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2021 Media Trends


Disruption. Acceleration. Let’s say it again so it sticks. Disruption and acceleration.

Those are almost certainly not the words any one of us wants to hear as we get set to dive headfirst into brand planning. They are not necessarily ideas you would expect to drive the year-to-year conversation in an area as regulated as healthcare communications. But, according to research carefully collated by our very own Greater Than One (GTO) Group, disruption and acceleration are everywhere. They are the reality that we marketing and media mavens have to contend with, in 2021 and beyond.

Let’s take a closer look at what they mean.


By disruption, we mean that the media landscape for healthcare communications must adapt to a new dynamic of market delivery. Specifically, we mean that in 2020 patients became empowered to ask for methods of care presented to them on their own terms and—in a parallel to trends seen in the consumer-packaged goods and prêt-à-porter spaces—used their newfound agency to turbocharge fragmentation, customization, and consumerization.

Fundamentally, fragmentation arises because patients no longer have patience. The predictable care cycle of feeling ill, going for a check-up, seeing a specialist if necessary, and getting cured does not fully work for people with amorphous WFH schedules, expectations of flexibility, and digital-first habits. Many—including 33% of patients aged 25 to 40, and 41% of patients aged 9 to 24—opt for a digital journey, which can start anywhere from WebMD to diagnostic pre-screening with an AI chatbot.

To highlight perhaps the starkest change, telehealth use surged 160% in 2020 alone, while about half of patients and doctors polled plan to continue with virtual check-ups. Coupled with more sophisticated wearables and augmented reality (AR) experiences that patients of all demographics are trying in increasing numbers, the resulting challenge to the hegemony of traditional models has led to an explosion of patient journeys. This means that there is no longer a single point of care for individuals to receive their therapies and procedures. That, in turn, means that there is no longer a single way to sell them.

This problem is only complicated by customization, which has gotten to the point that it is preventing marketers from building a cohesive narrative through a typical awareness funnel. To be sure everyone is spending more time on their screens, with median view-time at 10 hours a day combined across all demographics. But that time is being segmented across smartphone, radio, smart TVs, Apple Watches, and tablets. And each medium places sui generis demands on the media that leverages it.

Even on the same device, the different demands of different channels mean that the same brands need to optimize the same content for the same viewer in multiple ways. To see why, let’s imagine we want to market cosmeceuticals to Sabrina, a thirtysomething dermatologist who primarily uses her smartphone.

Mostly likely, Sabrina leverages Sermo, Doximity, and LinkedIn to connect with colleagues and stay abreast of the current state of care. She probably pulls double duty on LinkedIn vis-à-vis connecting with patients, and she almost certainly complements those efforts with TikTok.

Yes, you read that right. TikTok.

TikTok won media disruption last year, becoming the most downloaded app of all time in Q2 2020 with 355MM unique downloads. Audience members in every market enjoy TikTok for everything from dance challenges to gonzo journalism, and pharmaceutical media is no exception. Patients and doctors use it to connect with one another, share health & wellness tips, and livestream about new methods of care.

Obviously, the types of content that Sabrina seeks to engage on Doximity differ dramatically from the snackable clips she shares on TikTok. Indeed, the consumption habits that she customizes for herself mean that she simultaneously belongs to multiple audience segments because—even if she were willing to watch a video dispelling acne myths on TikTok—the different ranking and promotion algorithms of the different channels mean that the same content could lock Sabrina into a viral like / follow / share on one, and never reach her on the other.

There’s no easy way to fix that. The boilerplate response of having one piece of media optimized for each channel fails because the consumption habits of otherwise lookalike audience members vary across channels. Practically, Sabrina and her colleague Adam might use TikTok for similar reasons at similar times but end up with significantly different browsing histories, liked video lists, hashtag interest, and followers. Thus, the TikTok algorithm will present them with significantly different kinds of content, and any attempt to communicate with both of them simultaneously would end up being consumed by noise.

The operative word is consumed.

Consumerization of pharmaceutical communication is a direct fallout of today’s landscape, where audience members get caught in trends that they themselves cannot predict, constantly engage with media of all stripes, and place increased value on social signaling and crowdsourced decision making in their healthcare choices. The way to reach them is by leveraging a unique integration of data, content, media, and technology to speak to individual audience members in a “bonfire approach”.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. For any given therapy or procedure, it could entail creating different method of action (MOA) videos for the same prospective patient, or drafting dynamic CTAs for different audience members on the same channel, and, in any one case, you would only be able to know by first doing a deep dive on your individual brand needs.

Fortunately, building values-driven communications that work greater than the sum of its parts is something we practice daily at GTO Group. If you ever want to test a marketing idea—or help your media team succeed in 2021’s disrupted ecosystem—you can email our strategy group at

In the meantime, you can read on to understand how acceleration factors in to 2021 healthcare media trends.


Acceleration exacerbated the disruption to the media landscape primarily because it changed the ways that we plan content deployment and data-gathering. We’ve known for some time that media consumption would eventually move to smaller screens and Internet-of-Things (IoT) devices. We may even have expected at least some HCPs to opt for digital guides, core visual aids, and Electronic Medical Record (EMR) management, in lieu of in-person access to traditional sales forces or physical storage. But to have all of that happen within one year—on top of the disruption to the flow of business that the COVID-19 pandemic caused—means that we have only just begun to get the data we would need to more completely understand how those trends ended up taking shape.

The fact is that the dynamics of consumer-driven consumption during 2020 accelerated many digital roadmaps by an average of 3 to 5 years. In some cases, as with the growth of digital-enabled wearables, the acceleration was closer to 7 years. On all fronts the shift was tectonic, and it occurred on a positively volcanic timescale compared to the oft-meandering updates managed markets undergo. To begin to appreciate the impact of accelerated changes for patients and HCPs, we need only look at the charts below.

