Jan 18 2023
Megan Reschke

For Healthcare Marketers, Building Customer Relationships Is Crucial


Healthcare is personal—incredibly personal. It’s an industry that shapes people’s daily experiences and determines consumers’ quality of life. As something so critical to our overall wellbeing, you’d think (or at least hope!) healthcare would be straightforward and simple to understand. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case.

The United States healthcare system is particularly complex, challenging to navigate, and often a source of hidden or unforeseen costs. Couple this with the stresses brought about by COVID, rising healthcare costs, skyrocketing inflation rates, and increasing economic uncertainty, and it’s clear the current healthcare landscape is complicated—if not downright overwhelming.

What’s a healthcare marketer to do? Here, we’ll explore how building strong relationships with consumers is critical for healthcare advertisers and examine how those relationships can foster empathy and trust in the face of an ever-evolving, complex healthcare system.  

Setting the Scene: The Current Healthcare Landscape

As we noted earlier (and as anyone who’s been to an urgent care clinic can attest), the healthcare scene in the US can range from “complicated” to “messy”…but why? Let’s dive in:

#1: The Cost of Healthcare

To begin with, healthcare costs in the US are significantly higher than in most other countries—and they’re only continuing to increase:

  • From 2011 to 2021, US national health expenditures increased by nearly 60 percent.
  • If this trajectory continues, it is estimated that health spending will reach nearly $12 trillion by 2040 and will account for 26% of the GDP.
  • The COVID pandemic resulted in a 36 percent increase in federal expenditures for healthcare.
  • In 2021, the average out-of-pocket spending was $1,305 per capita, and this does not include the amount individuals contributed toward health insurance premiums.
  • The average health insurance premium for an individual in the US is $7,911 per year. For family coverage, the average is $22,463. While employers often cover a portion of these expenses, the amount can vary widely.

These high costs affect everyone, but they have an outsized impact on those who are uninsured or underinsured. As the US healthcare industry grows and becomes more expensive (to say nothing of the additional pressures brought on by inflation), it’s no surprise that more than 30 percent of Americans report skipping care because of its cost and another 30 percent report that, if they needed quality healthcare, they would not be able to afford it.

#2: The Lasting Impacts of COVID-19

The COVID pandemic not only affected healthcare costs, but also consumer sentiment towards health and healthcare. In its wake, consumer awareness about health has significantly increased, coupled with a greater push for trust, reliability, and accessibility in healthcare. According to a survey of more than 15,000 adults, trust is more critical in healthcare than in any other category.

Throughout COVID, experience with healthcare (particularly in the US) varied by individuals of different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. Hispanic individuals, for instance, accounted for a disproportionately high share of COVID-19 cases during some periods. And, though vaccine confidence has improved for Black Americans, mistrust has played a role in the community’s lower and slower rates of vaccination, stemming from historical and ongoing discrimination and racism faced by Black communities. According to one study, “Vaccine-related mistrust is a multifaceted construct that includes distrust of health care and health care providers (to be equitable), the government (to provide truthful information), and the vaccine itself (to be safe and effective).”

Healthcare systems and brands must be cognizant of the level of trust, or lack thereof, in the system—whether related to COVID, or otherwise. By building relationships founded on empathetic messaging and discussions of inclusivity, healthcare marketers can begin the process of rebuilding that trust.

#3: The Growth of Digital Healthcare

Beyond these complex and varied consumer sentiments, the past several years have seen an acceleration in digital healthcare: While the percentage of healthcare visits done virtually has declined since the peak of the pandemic, it remains higher than it was pre-pandemic. And, according to a recent survey, nearly two-thirds of patients said they prefer telehealth to in-office visits because of convenience, and 44% of Gen Z and millennials said they may switch providers if telehealth visits are not offered.

This indicates that consumers (especially millennials and Gen Z) are continuing to look for more reliable, convenient ways to manage their health, and that the demand for digital tools and resources has increased.

