Health Plans, Strategy, Media

Mastering Medicare AEP: Budgets, Brands, and Brokers

MERGE unpacks the key takeaways from the 2024 AEP and explores actionable insights for healthcare organizations with eyes on 2025 and beyond.

BY: Jim Porter | EVP, Managing Director Healthcare Practice

PUBLISHED: 2/14/2024

The Annual Enrollment Period (AEP) is a pivotal time for seniors and the healthcare industry. Marked by a high volume of marketing activity and strategic maneuvering, the AEP is an opportunity for healthcare organizations to expand their membership base, bolster revenues, and enhance brand reputation. 

In a broad sense, the goal for Medicare providers should be to develop customized strategies tailored to their particular Medicare plan, considering both the market landscape and, in particular, senior population demographics. The approach should evaluate those tactics generating responsive leads and enrollments (especially via phone calls) against any new budget considerations or product changes. These considerations should also be weighed against evolving marketplace, media, and consumer trends.

To help organizations better understand and navigate the intricacies of the AEP, our team at MERGE examines some of the prevailing challenges and triumphs we experienced during the latest AEP.

What Spurred Success During the 2024 AEP?

- Integrating upper funnel brand tactics, such as Connected TV: This approach has become increasingly popular among senior audiences and offers precise targeting capabilities. Plans can also be incorporated into the local community through customized segments that feature them and local personalities on local news stations.
- Improved brand and product offerings: Many organizations that had invested in building a stronger brand and product offering were able to transition from top-of-funnel marketing to more targeted channels effectively. This strategic move was complemented by a sharpened geographical focus. For some Medicare Advantage (MA) providers, concentrating their efforts on areas where brand familiarity has been fostered enabled these organizations to better leverage their local presence for targeted success.
- Broker relationships: Broker relationships once again played a critical role in the success for healthcare organizations during the AEP. Stories of surpassing enrollment goals through product enhancement and direct mail campaigns highlighted the effectiveness of broker incentive programs. As such, the continued significance of brokers in the sales process has reinforced prioritizing phone calls over form fills as a more impactful means of communication and engagement, particularly during the later stages of the AEP. 

What Were Some Of the Obstacles?

- Bigger budgets – kind of: Coming out of the latest AEP, and against the backdrop of budget reductions, many healthcare organizations demonstrated remarkable resilience by achieving record leads and enrollments despite financial constraints. Of course, the advantage went to those that have developed enhancements to their plans, offering a competitive advantage in a saturated healthcare market. When plans are less competitive, marketers need to get creative in order to find other ways to compete.
- Underdeveloped tech/automation: The handling of digital leads posed a significant hurdle for some, highlighting areas for potential technological improvements and automation. Some organizations have also had to grapple with how to ensure their marketing teams (and the budgets at their disposal) get credit for enrollments that come in through indirect channels. Improved enrollment through broker channels can have a positive impact, though it can falsely make budgets appear inefficient if your organization only receives credit for direct enrollments.
- The phone-call centric approach: In some cases, Medicare marketers are more aligned to a call-centric conv necessitate adjustments in creative, landing pages, and marketing timelines. With that, compliance with CMS regulations and tightening timelines adds an additional layer of complexity to the process, particularly for lead generation on social media.

Align Your Product Portfolio and Media Mix

Though having a handle on the trends that contributed to success and served as barriers is important following a given AEP, understanding your own product portfolio and tailor-fitting the right media mix for your organization is just as critical. For Medicare providers, a diverse product portfolio can present its own opportunities and obstacles. For one organization, an array of offerings can present challenges that impact preparation time, necessitating strategic adjustments. On the flip side, the same diverse product range can also offer the potential for broader market reach and customer engagement.

For one MERGE client, navigating these challenges required a shift in strategy, with an emphasis on brand-centricity over direct response in the initial stages of their campaign. Despite facing hurdles with the absence of member information, the organization’s focus remained on strengthening the brand and its offerings. In the end, a brand-focused approach helped overcome those initial data setbacks, laying the groundwork for future success. Moreover, it also underscored the importance of having a robust data management system in place to facilitate effective decision-making and strategy formulation.

For this client, the performance metrics for MA were especially impressive, demonstrating significant growth in memberships through efficient media spending. This success was achieved by leveraging a comprehensive media mix that excluded traditional TV, underlining the effectiveness of digital channels in reaching and engaging target audiences. 

In this case, paid social media emerged as a cost-effective channel, offering a lower cost per call compared to direct mail. But it’s not a silver bullet. Social media, particularly Facebook, is capable of generating a high volume of leads at low costs, though many organizations have reported struggles with conversion to enrollments. A cautious approach to social media, with a focus on lead quality and conversion, is generally recommended. Ultimately, the right approach boils down to your organization having a true and extensive understanding of the brand and the products in your portfolio, and applying a media mix that is suited to optimize your offerings.

The Wrap

With eyes toward AEP 2025, themes related to budget optimization and strategic focus, understanding your product portfolio and media mix, and balancing your broker relationships serve as key takeaways coming out of AEP 2024.

In the end, there is no universal solution. But, by applying and adapting these insights to tailor-fit your offerings to your audiences, healthcare organizations can successfully navigate the evolving landscape of annual enrollment, driving growth and enhancing their brand reputation in the years to come.