The Sick $ense: A real-time opportunity for illness-based marketing

20+ years after learning Marketing 101 in college, the key tenets still hold: show the right products to the right people at the right time. Push chicken noodle when it’s cold out, gazpacho when it’s hot. Let the seasons guide your budget so you don’t waste ice cream marketing dollars during parka weather. Common sense for sure, but the data proves the theory: seasonality plays a large role in the effectiveness of marketing campaigns.

Of course, some “seasons” are not as clear cut. Households are more likely to purchase OTC medicines, tissues and disinfectants during what we love to call “flu season,” but that timing varies widely – see a graph of CDC historical data below:


What’s So Special about Illness Data

Illness is one of the most extreme drivers of behavior change there is, and it affects dozens of types of businesses. Sick people eat different foods, use different consumables and partake in different activities than healthy people.

Again – common sense, right? Reviewing “Influenza-Like Illnesses” or ILIs in past flu seasons — information available through the CDC among other entities — has shown us correlations across all kinds of businesses. One research study that followed orange juice promotions, for example, showed that marketing ROI was greatest during peak incidences of flu.

Implications are even more dramatic for more directly related businesses. OTC companies, hospitals, and pharmacy chains see lifts or drops in sales as a direct derivative of the severity of an illness season. For example, researchers at University of Pittsburgh show a correlation through tying OTC sales at major retailers in Pittsburgh to ILI Patient Volume within the same zip codes.


Grocery retailers report that up to 75% of their yearly sales of OTC products occur between late October and early March, coinciding with the flu season. In an article in the Canadian Grocer, the marketing director for TFB (distributor of ‘Fisherman’s Friend’ lozenges), spoke about the behavioral change and impulsivity of purchasing: “People get a cough. They need something right away. A lot of consumers won’t walk by the checkout counters; they buy whatever is on display at the point of sale.” The takeaway – when you’re sick, you don’t contemplate. You buy.

Illness is one of the hardest behavior changes for brands to understand (at least, with enough time to react). Marketers of products ranging from pharmaceuticals to soup simply spend more during the winter months, hoping to catch the fleeting, unpredictable “flu season.”

By understanding illness trends as they are happening, brands (and their nimble digital marketers) could gain the efficiencies that ice cream marketers have in summer – the ability to target those audiences with the highest propensity to buy at a moment in time.

The Potential of Knowing Where

While understanding peaks and troughs of flu season can be an extremely effective way to efficiently allocate marketing budget, breaking this information down granularly by geography takes it an even bigger leap forward.

While the annual flu season graph above looks varied, the regional trends are even less predictable. This past year, the Pacific Northwest was plagued unusually early with flu, while the east had two peaks.

If marketers consider variances by location and illness timing instead of blanketing whole regions and seasons, effectiveness and ROI skyrockets. This past flu season, digital marketers could have funneled illness-related lead generation activities to the northwest early on and to the east toward the end of the season instead of offering a steady drip nationwide. Or they could have held steady across the board, but varied messaging (“defending against” in the west; “preparing for” in the east).

In Norm Johnston’s “Adaptive Marketing: Leveraging Real-Time Data to Become More Competitive,” he provides an example of how Kleenex leveraged now defunct Google Flu Trends to drive a 40% return based on real-time geographic information about where flu was spreading. This is especially impressive given the challenges Google had with the program.

Predictive Algorithms

While real-time insights can positively affect dynamic channels such as programmatic media buying, most marketers are restricted by budgets, plans and slower channels such as television and print, which can’t be changed at the last minute.

Health marketing executive Irina Klein believes that the real potential of illness marketing is a step beyond real-time trend data. “At the end of the day, nobody wants to waste money,” explains Klein. “So if there is an opportunity to lock in inventory weeks ahead of time — ideally 4 weeks — that is a great value proposition for anyone, whether it’s CPG or pharma.” In other words, we need to accurately predict spread in advance if we’re truly going to reap the benefits of illness data. In good news, given recent strides in data science and predictive algorithms, this is already possible.

There at Their Time of Need

While we’ve only just begun learning the benefits of illness information for marketers, one thing is clear: For any company, organization or agency with a product or service that can help the sick in their moment of need, there is an opportunity at hand. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Imagine knowing where and when people will be coughing vs. vomiting – where strep is spreading vs. flu. Illness data is finally at a level of accuracy, granularity and timeliness where this is all possible for those brands that are ready to use it.

Originally published on LinkedIn