Interview: Understanding Consumer Trends During COVID-19 - June 2020​

With Christine Franklin and Brendan McHenry

This month, DHC’s Executive Director, Christine Franklin, had the opportunity to interview Healthline’s SVP Sales & DTC Strategy, Brendan McHenry. This conversation focused on understanding what Healthline has learned about consumer behavior during COVID-19 and how they have been able to draw insights from trends in that behavior. Brendan also reviews the impact of consumer trends on pharma marketing and what marketers should do next.

Christine Franklin, DHC: Healthline Media, as the largest health online media destination in the US, has had a front row seat to consumer behavior trends during COVID-19.  If we start by thinking about the consumer population broadly, how did you first see search behavior shifting?  Were there any immediate or surprising changes?

Brendan McHenry, Healthline: Definitely. Healthline has been keeping a watchful eye on consumer behaviors in this time of uncertainty, and we’ve seen (from analyzing data of our 90 million users) that media consumption and daily health behaviors work hand in hand. The most drastic shifts happened in mid-March, early on in the COVID-19 outbreak, when the highly predictable weekly pattern of health media consumption went away and there was an increase in mobile traffic. People quip that “every day feels the same” and we’re actually seeing that in traffic patterns. On a topical level, we noticed clear spikes in traffic in areas related to understanding the what, why, and how of COVID-19. As time went on, there was more of a shift toward “living with:” making masks, hand sanitizer, etc.

We also saw a dip in all non-COVID-19 content in March, such as chronic condition content. Those consumers managing health conditions still had and have questions and concerns about their health that go beyond COVID-19, and traffic for that type of content is actually up from its pre-COVID-19 norm by 15%. A lot of that growth is driven by concerns around managing a condition that could put you at higher risk of COVID-19.

More recently, we’ve seen that current events and national protests really lowered traffic to all things COVID-19 (the exception being COVID-19 vaccine searches, which continue to grow). We’ve also done research with YouGov measuring the impact of COVID-19, which has highlighted gaps in information needs between Hispanic, Black, and White Americans. There are significant differences related to whether they have enough information about what to do if they suspect they might have COVID-19, as well as differences when it comes to trust in what healthcare professionals say.

Christine Franklin: You have insights into consumer trends across all industries, but as we look specifically at consumer trends relevant to the pharmaceutical industry, what did you see first?  How did you approach capturing the “living organism” element of consumer thought processes in response to COVID-19 as it progressed as a national/global issue?

Brendan McHenry: Today, consumers have such a holistic view of their health, and we knew from the immediate shifts in our traffic and user feedback that there was a need to dive deeper into understanding the impact of COVID-19, especially those living with a health condition. We rapidly launched a number of research initiatives to not only lean in to uncover the realities of their experiences today, but to track that over time. This continual monitoring allowed us to capture the “living organism” as you said, and to see how behaviors and mindset among the same group of respondents shifted over time.

For example, in our Healthline Mental Health Index, in partnership with YouGov, we saw that people living with health conditions were not only more affected by anxiety and depression (24% show signs of moderate to severe depression versus 15% of those without a health condition), but that as the weeks progressed, these levels increased slightly, while they declined slightly among those without conditions. The research also uncovered information and resource gaps, and Healthline has since launched a mental health hub to help users care for their total well-being.

Beyond their mental health, online qualitative research among people living with health conditions highlighted how these consumers are reinventing access to healthcare in the days of COVID-19: 54% have used telemedicine and 52% ordered their Rx online for mail delivery. And from just April to June, we saw how mindsets are evolving with 3 out of 4 saying it’s the same or easier to manage their health today versus a month ago. Challenges most certainly remain in health management and life beyond, but we’re hopeful as we look ahead. You can check out a recording of the full research webinar and insights here.

Christine Franklin: Mental Health as a key focus area is a great choice – we’ve seen the importance of mental health during the pandemic echoed in other types of research we’ve done as well.  We’ve also noticed a common thread in advice to pharma marketers during COVID-19 to consider their ability to walk alongside patients during this unique time.  Have you been able to look at condition-level data to help marketers better craft a message of support and value for their brand?

Brendan McHenry: Yes, there is really so much here. While we’ve been keyed in to understand people living with health conditions, it’s become clear that a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work for this segment of the population. So we kept digging to uncover the nuance here. When it comes to emotional health, we saw that those already living with mental health conditions (anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder) were affected the most, followed by people with digestive conditions (IBD, Crohn’s), RA, and respiratory conditions (asthma, COPD). Interestingly enough, this also coincided with the same individual conditions where we saw fear of contracting the virus remain very high.

There really is a need for brands and marketers to be thoughtful as they continue their advertising efforts, especially when it comes to people living with conditions. Condition-specific insights like we uncovered in our research show the value of listening to your audience to really understand what they’re feeling, and then responding thoughtfully and authentically. How brands behave matter to consumers.

Christine Franklin: As the US grapples with how to best manage the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, what advice would you give marketers today?

Brendan McHenry: Now is a time for marketers to be present. From the ongoing pandemic to even more recent events of racial inequality, every day brings a new element of change, of a new reality. Really understanding the mindset of these very specific audiences is critical, and changes day by day. Listen to your audience and arm yourself with insights on consumer behaviors, channel trends, and brand reactions.

Now is also a time to take action. Provide tools and resources to help your consumers where they are and be mindful of how and when they might want these tools, whether they’re about COVID-19 or their health overall. How your brand behaves now will change how they’re perceived forever, so step up. People notice who shows up in their times of need, and more importantly, who doesn’t. And remember that you’re not alone. It’s time to lean into your partners as consultants to collaborate and help you move forward.