Move me: Emotional appeals motivate doctors more than facts and figures do

The rational mock ad in which Wunderman Thompson Health emphasized tangible benefits of screening (Wunderman Thompson Health)

When it comes to marketing, doctors aren’t the rational robots one might assume. A new study from Wunderman Thompson Health found physicians are much more likely to respond to emotional appeals over regurgitated data points in advertising.

Researchers surveyed 500 doctors, using osteoporosis screenings as a test case. The researchers first determined why doctors order the tests and distilled the top four reasons—only one of which was the rational benefits of the test.

The other three were emotion-based. Doctors either felt pride in helping patients, worried about their welfare or trusted their personal clinical experience over the rational guidelines.

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Wunderman created four mock ads to appeal to each motivation, then tested that work with the same doctors. The results? More than half (56%) were motivated to take action by the rational facts ad. But when the content appealed more to emotion, doctors’ inclination to act increased by 23%.

The agency then added personalization to the mix, which increased doctors’ willingness to order a test by a similar margin of 21%.

The best results came when the agency combined a personalized approach with an emotional one. Of the doctors in the study who saw an emotional appeal personalized to their own motivations, three-quarters said they would follow guidelines that dictate tests for women beginning at age 60. That's a 34% increase in likeliness to act.

It's no secret that healthcare marketing heavily relies on the rational. “What this study has revealed is we need to reconsider how we are communicating to these physicians to change the behavior needed to drive patient outcomes,” said Nichole Davies, chief strategy officer at Wunderman Thompson Health.

Being able to "deliver personalized communications built to reflect different behavioral perceptions or beliefs and be very effective in doing so is a profound learning for us," she added.

This is the agency’s third annual look at “health inertia”—when people know how and why to make the right health decisions, but don’t. The previous two studies focused on patient behaviors, while this year's version looked at doctors and how marketers can better motivate them.

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Wunderman’s report also debunked the reasons pharma gets stuck in health inertia, including regulatory issues, costs and branding. Destry Sulkes, the agency’s chief experience officer and a physician himself, said marketers need to get over those not-as-big-as-they-think hurdles to adapt to the shifting market.

“The main finding was that both personalized and emotional are smarter ways to market, and finding ways to combine the two gives you better impact,” Sulkes said, adding, “We’re really just trying to bring marketing for doctors into the modern era of advertising, meaning that the best brand advertising that’s going on outside of healthcare is very personalized to us all. To not be doing that with doctors is getting behind the eight ball.”