Pharmaceutical companies need to reconsider their approach to media as millennials begin to enter their prime health consideration years.

At the time of the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent population estimates (July 2016), the number of baby boomers in the country (74 million) slightly exceeded the number of millennials in the country (71 million). According to the Pew Research Center, however, millennials (73 million) are likely to outnumber boomers (72 million) as soon as next year.

Regardless of exactly when millennials become the largest generational cohort in the United States, what’s clear is that they’re quickly becoming the most important consumer demographic. Nowhere is this more apparent than in healthcare, where many millennials are on the verge of entering their prime health consideration years.

Many stakeholders in the healthcare industry — particularly those in the pharmaceutical industry — have yet to fully acknowledge the growing importance of the Millennial healthcare demographic. Despite currently ranging from 24 to 41 years of age, many pharmaceutical companies still think of millennials as kids, and ’tomorrow’s problem.’

In reality, millennials will comprise the majority of the pharmaceutical industry’s audience as soon as 2023, meaning industry leaders must start solving the Millennial “problem” today. Those who fail to adapt their practices to this rising generation’s unique needs and expectations will soon find themselves speaking to an audience that no longer exists.

Baby Boomers and Healthcare: The 20th Century Approach

Given the extent to which baby boomers have impacted pharma over the last few decades, it’s understandable why the pharmaceutical industry has been hesitant to embrace Millennial-driven change.

In the 20th century, countless blockbuster drugs were developed for and targeted at baby boomers, and pharmaceutical companies became remarkably adept at communicating with this specific audience. As is the case in most of the corporate world, old habits die hard in the pharmaceutical industry, and many companies still feel beholden to proven approaches for rolling out new drugs.

But while a heavily television and magazine-centric strategy was, in fact, the best way to reach a generation of patients and healthcare providers (HCPs) for whom such channels comprised the bulk of their media consumption, this is simply no longer the case. In decades past, a company could purchase a series of well-placed television spots and be confident that it would reach a large swathe — as much as 80 to 90 percent — of its target audience. In today’s day and age, however, this one-size-fits-all approach is destined to miss the mark for a Millennial audience whose media consumption habits are as diverse and fragmented as they are themselves.

A Generation Defined by Fragmented Media Consumption

According to market research firm Mintel, roughly 96 percent of American millennials own a smartphone. Value judgments aside, there is a kernel of truth to the stereotype that “millennials are glued to their phones,” and this inseparability provides millennials with fingertip access to countless sources of information across a vast array of digital channels.

Just as millennials utilize this technology to order taxis, catch up with friends, and find soulmates, they’re also using it to manage their health. As Mintel’s research found, significant fractions of millennials seek out information to improve their health and wellbeing using health services/products websites (27 percent), Instagram (19 percent), Pinterest (16 percent), and retailer websites (12 percent). All of these channels are considerably more popular among millennials than among the population at large — especially Instagram and Pinterest, where health-oriented Millennial usage exceeds health-oriented general usage by 87 percent and 174 percent, respectively.

This proliferation — and diversification — of potential marketing touchpoints has forced pharmaceutical companies to reconsider their well-worn approaches to audience communication. Success has become more dependent on crafting a comprehensive content strategy tailored to a specific Millennial subset, rather than on pinpointing a silver bullet placement — it’s effectively impossible to reach 80 to 90 percent of millennials in one fell swoop.

To have any hope of keeping up with the breadth and accessibility of information at millennials’ fingertips, pharmaceutical companies must devise media strategies that extend across the entire digital media landscape. That said, a comprehensive healthcare media strategy need not — and indeed should not — be overbearing.

Most millennials expect corporate messaging — especially from pharmaceutical companies — to be both authentic and relevant to the moment in which it’s being delivered. Serving a deluge of nondescript ads across WebMD, Google Search, Instagram, and Pinterest may get a company’s content in front of a sizeable portion of its target audience, but millennials are likely to experience such an approach as intrusive and “spammy” more than anything else.

