Marketing in 2021 flu season: a year of challenge and opportunity | IBM Watson Advertising

By IBM Watson Advertising

COVID-19 caused consumers to become far more health-conscious, willing to trade money and personal information in exchange for better personal wellness. To seize this opportunity, brand marketers face three distinct but related challenges.

First, we need new methods for tracking the ongoing shift in consumer mindsets and behaviors without relying on cookies or other traditional identifiers. If that isn't difficult enough, this must be achieved while maintaining the positive sentiment and trust that has resulted from the pandemic and mitigating the unknowns of a fast-approaching flu season.  

These unique challenges and circumstances will make earning consumer dollars – and data – through effective, targeted campaigns become a feat that might resemble trying to hit a moving target in the dark.

A healthy dose of AI 

AI can provide a singular solution that addresses a multitude of challenges. New offerings are available that are designed to predict the seemingly unpredictable based on numerous privacy-forward data points and contextual relevance without needing cookies or personal information.

These technologies can help marketers of flu brands achieve three critical objectives when creating campaigns for 2021:

Build direct relationships with digital customers for lasting brand affinity

While there is currently a high level of brand affinity among consumers, maintaining that positive perception through relevant, personalized ads will become more difficult as identifiers are increasingly restricted. Marketers should explore solutions that deliver on the promise of personalization, prioritize trust and build loyalty.

Conversational marketing, made possible by AI, can facilitate two-way dialogue in an advertising experience while providing a scaled focus group to uncover consumers’ evolving wants and needs.

Despite facing significant supply chain challenges during the pandemic, a leading consumer packaged goods brand for cleaning and disinfecting products recognized an opportunity to both educate consumers and gain valuable insights into new buyers.

The company implemented IBM Watson Advertising Conversations, which leverages machine learning and natural language processing to enable 1:1 personalized chat-style interactions within an ad unit and on the brand’s website. This helped the company better understand what consumers needed to know about COVID-19, such as the difference between cleaning and sanitizing and how people should wash their hands when coming in from outside. The experience also provided prompts and useful information on topics such as sanitizing laundry, disinfecting by room and coronavirus prevention.

The campaign exceeded benchmarks as the average user interacted three times with each conversation session and 63% said they were satisfied or very satisfied. Discover more conversational marketing examples here.

flu season 2021

Efficiently communicate to niche audiences or individuals at scale

Health brands must recognize that there are cultural, generational and regional differences which affect how consumers perceive certain preventative health measures such as flu vaccines. This means that a one-size-fits-all message simply will not work.

Health and pharmaceutical marketers should lean into technology that helps them predict the most impactful display and video creative variants to serve each individual or household. These solutions should be able to optimize against secondary consumer actions like conversation rate while gaining valuable insights that further prove the value of each audience on unique platforms.

The Ad Council recognized this as a challenge worth solving through the use of AI. The organization collaborated with IBM Watson Advertising to help serve the public good through racial justice and vaccine education.

The first campaign – called “Fight for Freedom” – used machine learning to analyze audience reactions to messages and predict which specific creative elements would best resonate and drive conversions across different demographics without the use of cookies or personal identifiers. These efforts drove a 113% increase in click-through rates as well as a 69% lift in actions on the "Love Has No Labels" site. 

Encouraged by the results of this campaign, the Ad Council is next working with IBM Watson Advertising on “It’s Up To You,” an initiative that directs people to information and resources about the COVID-19 vaccines.

Leverage privacy-forward data signals to mitigate the data anomaly of 2020

While the significant reduction in flu cases last year was a relief to many, it also left a hole in the year-over-year data to use in predicting the severity of the upcoming season and how consumers will respond. This means that new data sets – and solutions for extracting value from those data sets – will be needed. 

AI technologies can process weather data, anonymized health information and other inputs to identify flu risk at a local level and notify users in that area up to 15 days in advance. Weather-triggered ads can help brand marketers anticipate and connect with health-minded consumers by sending pertinent messages during decision-making moments, all without using historical marketing models, cookies or personal information.

For example, CVS partnered with IBM Watson Advertising to forge a connection with consumers that would position the brand as a trusted health partner and drive awareness of flu shot offerings as well as cough, cold and flu medications.

The campaign reached consumers with flu shot messaging during “planning moments” as they checked The Weather Channel app to make decisions about upcoming activities. By identifying the best times to reach consumers, CVS drove more than 59 million impressions of CVS media on the Daily Details page, a 22% increase in Integrated Daily Details Ad impressions and a 6% increase in click-through rates throughout the campaign.

These efforts also included a flu sponsorship designed to alert communities with the right message at the right time, reminding users to prioritize vaccinations and other proactive measures to help stay well during flu season. Predictive flu illness data was used to create notifications that let users know when the flu risk was expected to increase their area, a feature for which 185,000 users signed up. A flu details page also educated and motivated consumers throughout the season with CVS content while connecting the brand to sufferers during key moments while reducing media waste.

As a result, the campaign exceeded benchmarks by 119% and increased time spent on article content by 20% year-over-year.

“The speed of IBM’s AI and the ability for it to handle massive amounts of data and associations creates opportunities that haven’t even been on the radar before and are transforming the way we go to market with our advertising, says Norm de Greve, Chief Marketing Officer of CVS Health.

A new path forward for pharmaceutical marketing

The ability of consumer healthcare and pharmaceutical marketers to maintain the brand trust and affinity gained over the last 18 months will depend on understanding what motivates customers now and in the future. Messages will need to be delivered as efficiently and empathetically as possible while complying with ever-changing privacy regulations. Emerging technologies like artificial intelligence can be help teams break the cycle of traditional strategies and solve these new challenges.

Contact us today to discuss how IBM Watson Advertising solutions can help you use AI to recognize and respond to the changing consumer needs and habits during the upcoming flu season.