik Johnson with our Optum Advisory Services, who gave an example in a recent presentation about even the need for things like post-acute care to be back online will be important for health care organizations to get back to acute care services. So keep those in mind as you go forward from a marketing and communications and planning perspective.

Finally, here are some assumptions that you might use in this process. One is that this reopening period is probably going to look like one of stages. It may take considerably more time than we think and it may be different from region to region, even within your own health systems. There may be significant disruptions in the existing referral networks. Consumers may be ready to come back and others may be holding off some. And so that's a factor that we need to consider when we put together marketing and communications plans for patients as well as the community at large. It may be difficult to align supply and demand for some time. And then finally, internal and external communications will continue to be critical for the organization to be successful.

To wrap up, we hope some of these insights and ideas will be helpful in your marketing and communications and planning efforts. Please know that our team members at Optum are here to bounce ideas off of, brainstorm with you, and be of help in any way that we can moving forward. Thank you very much.


In this Optum video, you'll learn ideas and insights for how health care marketing departments can play a key role in supporting consumers during COVID-19.

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