2021 Will Be Difficult: A Flexible Plan Is Key

December 29, 2020

// By Alan Shoebridge //

Alan ShoebridgePredicting the future is always a dicey proposition, but from a marketing perspective it has generally been sort of, well, predictable. Most experienced professionals know how to prepare for an upcoming year with the general acceptance that a few minor bumps along the road will always come up.

I know that’s the way I approached 2020 as the director of marketing and communications at Salinas Valley Memorial Healthcare System. By mid-March, everything had changed for me and my team. Daily email updates to employees and creating nonstop COVID-19 web content, podcasts, videos, and public messaging campaigns on the fly became the norm. And as I write this article, we’re in the midst of a third wave of COVID-19 in California and still doing all of that work and more.

As we look ahead to 2021, everyone who works in health care wonders how the upcoming year will unfold. I think it’s safe to assume that next year will start off as basically the opposite of 2020. It will likely begin in full chaos mode as COVID-19 continues to disrupt the economy, burden our healthcare system, and impact our personal and professional lives.

That prediction might sound bleak, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. Vaccines should be readily available by the middle of 2021 and certainly most frontline healthcare workers will be protected even sooner. Slowly, a sense of normalcy will develop, and you will need to respond.

Plan, Measure, Adjust

As Yogi Berra once said, “If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.”

When it comes to life, sometimes wandering around brings about interesting discoveries. When it comes to your marketing plan, wandering from place to place brings a lot of confusion and wasted effort.

I strongly believe that having your marketing plan in place at the beginning of every year is crucial. To be effective, you have to know what you are trying to accomplish and build a game plan to get there. The first step is always working with your organization’s leaders to identify business goals. A truly effective marketing plan has to be rooted in service to business goals.

All marketing goals need to be reviewed at least quarterly and progress should be shared with your business partners and organization leadership. Measure and adjust as needed. Fail quickly and change course when you need to, but make sure to always have a clear destination in sight.

Rebalance as Needed in 2021

In most years, you could expect to work your plan and stay primarily focused on proactive rather than reactive work. Perhaps your preferred balance of proactive to reactive work might be something on the magnitude of 75 percent proactive and 25 percent reactive.

Build your plan with the knowledge that you might start off the year in the red zone but will ultimately transition into your preferred balance.

Here is what I think 2021 will look like:

  • Q1: Focus on COVID-19 prevention and safety messaging; 75 percent reactive/25 percent proactive
  • Q2: Shift to vaccine acceptance messaging; adding some targeted service-line marketing; 50 percent reactive/50 percent proactive
  • Q3: Continue vaccine acceptance messaging; more focus on service-line marketing and brand messaging; 60 percent proactive/40 percent reactive
  • Q4: Work the plan; it might almost feel like normal; 75 percent proactive/25 percent reactive

Even if the year doesn’t pan out exactly like this, having your plan built and ready to go in January will allow you to make adjustments. The most important element is having clear goals.

My number-one piece of advice is this: Be flexible, but don’t ignore the fundamentals. We’re likely to be riding a rolling ocean of changes throughout much of 2021. If you remain too rigid or inflexible, your effectiveness will be seriously limited. Don’t go into 2021 as an optimist or a pessimist; go into 2021 as realist who is constantly making minor and major adjustments. Doing that will keep you moving forward through all these challenges and set you up for success.

Alan Shoebridge is the director of marketing and communications for Salinas Valley Memorial Healthcare System. He also has held senior marketing and communication leadership roles at Kaiser Permanente and Providence St. Joseph Health, two of the nation’s largest health care providers.