News and views to improve the strength and vigor of all your direct response marketing activity.

Editor’s Note: Renee Mezzanotte, DMW EVP of Client Experience, was a featured contributor to a recent article in RADAR on Medicare Advantage, covering this year’s Annual Enrollment Period (AEP). The RADAR article is reprinted with permission following added insights from Renee about the fast-approaching Medicare Open Enrollment Period (OEP).

During the AEP it can be difficult to focus on the coming year’s SEPs (Special Enrollment Periods), but it is a critical next step. In the best case, in October, most New to Medicare campaign assets should be updated and going into the market for continuity of communication and to ensure those “Medicare Newbies” know of your 2021 plan benefits. But that is just the beginning of post-AEP marketing activity!

For many marketers, all SEP activity, starting with the January to March OEP, can account for 40% to 50% of their plan’s annual member goal. Reaching that ultimate enrollment number takes planning and action that starts during the fall AEP. Below are just a few strategies to make the most of the upcoming months:

  • Widen your general acquisition appeal to include late retirees, individuals who may have lost their work benefits due to the pandemic, and others who may be eligible through an SEP (e.g., new movers). This encompasses all media channels — digital, direct mail, and TV.
  • Affiliation letters, while often seen as an AEP tactic, are also ideal to support your new-year efforts. Given the right prompting and materials, providers may mail or email their patients during OEP/SEP. I’m sure patients who may still be struggling with their Medicare choices would appreciate it.
  • Customer service, field reps, and agents — keep them informed about any SEPs due to FEMA’s declaration of an emergency or disaster. Even though CMS prohibits “marketing” this type of SEP, you’ll want your frontline colleagues to be knowledgeable about what to do if a consumer asks about it. A well-crafted statement on your website may be advisable, also.
  • Include factual educational information regarding the rules around SEPs and OEP in both your website and social media channels.
  • Don’t forget your members! Email and mail members to explain key benefits (new benefits, in particular) and encourage usage. This not only helps retain members, it also bolsters member satisfaction which can help improve member’s response to the CAHPS survey. In fact — clueing them in that they may receive the CAHPS survey is a good strategy: We’ve also carefully crafted messaging to encourage positive feedback, in a totally compliant fashion. And do ask your members for referrals — particularly if you have added new benefits your members may be enjoying early in the year.
  • And still: COVID-19. Lastly, but importantly, have a detailed plan for the pandemic which promises to be with us for some time into 2021. Be a source for factual vaccine communication to your members and the public. These are troubling and confusing times — your ongoing guidance is important for the health of your members and to everyone in your community.

Marketers Report Slow Start to AEP, Rise in Digital Channels

By Lauren Flynn Kelly

Reprinted with AIS Health’s permission from their December 17, 2020 issue of RADAR on Medicare Advantage.

Preliminary observations from several Medicare Advantage marketing experts indicate that during the 2021 Medicare Annual Election Period (AEP), consumers were slow to make enrollment decisions early on, and switching may not have been at the levels witnessed in recent years. At the same time, social distancing precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic led to significant traffic in the digital space, possibly signaling a permanent shift in how Medicare consumers shop for coverage.

Cavulus, a technology firm that serves the MA industry, in early November noticed a “slower start to AEP due to the ongoing pandemic and [MA] marketing efforts coinciding with substantial presidential campaign advertising,” says Patrick Phillips, the firm’s CEO. In a Nov. 5 press release, the company observed that while call centers were busy, most callers were asking clarification-type questions about potential changes to their existing insurer’s offerings, and said it expected comparative shopping among competing insurers to ramp up as the AEP neared its end.

The AEP ran from Oct. 15 to Dec. 7. CMS’s December release of enrollment data — which reflects enrollments accepted through Nov. 6 — “shows largely stable trends” with total Medicare enrollment up 9.4% year over year, driven by 10.5% year-over-year growth in the individual MA market and 4.8% year-over-year growth in the group MA market, estimates Barclays analyst Steve Valiquette. CMS in September estimated that enrollment in MA will jump 10% to an “all-time high” of 26.9 million beneficiaries; that number stood at 25.5 million as of the December data release.

“The data aren’t finalized, but it appears most beneficiaries continued their existing coverage,” Phillips tells AIS Health via email. “Covid concerns are likely the primary driver of consumer behavior; members opted for what they know, rather than introducing the additional uncertainty of new coverage and provider networks.”