Along with direct effects, we have to consider the second-order consequences of such rapid change. To name just one example, because TikTok did so well across all demographics, Instagram and Twitter released Reels and Fleets, respectively, in an attempt to counter the newcomer’s challenge to the media landscape. These changes, and others, fundamentally transformed sharing and consumption habits across all segments, even on the same platforms.

Once media marketers start to understand that, we can begin to see just where acceleration factors in. Because we didn’t start 2020 knowing that HCPs would spend comparatively historic amounts of time in virtual conferences or telehealth channels, we did not develop plans to track their preferred methods of content reception. Because we could not predict the different ways that otherwise similar audience members would use TikTok vs Clubhouse vs Twitter Fleets, we could not effectively A/B test to optimize messaging & communications for each medium. And, because we were not expecting these levels of IoT, tablet, and AR usage for years, we were not in a position to fully restructure digital strategies away from the goal of eye-catching reinforcement and into the notion that digital is the first and primary contact point that most audience members have with our clients’ brands.

Again, acceleration in 2020 prevented us from getting the data.

In a trying double-whammy, acceleration will also hinder our ability to collect similar data going forward. The day when models will cease to support third-party cookies inches closer and, even beyond that, patient and HCP desires for increasingly customized content make old methods of targeting and data-collection simply outmoded.

Solutions like match-market testing and user-level case studies do exist and may in fact have the potential to exceed traditional key performance indicators (KPIs). But they can also balloon budgets for even modest media projects, quickly becoming more expensive than either keyword or zip-code level bidding systems.

Partners like Prognos and Crossix can help you achieve technically defined KPIs that do translate into digital salesforce support, impressive CRM funneling, and genuine offline-online conversions. But, in our experience, engaging them often necessitates retaining a digital agency of record (dAOR) who sports a granular understanding of their software toolkits and who can help ensure that you get the most bang for your buck.

As GTO Group, we recommend that you lean into the accelerated consumerization of the healthcare and pharmaceutical spaces with omnichannel integration of messaging that consistently ladders down from brand-specific values to moment-specific CTAs. Again, if you want help or more of a background on the data behind our insights, you can always email our team at

And, if you want to see how we put the ideas into practice, you can read on to our case study.

Case Study

One of the clients we support as a dAOR is a mid-cap pharmaceutical company dedicated to RNA interference (RNAi) therapies for the treatment and management of rare diseases. In 2020, this client wanted to support one of its therapies with a full digital campaign, from website to banner ads to media to emails. The focus of the campaign was an unbranded push to raise awareness for one of the ultra-rare diseases that the client had a breakthrough treatment for.

The goal of the campaign was for the client to become a trusted leader in the yet-to-be-created, online-offline community of that ultra-rare disease by becoming a support beacon for diagnosed individuals. Specifically, we sought to provide valuable and relevant education materials so that patients could learn about their disease, and ultimately understand that our client cared about their management of it.

Through situation analysis, research, and planning which leveraged the 2021 media trends identified above, we developed concrete and comprehensive campaign objectives. From deep dives into the needs of target audience members we uncovered strategic insights—such as the realization that the campaign should be centered on an eponymous website, with a KPI that tracked completion of a normally low-funnel patient discussion guide. We packaged these insights into a pitch that could be executed on a modest budget of less than $1 million, and quickly built alignment on the steps towards execution.

Then, we got it done, with solid creative and messaging that respected the nuances of audience trends. A set of digital display ads—each optimized for different segments—directed viewers to the website with CTAs in the form of pithy questions, while a complementarily optimized set of emails plugged direct, active language. This language was high-testing, while leveraging knowledge of the disease said that the website introduced to the audience.

With respect to fragmentation, all funnels were built to work no matter which node happened to land as a viewer’s first touchpoint. Every insight mined through work on the main website was also invested to updates and tie-ins on a pediatric sister website, in an acknowledgement of the various, self-reinforcing legs of a digital patient journey that children and caregivers may take.

Together, the results speak for themselves.

The campaign reached 150% of its KPI for 2020 in less than 3 months. Evincing the fact that messaging stuck for all audiences, a random sample of initial sign-ups demonstrated over 2x the goal of the KPI sign-up rates for patients, prospective patients, non-patients (ie, doctors), and caregivers. Sign-ups continued to increase throughout the year, and by December 100s of the targeted populations had joined our custom-built CRM.

Much of that success is owed to the PESO media campaign, which maintained singular brand values across marketing & communications on all channels. From June 2020 to March 2021, media directed roughly 10 non-unique sessions to the key client website for every 1 unique patient living in the United States. Display campaigns from this period drove a click-through rate (CTR) that doubled the target benchmark and a bounce rate 40% below the industry average.

Those numbers, taken in tandem with a completion rate for the guides that was 4x initial estimates, amount to a resounding success. That success, in turn, suggests that healthcare and pharmaceutical campaigns can still bring audience members together into purposeful, action-driven communities, as long as they maintain awareness of the trends that govern the media landscape of the here and now.


Disruption and acceleration will continue to change the media landscape for 2021 and beyond. But—between the information outlined in this piece and the active conversations it will no doubt start—at least we can all be a little more prepared. Data, content, media, and technology are each essential to the dual success of brands and agencies, and it is only by understanding each of the pieces individually that we can bring them together, better.

To that end, please think, reread, and share this piece on as many smart toasters and media apps as you want. If you have any suggestions or follow-up questions, you can email our strategy group directly at If you want to take the first steps towards optimizing your 2022 media goals for your own specific needs, we would be delighted to have the conversation. All in all, thank you for reading. We hope you enjoyed this first article in our Summer Growth Series.