Can Marketing Research Save Lives?
You will probably find very little if you search for articles on the value of market research. Yet most of us who conduct or use market research know that it can have enormous value when conducted and used properly. It can help companies increase demand for their products and become more profitable, improve brand image, develop messaging strategies that motivate purchase, and target messages more effectively.
And, sometimes, market research can save lives. Much of this life-saving research comes from the public sector, which conducts social marketing research or “research for good,” but it can also come from private sector companies promoting goods and services that serve a social good.
There are many examples of market research that have guided successful advertising and outreach campaigns in such areas as heart disease and cancer prevention, smoking cessation, diet and exercise, and early treatment of diseases like HIV/AIDS.
All of these campaigns have saved lives.
During the mid-1980s, I – along with my colleagues at a San Francisco research firm – saw the results of a study tracking the success of the first-ever HIV/AIDS prevention program – a program based on recommendations from a benchmark study we had completed nine months earlier.
The results were startling: Nearly nine in ten Gay and Bisexual men in San Francisco had adopted safer sex practices or cut down on the number of sex partners during the nine-month interval between the two studies. At first, the change seemed too good to be true, but the study had been carefully conducted with built-in controls and validity checks, and we had been able to connect positive changes in sexual behavior with recall of specific messages. We even conducted a separate study to double-check the results of the first study, which was a longitudinal survey conducted among the same respondents at two points in time, to rule out the possibility that these positive effects were the result of the first interview and, instead, were evidence of positive change.
But the real confirmation of the power of our work came a few years later when epidemiologists reported a substantial drop in new HIV infections that could be traced to time of the campaign. Then, we knew that our research had, indeed, helped save lives.
The marketing research had showed that many Gay and bisexual men were unhappy with the promiscuous lifestyle that was the norm in San Francisco’s Gay community. They yearned for more stable and meaningful relationships but were afraid that this would estrange them from their friends. Thus, the communications campaign sought to convince Gays that there was growing support for safe sex and monogamy.
Ironically, more than ten years later, I found myself conducting focus group research for a major metropolitan church, whose pastor had performed a Gay ceremony of commitment and whose pledges had dropped as a result. Every focus group moderator knows that they need to mask their emotions no matter what the respondents say. Although I had moderated many groups in past on every conceivable topic, this was a real test for me since I had played a major role not only in conducting the survey research in San Francisco but in formulating the recommendations for Gay monogamy (at the time, no one would have been brave enough to suggest marriage). Thus, I was really pleased when one of the strongest opponents of the pastor’s action took me aside after the groups to thank me encouraging him to express himself despite objections from more liberal members of the congregation.
Since the early HIV/AIDS research, I have been involved in a many other successful prevention and social marketing campaigns on such topics as heart disease, cancer, early treatment of various diseases, transit ridership, early treatment of HIV, many conservation topics, and checkups; but one study stands out.
This study was conducted as part of an intervention in Wellsburg, West Virginia, which had the highest rate of heart disease in the nation. It was conducted as part of a wellness program sponsored by Bayer and Hill and Knowlton Public Relations. The baseline survey showed the depth of the problem: poor diets, smoking and lack of exercise. It also suggested programmatic and communication strategies for reaching and convincing residents to take advantage of the Wellness Program change their lifestyles. It also showed barriers to healthy changes among different segments of the population and recommended targeted communications to these segments.
This intervention offered residents the opportunity to participate in a Wellness Program. Not only were participation rates high, but statistics and physiological measurements taken among participants showed significant improvement. A tracking survey, conducted after about one year, showed that there had been profound changes in attitudes, behavioral intentions and behavior in the community as a whole. As would be expected, these effects were strongest for participants, but nonparticipants, especially the great majority of those aware of the Program, also showed improvement.
The Affordable Care Act in California
The performance of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has varied dramatically by state. In general, states that created their own exchanges and supported them with marketing and outreach campaigns have been more successful both overall and in reaching the young and healthy. Like all health insurance programs, a certain percentage of healthy people is necessary to maintain the financial health of the system and make reasonable rates possible.
One of the most successful states has been California. I was extremely fortunate to be deeply involved in the research that guided Covered California’s marketing and outreach campaign. I worked in a collaborative arrangement with NORC at the University of Chicago to design, implement and develop very specific recommendations that were used by Covered California’s advertising and public relations agencies. This involved defining segments, according to both targetable characteristics (demographics, geographics, media behavior, etc.) and non-targetable characteristics (product-specific motivations, lifestyles, and attitudes) and identifying potentially effective messages for each segment.
The Washington Post named California as the “best state in America” for its smooth rollout of the ACA. More than 2.5 million people signed up for coverage during the first six months of open enrollment; and more than 42 percent of those eligible to sign up, did so. Medicaid enrollment jumped almost 16 percent, but “California was one of only six states to grow their private insurance rolls more than their Medicaid numbers, even though they accepted federal dollars to expand Medicaid.”
There was even better news: A survey by the Commonwealth Fund  showed that the percentage of Californians without health insurance was cut in half during the Covered California’s first open enrollment period (from 22% to 11%). By contrast, the U.S. uninsured rate dropped just 25 percent (from 20% to 15%). Clearly, a number of factors, including Covered California’s relatively bug-free website, contributed to this dramatic drop in the uninsured rate; but it is also clear that its research-based advertising and outreach program played a major role.
The percentage of Californians without health insurance has continued to decline. At the end of the 2018 enrollment period, the uninsured rate stood at 7.2%, compared to 22% before the ACA was launched. Despite efforts to dismantle the ACA, it continued to decline during 2018 (7.6% to 7.2%). Only two other states, New York and Louisiana, experienced declines during 2018 .
All of this experience has confirmed what I first learned years ago in San Francisco: Well-designed, properly conducted and intelligently used market research can, indeed, save lives. The secret to all of these studies was the appropriate use of advanced analytics to precisely address the questions the marketers and communicators needed to answer.
Please contact me if you would like to learn more about marketing research that can achieve great things for government, business, and not-for-profit organizations.
 Reid Wilson. “The best state in America: California for its smooth rollout of the Affordable Care Act.” The Washington Post, June 26, 2014.
 Chad Terhune. “Rate of uninsured Californians is halved under Obamacare, survey finds.” The Los Angeles Times, July 10, 2014.
 Phil Galewitz. “California’s Uninsured Rate Declined Last Year Despite Federal Efforts to Roll Back ACA,” California Healthline, September 12, 2018.