Diane Hollie, vice president of sales, marketing and strategy with Gorman Health Group (GHG), tells AIS Health that clients were initially saying the AEP was underperforming. Things picked up after the election, although not all clients met their goals and many are looking to the Open Enrollment Period (OEP) that starts in January “and the age-ins to really pick up where they didn’t get to in AEP,” she says. Meanwhile, some clients exceeded their goals. As for switching, Hollie says GHG witnessed some but “not as much as we’ve seen in the past” and that it occurred mostly during the back half of AEP after the election.

“Closely monitoring response and optimizing across channels was critical,” says Renee Mezzanotte, executive vice president for client engagement with DMW Direct. “Being nimble and moving quickly ensured plans could maximize the impact of their budget — particularly around the election and the last couple of weeks of AEP.” Those plans that placed a heightened emphasis on “pre-heat marketing” saw greater consumer engagement and leads early in the AEP, she adds. But a mid-AEP slowdown caused some plans to reprioritize their marketing efforts, weighs in Hollie. “And a lot of what we saw is digital really outperformed this AEP, which was kind of expected with the fact that…people were worried about meeting in person,” she says. And although direct mail did well, it did not have the response GHG has seen in the past.

“When we look at sales, we can see how many people actually touched through the digital channel,” says Hollie, referring to any combination of online broker partnerships, paid search and Facebook or other digital ads. “In particular, Facebook performed extremely well,” she says. In a Dec. 10 research note, Evercore ISI said it is “fairly bullish” on AEP results so far for the online broker group, which includes eHealth, GoHealth and SelectQuote.

“I believe digital came into its own this year,” says Lindsay Resnick, executive vice president with Wunderman Thompson Health. “Last week Google reported that search activity for ‘Medicare Advantage’ was about 13% higher during this year’s AEP compared to last, so it’s no surprise that MA plans saw digital activity increase (particularly when you see what happened with seniors’ rapid adoption of digital health’s telemedicine),” he tells AIS Health via email.

Plans Upped Their Digital Investment

“The increase in digital shopping is also highly correlated with the prompting from direct mail and TV,” continues Resnick. “Search and social continue to be effective lead generators with paid social making gains throughout AEP. Once it looked like COVID would extend through AEP, forward-thinking plans invested in their digital experience. Lead aggregators also focused on this channel.”

Based on his interactions with MA plan clients, Resnick says attendance for virtual webinars was down in comparison to in-person seminars that have taken place in prior years, call centers were busy, and “as in years past, direct mail was the workhorse and responses from this channel were robust.” From Mezzanotte’s perspective, “consumers definitely were more comfortable interacting online,” and the “early preparation by health plans paid off with consumers joining online seminars and enrolling online.” Most of DMW’s clients saw online enrollments increase from last year, while digital marketing played a “big part in the media mix.” Mezzanotte points out that there was also “less ‘noise’ on Facebook (one of the most effective channels) because Facebook did not allow political advertising.”

Overall, Resnick says he believes the AEP was more active than he expected it to be given members’ potential reluctance to switch plans during a pandemic. “While there may have been some of this, people were staying home and had time to shop,” he notes. “Plus, particularly after the election, Medicare TV ads were ever present. There was a noticeable uptick in TV ads from ‘aggregators’ — FMOs or EMOs [field marketing organizations or electronic marketing organizations] that sell multiple carriers or companies that sell leads.”

Mezzanotte adds that a few final-stretch AEP strategies — alongside the marketing that was already planned to be in the marketplace (e.g., digital, direct response TV and mail) — that worked for DMW clients included:

  • “Select use of an incentive to capture the attention of consumers who may have procrastinated or were distracted by the election,
  • Increased marketing during the Thanksgiving holiday (Wednesday through the weekend) to raise awareness right before the busiest application submission time, and
  • Outreach to members who disenrolled to notify them of their disenrollment and to ensure that was their intention.”

Looking ahead to the OEP, plans will have to figure out how they can increase their budget and try to get additional sales, adds Hollie. This means “getting out your branding, increasing your aging-in budget, doing some additional touches for increasing your digital during that period of time to try and address those that did not get a chance to select during AEP,” she says.

“It’ll be interesting to see how OEP goes this year because from what we saw, premiums were very consistent, benefits were very consistent, and in fact many plans increased their benefits this year, so it’ll be interesting to see what the drivers are for making people change during OEP,” adds Hollie.

For more information, contact Hollie at, Mezzanotte at, Phillips via Paul Luc at or Resnick via Heidi Kreamer at