The Essential Guide to Digital Healthcare Marketing in 2021

In today’s increasingly complex and competitive environment, healthcare organizations that embrace these evolutions in digital healthcare marketing will thrive.

In his best-selling book Quantum Marketing, Raja Rajamannar predicts the next few years will see unprecedented change for marketers:

“The last five years have seen more change in marketing than the previous 50. And the next five years will outpace all of them put together.”

As the chief marketing and communications officer and president for the healthcare business division of Mastercard, Raja has a unique vantage point and forward-thinking perspective to which marketing pros should pay attention.

His view is that digital innovation will continue driving marketing transformation, as the adoption of strategy and tools to engage the “always on” consumer accelerate at a quantum — or “unmeasurable jump in speed or volume” — pace.

illustration showing patient engagement through a variety of channels

These trends have certainly not been lost on healthcare organizations. The shift to a digital-first approach to marketing is gaining traction as illustrated by recent studies:

  • The Society for Health Care Strategy & Market Development’s 2020 By the Numbers Special Edition found that spending and activity for digital marketing — including social media, video, paid search and email — increased more than any other initiatives in 2020.
  • The 2020 Healthcare Digital Marketing Trends survey of 150 provider organizations found respondents plan to increase digital marketing spending by 39% and boost non-staff investment in digital advertising (including paid, social and search) by 15%—the most among all categories.
  • The 2020 State of Healthcare Content Marketing study found the most-used content formats are digital, with the top five used by healthcare marketers as follows: social media content (100%), website/blog articles (85%), videos (81%) and e-newsletters (76%). Digital content also tops the list of formats used by healthcare marketers to build brand and audience engagement (social media content), generate leads (social media content) and engage physicians (e-newsletters).

Digital Healthcare Marketing Trends and Cheat Codes

To get ahead of the curve and gain a competitive advantage in 2021, there are key trends that healthcare marketing leaders should consider when developing engagement and growth strategies.

The trend: Patient acquisition is paramount

The 2020 Healthcare Digital Marketing Trends referenced earlier found patient acquisition was the number one goal for healthcare digital marketing activities — and by a large margin. This shift to growth-focused initiatives is designed to drive recovery from the 56% drop in median hospital operating margins in 2020. Driving volume and revenue is especially critical for hospitals and health systems as the current financial trajectory is unsustainable. Deloitte estimates that by 2030, revenue from inpatient services and demand for inpatient beds will decline 35% and 44%, respectively.

The cheat code: Prioritize digital healthcare marketing initiatives that move the revenue needle

Rebounding from the financial deficit will be more of a marathon than a sprint, so focus on growth or redouble your efforts to lay the groundwork for long-term success. Start by aligning your digital content with each stage of the patient journey and optimizing for conversion to the next step. Also, look at your website, social media and other digital channels through the lens of lead generation. Finally, and perhaps most importantly: Make sure your service line marketing strategies are evolving to meet consumers where they are in this post-pandemic environment.

The trend: Competition for healthcare services is increasing exponentially

With virtual care broadening access for patients across nearly all service lines, marketers suddenly face a wave of new competitors. From on-demand telehealth companies and low-cost retail clinics to global brands like Amazon gaining traction through scalable technology, healthcare organizations have their work cut out to find, engage and convert high-value patients.

The cheat code: Outsmart vs. outspend

When you’re facing competition with larger teams or budgets, a more strategic mindset can identify gaps in their plan and opportunities to gain an advantage. An area where smart healthcare marketers are achieving differentiation is paid search. While many digital marketing pros and agencies still use broad match targeting, this approach often casts too wide a net and reaches audiences beyond your patients and prospects. In healthcare specifically, broad match targeting can drive up impressions and cost, drive down click-through rate (CTR) and conversion rate (CVR), and add little value to your campaign. To avoid this scenario, smart search marketers use phrase match or exact match keywords along with negative keyword matching to ensure ads aren’t served in response to irrelevant search queries. This allows you to maximize efficiency by mastering the terms that add the most value.

The trend: Zero-click search is a challenge and opportunity for marketers

The only constant in digital healthcare marketing is change, and perhaps that’s best reflected in Google’s frequent algorithm updates. While great for consumers seeking the most relevant answers as quickly as possible, this creates challenges for marketers as it requires constant optimization of digital content to rank on page one—and even then, there are no guarantees that Google will send traffic to your site. In fact, over half of searches now result in zero clicks, particularly those on mobile devices.

The cheat code: Optimize digital content for Google featured snippets

Aligning your content with the preferred format for Google snippets has several advantages. It generates positive impressions as your content earns the top spot on search engine results pages, while also positioning your brand as most likely to be served up via personal assistants. More than 7 in 10 voice searches serve up the snippet, not the first organic result. To optimize content for snippets, focus on question-based searches that have a simple answer. Think about questions that start with “how, why, what, when, who” and more.

The trend: Consumers demand more digital health content than ever

Two years ago, Google reported that 1 in 14 daily searches — totaling more than 1 billion questions each day — were for health-related information. That demand has grown exponentially with the need for COVID-19-related updates. In a recent Medscape survey of more than 8,000 physicians, nearly two-thirds reported a significant increase in the consumption of online medical content since the pandemic began, and about a quarter predict that this demand will be permanent.

