The new Medicare prescription drug benefit presents major marketing challenges for both the competing drug plans and officials at CMS and SSA. While the feds must conduct a massive outreach campaign to educate 43 million Medicare beneficiaries about the complex program, the drug plan sponsors must market their plan designs, which vary widely in delivery, cost sharing, and formularies.

With over 2,000 drug plan options across the country and each beneficiary having to select among 40-50+ plan designs in their own regions, the marketing challenges are extraordinary. Add to this the intricate, anti-intuitive program design set up by Congress in the Medicare Modernization Act and how Part D handles the dual eligibles, low-income seniors, retirees with employer sponsored drug coverage, veterans, and others all differently – and, well, you have the makings of quite a mess.

Yet, the challenges don’t end there. The Medicare population is not homogeneous, media stereotypes notwithstanding. Beneficiaries vary widely by income, assets, age, disability status, setting, ethnicity, and existing drug coverage. Almost 70 percent already have prescription drug coverage without Part D. Those without drug coverage are a diverse mix of rich and poor, healthy and sick, active and isolated, urban and rural. As a group, American seniors are one of the wealthiest cohorts in world history but among them, there are many low-income seniors struggling every day.

In terms of race and ethnicity, African Americans and Latinos make up 15 percent of Medicare’s beneficiaries ages 65 and older and 27 percent of Medicare’s under-65 disabled beneficiaries. However, while less than a third of white beneficiaries are sufficiently low in income to qualify for federal drug subsidies, over 60 percent of African Americans and Latinos on Medicare may qualify for the low-income subsidy. While a sizable majority of all Medicare beneficiaries have access to drug coverage without Part D, African American and Latino beneficiaries are more likely to have no drug coverage now. In addition, the vulnerable dual eligible population, with its 6.5 million souls, is disproportionately African American or Latino beneficiaries.

Traditional, television-centric marketing tactics are necessary but not sufficient to reach Medicare’s diverse population and offer the benefits of Part D, particularly the substantial savings available through the low-income subsidy. To differentiate themselves in a crowded market and maximize both enrollment and retention, Medicare prescription drug plans need to adopt a more sophisticated, multi-facetted array of marketing tactics and mediums. Among them, viral or word-of-mouth marketing is essential. In addition to being extremely effective in situations like this, the costs and risks are low.