WellPoint Amps up Digital on Eve of Health Reform

Health Care Giant Boosts Social as Consumers Gain Access to Exchanges

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As big changes in the health care space loom, WellPoint is embracing a digital-heavy strategy.

Patrick Blair
Patrick Blair

Last October, the health-care giant, which is a licensee of Blue Cross Blue Shield, launched an app called WellPower, which tracks and incentivizes users' physical activity. Almost a year later, the company analyzed the behavior of more than 100,000 users and found that people on Facebook are most interested in quizzes and "interactive learning," the company told Ad Age. It's one finding that will help inform the company's strategy beginning in October, which marks the first time consumers will be able to purchase health insurance through new, state-run online exchanges as part of the Affordable Care Act.

The period during which consumers can purchase a plan is called open-enrollment, and it's a critical time for insurers to attract new consumers and gain share in the crowded insurance market. WellPoint, one of the largest health benefits companies in the U.S., is placing its bets on analytics and digital marketing, as well as new digital and social agency Rokkan, according to the health care company's CMO Patrick Blair.

Mr. Blair told Ad Age about his team's decision to hire a Publicis-owned digital shop with little experience in the health insurance category, as well as the more general effect of the government's Affordable Care Act on the company's marketing approach.

Ad Age: Why did you decide to conduct a social media agency search in the first place? And what are you looking for in an agency like Rokkan?

Mr. Blair: We know that consumers, no matter who they are, are increasingly going online discussing products and brands, looking for advice from peers, and in many cases, offering advice. As it relates to the digital space, we increasingly see social as an integral part of our digital strategy. But it's not the only component of our digital strategy. Rokkan distinguished themselves as more of a digital partner. Someone that we could work with not only on strategy surrounding social but just broader digital strategy and execution and content development.

Ad Age: But the agency is not known for its experience in the health insurance category. Did you intentionally hire a shop without that experience?

Mr. Blair: Health care experience is what we're steeped in. We live it every day. What we liked about Rokkan is the recognition that maybe that hasn't been their sweet spot. What they do know is how to use digital tools to help us learn from consumers or target consumers. They have a good idea of all those stages in the purchasing funnel, from where people are pondering brands to where they're actually making a purchase.

Ad Age: So how do the new, online health insurance marketplaces impact your marketing and positioning?

Mr. Blair: The exchanges will usher in a new era for the company. We need to not only protect our turf, but we've got to acquire our fair share of the new market that's up for grabs, because a segment of consumers are going to be looking to different sources for information. They'll need assistance in evaluating [the options] and looking at peers and network connections online and offline. That means that consumers will be more in control than they ever have been, and there's a lot of noise. I'm tying that back to digital. We'll have to have a really crisp digital strategy to cut through all of the clutter and take advantage of those conversations. People will be out there, researching, price checking, reviewing, comparing, and if they don't like what they see, they'll take their money and go somewhere else.

Ad Age: How will that change the marketing mix? Does the Rokkan hire and focus on social indicate an increase in spending on social efforts?

Mr. Blair: We're seeing more shift in total budget to digital. I think social this year, compared to the year before, will be more critical. We tie so much to effectiveness and have seen expected results from [social media] so we're slowly increasing social spend as we learn. All of the channels -- TV, radio and print -- are super important. We benefit from very strong brand awareness, especially with the BlueCross BlueShield brand. That enables us to confidently shift from some of the channels we typically used to build awareness to digital channels and be focused on getting into the consideration set where [consumers] are making decisions.

Ad Age: Where will TV net out in this mix?

Mr. Blair: It's too early to tell. So much is launch and learn. We're set up with the exchanges so we've done our research with consumers and spent countless hours analyzing and modeling. We're in a position to make midcourse corrections. So it's hard to say where the mix will end up.

Ad Age: Think we'll see any health insurance companies advertising in the Super Bowl this year?

Mr. Blair: I wouldn't know. The world is changing so much. What happens with the exchanges will influence media strategies in January.

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