For healthcare brands with digital offerings, this is a major opportunity—and one that digital advertising can help fuel (and track for better attribution). By using strategies like contextual placements on pages related to certain conditions or health-conscious content, or placing ads alongside complimentary search terms, healthcare marketers can direct people to a website or app that serves as the hub for their brand or organization’s virtual operations.

That said, with great opportunity comes great responsibility (cliché, we know). As noted earlier, many Americans still feel a good deal of distrust toward the medical system due to past experiences, while others have trust issues with technology (especially when it comes to fraud and safety). Additionally, digital appointments curb the ability to develop strong in-person connections. Healthcare marketers will need to keep these distinct challenges in mind as they work to foster trust-based relationships with consumers.

Building Relationships: The Key to Marketing in Healthcare

With this knowledge of how complex and personal healthcare is, advertisers might be left wondering, “How can I effectively advertise for something so intimate and personal?” The solution: approaching consumers with empathy, seeking to understand them, and building relationships.   

#1: Seek to Understand Your Audience

In 2021, the majority of US adults said that what they wanted most from a healthcare provider was for them to be a good listener. This same principle can be extended to marketing in the healthcare landscape: approach consumers with empathy and understanding and make them feel heard.

To dive into the critical work of building relationships with consumers, marketers in healthcare first need to understand who those consumers are. Here are some key stats to know:

  • The majority of US consumers cite being happier, living longer, and relieving stress as their top motivations to prioritize health.
  • Six in 10 US adults have a chronic disease (and four in 10 have two or more).
  • About half of US adults say it is difficult to afford out-of-pocket health care costs.
  • 51% of US adults have delayed or skipped a healthcare appointment due to the high costs.
  • 29% of US adults stated they did not take prescription medication as directed due to high costs.
  • 59% of US patients use their smartphone to manage their health.

Once healthcare marketers understand their audience, they can ensure their messaging and strategies are grounded in empathy and meeting consumer expectations.

#2: Establish and Maintain Trust

One way to build relationships with potential patients is through long-form media, like digital audio and video. These formats allow marketers to showcase testimonials that highlight when patients experienced great empathy from their providers—in their own words and with their own voice.

Another way to establish trust and form relationships with consumers is through transparency. Hidden and unexpected costs are a significant driver of consumer behavior in healthcare, with many patients opting to skip care, avoid filling prescriptions, or explore over-the-counter products to avoid these costs. By being upfront about rates, which insurance providers are accepted, and payment plans, healthcare brands can ease some consumer anxiety.

Further, healthcare marketers can build trust by applying a critical eye to their brand messaging and strategy. Here are some questions advertisers can ask themselves to ensure they are prioritizing consumers’ needs and experiences:

  • Is this advertisement inclusive? Or are there certain people that will feel excluded or underrepresented?
  • Does this advertisement show empathy for the situation at hand?
  • Will this advertisement evoke negative emotions in someone who recently received an upsetting or challenging diagnosis?
  • Does this ad align with the experience consumers can actually expect to have?
  • Does this campaign’s messaging meet the consumer where they are?

By keeping diversity front of mind and developing creative from a place of empathy and understanding, healthcare brands can build stronger relationships with consumers.

With Limited Time and Resources, What’s a Healthcare Marketer to Do?

Building relationships on a foundation of trust and empathy takes consistency and intentionality. Marketers cannot afford to lose time to duplicative, tedious tasks—these take their creative energy away from what’s most important, especially in today’s complex healthcare landscape.

Fortunately, there are some time-friendly solutions. Embracing an automated advertising strategy, backed by an automated and comprehensive DSP, can give healthcare marketers the ability to focus on strategic priorities, like forming stronger connections with consumers and proactively adjusting campaign messaging to better meet the moment. Leaning into technological developments in artificial intelligence and machine learning—especially those focused on brand safety—can free up the time and efficiency healthcare marketers need to get to know their customers and create consistent, empathy-driven, personalized experiences for them.

Interested in learning more about how advertising automation can help healthcare brands and agencies reach the right customers, with the right message, in a brand-safe environment? Check out our guide and see how automation is one possible solution to help marketers to create strong relationships with consumers in today’s complex healthcare landscape.

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