Where Do Your Patients Live On The Web? Effective Targeting For Digital Campaigns

Targeting is a key benefit of online marketing, but anyone who has worked in the online healthcare space knows that it’s easier said than done. A digital tactic that effectively engages one population may work dismally with another. New tactics are being developed all the time, but since many are unproven for healthcare direct response, they can pose a risk to your campaign.

The best way to successfully target in the digital space is to take a deep dive into your audience’s digital consumption habits. Different patients go online for different reasons. Without compromising specific patient/caregiver identity, marketers can assess:

  • How they use the internet to research health-related information
  • Whether they connect on social networks with advocacy groups/healthcare professionals/other patients
  • Whether different geographies discuss specific diseases more than others



Understanding the digital landscape for your patient population will give you key insights on how and where to deliver your message.  

Digital Research Tools

There are a variety of tools to help flesh out this landscape, including:

  • Primary and secondary market research
  • Social listening tools
  • Competitive intelligence tools

Primary and secondary market research allows for some initial profiling of your audience in order to understand key features of their demographic, lifestyle and media habits. There may be sufficient insights available through secondary research, while primary research can be conducted to gain a deeper, more specific understanding of your patients.

Social listening tools monitor all public conversations on the internet and can provide valuable feedback on the following:

  • What kind of conversations are patients having? 
  • Are they actively engaged in conversations, or more passively seeking information?
  • In which websites or social networks are these conversations taking place?
  • Who are the most influential people talking about the topic (i.e., bloggers, key opinion leaders, healthcare professionals, patients)?

Competitive intelligence tools can also be utilized to measure the volume of searches relating to a disease state. You can see historic trends to look for key seasonality of when people search certain terms, and can estimate the amount of competition you may have during a specific timeframe. 

Digital Tactics

Once these insights are gathered, you can develop a well-informed strategic plan and determine digital tactics with the most potential to succeed. There are new digital marketing opportunities every day, but some of the more tried and true tactical elements typically fit within the following categories:

  • Paid media 
    • Examples: SEM, social advertising, mobile/display ads, email marketing
  • Advocacy Groups 
    • Examples: Banner ads on advocacy websites, email marketing to members, posts on their social network pages
  • Blogger Outreach 
    • Examples: Blog posts, Twitter posts, Facebook content

Two Patient Groups = Two Different Campaigns

Two examples illustrate two different patient populations, and how we used these tools to develop very different — but successful — targeted campaigns.

First, we needed to identify patients who had a heart attack or stroke to participate in a clinical trial. Through our market research and social listening tools we identified that these patients were:

  • Prevalent in the U.S.
  • Active online researchers of treatment options
  • Heavy online searchers, more likely to click on banner ads
  • Not actively participating in social discussions about heart attack and stroke, but tend to be heavy users of Facebook

Because this was a large patient population that was relatively passive in their online habits, we developed a broad digital campaign, including:

  • Paid search
  • A variety of display advertising tactics
  • Facebook advertising
  • Advertising in heart health communities

Facebook and paid search were the most efficient ways to reach this population.

In contrast, we had another clinical trial for patients with celiac disease. Celiac has a much smaller patient population with very different characteristics:

  • Only about 1.8 million adults in the U.S. 
  • They are a tight knit group who actively participate in online communities
  • They are less likely to engage when they feel “marketed” to (i.e., banner ads); information needs to come from a trustworthy source
  • They are very loyal to one another and their thought leaders; they receive much credible content from bloggers they trust

This population needed more narrowly focused tactics coming from a trustworthy source. Some of the digital tactics included:

  • Blogger outreach
  • Facebook advertising targeting established celiac/gluten-free communities
  • Advocacy outreach (email blasts, Facebook posts, website ads)

The most efficient tactic for this campaign was advocacy outreach.

While the beauty of digital marketing is its ability to be laser focused, it is even more incumbent on the marketer to understand where to best point that focus. Once you understand how and where your patient lives online, you will be in a much better position to identify a strategy to reach them. This upfront investment in time and intellectual capital will surely pay great dividends as you engage patients in the digital world.

3 comments about "Where Do Your Patients Live On The Web? Effective Targeting For Digital Campaigns".
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  1. Dale Brose from dBroseGroup, January 21, 2014 at 10:02 a.m.

    Nice post Sarah. It would be very helpful if you shared some of the specific tools you use to do your research. Thanks

  2. Kevin Burke from WholesomeOne, January 21, 2014 at 10:15 a.m.

    Very nicely laid-out case examples of how consumer behavior dictates strategy and tactics. All too often I feel narrowly focused tactics from trusted sources are under-valued.

  3. R.J. Lewis from e-Healthcare Solutions, LLC, January 21, 2014 at 2:31 p.m.

    Nice article Sarah, we are continuously surprised by what the data shows. For example, looking at the most recent November data from comScore one of our partner sites,, typically known for crohns disease and IBS (and indexing high in those conditions), also indexes incredibly high in lung cancer. A healingwell user is 15X as likely as the average internet users to have lung cancer. Another site partner has users that are 36X more likely than the average internet users to be pregnant. Even with this great data it can be still challenging to convince a planner to run run-of-site on a site like this. Healingwell for example, does not have a ton of content on lung cancer, so a contextual buy is challenging, but they clearly have the target audience.

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