More often than not, millennials engage with content that actually helps them take a step forward in managing their health. They’re interested in having genuine conversations about how to lead healthier lives — hence the growing popularity of condition-centric communities on platforms like Facebook — and they expect pharmaceutical companies to make substantive contributions to these conversations in order to keep their place at the table.

Understanding Millennial HCPs

A similar set of expectations applies to pharmaceutical companies’ engagement with Millennial physicians. Like their generational peers, Millennial HCPs consume media in a highly fragmented way, albeit one mediated by their professional insights and obligations.

From accessing diagnostic guides in the exam room, to syncing their practices’ electronic health records (EHR) with data drawn from patients’ fitness trackers, to attending medical conferences virtually, younger HCPs are increasingly leveraging digital technologies to improve their practices in a variety of ways.

While this broad-based digitization of medical practice has provided pharmaceutical companies with more opportunities for HCP engagement than ever before, capitalizing on these opportunities is easier said than done. Not only do Millennial HCPs harbor the same expectations as their generation as a whole — namely, a strong preference for messaging that is authentic, relevant, and part of an ongoing, cross-channel conversation — they also maintain a firm boundary between the media they consume and the media they trust.

Like most Americans their age, Millennial HCPs frequently engage with content posted on social media platforms or other informal channels like community message boards. While younger HCPs might consider this content a nice supplement to traditional media like peer-reviewed journals or medical conference presentations, they’re unlikely to treat it as an authoritative source of information — certainly not in isolation.

However, Millennial HCPs’ tendency to relegate newer (largely digital) media to “second-class status” shouldn’t discourage pharmaceutical companies from pursuing innovative approaches to HCP engagement. Indeed, in pharmaceutical marketing, “supplemental” need not be taken as a pejorative. Just as Millennial consumers are open to pharmaceutical companies participating in conversations about their health, Millennial HCPs tend to welcome companies’ participation in conversations about their practice so long as the companies don’t insist on being the only — or even the loudest — voice.

How To Market To Millennials: A Blueprint for the Future of Healthcare Media

Ultimately, whether they’re targeting Millennial patients or Millennial healthcare providers, it’s imperative for pharmaceutical companies to adopt a media strategy imbued with enough nuance to satisfy the demands of the digital age.

Gone are the days when pharmaceutical marketers’ primary concern was, “to which channel should we direct the majority of our media spend?” To connect with Millennial audiences, marketers must also be able to answer questions like “Why are we maintaining a presence in this channel?” and “What are we there to say?” and “How are we going to adapt our message as targets move from channel to channel?”

Players in many other areas of the healthcare industry have already started to tailor their services to millennials’ preferences. For instance, CVS has added a telemedicine option to its MinuteClinic service, enabling patients to video chat with an HCP simply by opening an app on their smartphone. Similarly, my own physician recently introduced an app that gives patients remote access to their full EHR, allowing them to provide updates on their health — and receive any necessary treatment adjustments — without the trouble of a follow-up office visit.

Both of these offerings deliver unparalleled personalization and convenience without sacrificing quality of care, a win-win that is emblematic of millennials’ healthcare priorities. Moving forward, the pharmaceutical companies that are able to craft media and engagement strategies that align with these priorities will be best positioned to capture the attention of a generation that is set to be the dominant force in the healthcare landscape for decades to come.

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Daniel Elu, VP, Strategy & Insights, brings over 20 years of cross-channel and promotional marketing experience to his role in leading media strategy and insights at PHM.

He joined PHM in 2015 to develop connections planning supportive of major clients seeking broader thinking from the agency. His recent experience in the pharmaceutical category has covered major new brand launches in diabetes and cardiovascular categories along with supporting a wide-array of projects across all therapeutic areas.

Daniel’s planning experience includes 10 years as the senior planning director and account manager for a number of major CPG brands. He also worked as Director of Entertainment Marketing Strategies for an agency specializing in developing branded integration and promotional opportunities with television and feature film properties.

Connect with Daniel on LinkedIn.

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