The cheat code: Creative a consumer-centric content strategy that engages more leads and optimizes the path to conversions

Today, it’s critical that healthcare websites do more than highlight services, procedures, facilities and providers. Consumers search for healthcare services by condition or symptom, looking first for answers to their questions that can help them understand the best next action in their healthcare journey. The brands winning in this environment have structured their website content to educate consumers on healthcare concerns, help them understand their treatment and support options, and create a seamless path toward conversion. Further, consumers are looking to healthcare brands now more than ever before to be a partner in health. This requires healthcare marketers to create digital content that drives engagement at the top of the funnel. Data-driven blog strategies are building brand relationships and driving consideration for healthcare services in a way that directly supports revenue growth priorities, too. The healthcare organizations winning in digital marketing performance are capitalizing on this opportunity well.

The trend: Telehealth has reached the tipping point

With nearly 9 in 10 Americans planning to use telehealth after the pandemic , it's clear: We’re past the point of no return for virtual care. This rapid adoption of telehealth and pressure to drive volume is causing many healthcare marketers to promote virtual care as a discrete service line through paid ads, blog content and other channels.

The cheat code: Guide the patient journey through horizontally integrated campaigns

The patient journey is not a linear path, and it’s important to recognize why consumers choose one access point over another. When it comes to front-line services like telemedicine, emergency and urgent care, and primary care, the average consumer often doesn’t understand the differences and when one is more appropriate than the others. Rather than promote the delivery channel, market leaders meet consumers at their moment of need and connect them with appropriate care where and when they need it, and with as little friction as possible.

The trend: Marketers are investing in too many digital channels

Whether compelled by leadership or novelty, marketers are spreading themselves thin by investing time and resources into nascent platforms that promise engagement with younger demographics. In the State of Healthcare Content Marketing study referenced earlier, nearly 1 in 10 respondents are using TikTok and almost 1 in 20 are using Snapchat.

In the words of Content Marketing Institute founder Joe Pulizzi, “The problem is every business—including healthcare— thinks they have to be on Twitter, have a blog, launch a podcast, start a TikTok and everything else. What happens is they become mediocre, at best, in every one of those channels. We have to focus on being great at one or two channels first.”

The cheat code: Focus on social channels that connect to volume growth

Platforms like Facebook and Instagram are often key pieces of the conversion path for priority services. With limited bandwidth and budget, avoid chasing shiny objects and focus on building your community on those channels that make a financial impact. By engaging followers with organic content and targeted ads that guide each step on the patient journey, your brand will serve as a trusted resource when the time comes for care.

More Expert Advice on Digital Healthcare Marketing

Along with these insights from our digital healthcare marketing agency experts, here are highlights from recent conversations for our Healthcare Insight for Marketers podcast.

Use digital content to differentiate your brand

LCMC Health Chief Marketing & Experience Officer Christine Albert

"An example of how we’re bringing the brand strategy into the business world is the way we’re starting to humanize all of our physician bios. This approach creates a connection as you’re looking for a provider you trust. A lot of our bios have the information you would expect on medical school and boards but we’re also including short videos where, for example, pediatricians might share their favorite school supply, ice cream flavor or hobby (like this physician who is a self-proclaimed “Disney fanatic”). That feels fun and it’s an extension of our brand strategy, but it’s also having an impact: We’re seeing a 50% increase in organic views, a 23% in conversions to appointments—and all of that translates to revenue."

— Christine Albert, Chief Marketing and Experience Officer at LCMC Health

Invest in the right tools to target and track digital healthcare marketing initiatives

Emory Healthcare Director of Marketing Amy Comeau

"You absolutely need to have CRM and data-driven tools; otherwise, you’re going to keep chasing after the same patients or trying to one-up each other in the market and spending a lot of money, which none of us can afford to keep doing."

— Amy Comeau, Vice President of Marketing at Emory Healthcare

Let data drive digital healthcare marketing decisions

Amanda Todorovich

“We want to know what patients are asking, along with tracking what people are doing on our website and searching for on Google to find out where can we fill a gap. We log and track everything we do, look back at seasonal trends, such as what happened last year at this time. Then, we determine what we should repeat and what we should do differently.”

—Amanda Todorovich, senior director of digital marketing and health content at Cleveland Clinic

A digital front door strategy is essential—and building it is a team sport

Chris Pace of Banner Health

“Any business has to have a digital front door. The key point for us was including clinical, operational and marketing as the engine that presents it out to consumers and tells the story. Having all of those teams involved and a “with us, not just for us” mentality is how we were able to be successful. Had we not had that organizational structure and operational efficiency mindset, this would have crumbled from day one—and it’s probably why a lot of systems struggle with these initiatives.”

—Chris Pace, Senior Director of Digital Marketing at Banner Health

Email is a not-so-secret weapon

Content Marketing Institute Founder Joe Pulizzi

“People are finally realizing that social media channels are rented land—we don’t control our connections, our followers or our data on those channels. If you’ve built an audience on a social media channel like Instagram, you have to have a rent-to-own mentality where you can move that audience over to something that gets you an email address.”

—Joe Pulizzi, founder of Content Marketing Institute

Digital ads deserve more attention

Meghan Keaney Anderson headshot

“We often think of ads as these very distinct things from the rest of our content strategy, but just because you put money behind something doesn’t mean it’s a different piece of content. In fact, ads should be at the same level of quality or higher because you’re putting money behind it.”

—Meghan Keaney Anderson, former VP of Marketing at Hubspot

We are moving into the era of “Context Marketing”

Mathew Sweezey podcast interview

“Think about how the media environment operates. We can all go to Google and ask the exact same question. And each one of us is going to get a different set of answers based on our personal context. Humans can’t manage that by themselves. There’s a layer between us and the answer, which is Artificial intelligence (AI), completely attuned to the context of the moment. We must understand what that person’s problem is at that key moment of truth and then solve that problem. That approach creates the best returns from a marketing standpoint.”

—Mathew Sweezey, Director of Market Strategy at Salesforce