As both the current President of the Triangle Interactive Marketing Association (TIMA), and the Marketing Communications Manager at iContact, interesting topics and emerging industry trends are always on my radar in terms of interactive. TIMA has always been an organization focusing heavily on changes in the interactive space, and while healthcare has been a hot topic of discussion for quite a while, what isn’t being talked about is the surprising lack of resources allocated by pharmaceutical (“pharma”) and healthcare providers towards digital marketing initiatives. In fact, only about 5% of marketing dollars in pharma are being utilized to support consumer marketing via digital. In 2012, analysts are predicting that consumers will continue transitioning from TV and radio, to online sources as their preferred method of research and news. Not surprisingly, medical doctors and other industry professionals are also following suit, with a reported 70% of M.D.’s preferring online courses over classroom continuing education.
On Wednesday, February 8th, TIMA hosted a lunch and learn discussion panel in downtown Raleigh, NC called “Healthcare Marketing: The Interactive Impact, ” moderated by Richard Schwartz, the Executive Director of WebMD, and accompanied by Jeff Hill, Director of Digital Strategy and Technology for MedThink Communications; Dave Harrell, Owner of Dave Harrell Advertising; and Andre Blackman, Director of Digital Communications and New Media for the American Heart Association. The primary focus during the discussion revolved around the fact that given the move to more digital media, how can healthcare marketers effectively engage consumers, while balancing tight budgets, industry skepticism and the over looming topic of patient privacy?
Richard Schwartz of WebMD opened the session with an interesting point:
“eMarketer estimates ‘US online ad spending will reach nearly 40 billion in 2012… pushing it ahead of total spending on print newspapers and magazines,’ but only 5% of marketing dollars are spent on digital consumer marketing, with another 2% targeting medical professionals.”
This simple yet terrifying fact highlights the single most important aspect of healthcare marketing today — while more and more consumers are adopting digital media, healthcare organizations are cutting back or maintaining the status quo on overall marketing budgets, while allocating unrealistic budgets to digital initiatives.
What healthcare marketers are beginning to realize, is that usage trends are changing. It’s reported that three quarters of the US population has performed online research related to their own personal health, while 82% of doctors refer to the internet as essential. WebMD.com has seen traffic trends in the past that showed usage trends starting high in the mornings, then dip rather low in the mid-afternoon and back up after work hours, as dinner and family obligations lessen. According to today’s internet usage statistics on WebMD, they are now seeing a steady amount of traffic across the entire day, as more and more patients and doctors log onto the website for reference data and research both at work and at home. The panelists all agreed that there are potential opportunities to being able to serve customized messaging and products/services in a manner that preserves the anonymity of the visiting patients and doctors, especially through electronic medical records (EMR) systems, a form of Customer Relationship Management (CRM) known to industries outside of healthcare.
But in light of such trends and current consumer behaviors, why are healthcare organizations still reluctant to invest in digital? The answer is more common than you think, and yet makes little sense to digital marketers. It’s all about “status quo” and perception. While traditional radio, TV and sales representatives are visibly seen by consumers and patients alike, the industry is used to and comfortable with the qualitative aspect of measurement over quantitative. Meaning, that while it’s harder to measure the return-on-investment (ROI) of a TV ad, it ultimately was seen (marketers call this an “impression”). This is no different from Coke placing billboards at a sporting event or on the highway. Coke knows you won’t turn your car around and buy a coke at that very moment, but they assume you at least saw the advertisement and may want a Coke later.
Healthcare marketing managers are tasked with building digital marketing strategies with extremely limited marketing spend, a drastic contrast to most other industries adopting digital media. Healthcare executives are less adept to invest in a medium where regulations have not kept up with the latest digital technologies. So instead of leading the way, many healthcare organizations are playing it safe and only “testing the waters” in limited ways. The entire panel agreed in consensus that while there aren’t any more regulations governing the healthcare industry via digital media, the fact that digital involves a two-way channel rather than a traditional “push and forget” channel — horrifies most healthcare executives.
So what do the panelists suggest? It’s quite simple actually. As a healthcare marketer, it’s critical to understand that the patient is now in charge, and that organizations should strive to always be relevant, simple and transparent. Through the use of Twitter, Facebook, blogs, online communities and email marketing, healthcare marketers can educate, engage and evangelize supporters through much more cost effective and measurable methods via digital. It was stated best, when a panelist mentioned that “everything in digital is measureable, but why would you want to measure it if it’s not relevant?”
In regards to negative feedback, brand managers and digital marketers shouldn’t be afraid of such feedback either, as they should use the feedback as cost-effective channels for case studies to further improve their products and services. In fact, one of my most popular tweets during the session summarized this point best in that, “[online] brand reputation is about engagement, not rainbows.”
Obviously, the discussion could have gone for hours, days and even weeks since healthcare is such a broad and all encompassing topic. We were fortunate to have such a top notch panel of experts at the session, and we look forward to the future as digital media continues to evolve every industry and field. After spending several hours with Richard, Jeff, Dave and Andre for dinner the night before, and an hour glued to their discussions, I’ve gained some valuable insights into how other industries handle their marketing strategies, and so leave you with these simple questions to ponder about your own strategies:
- Regardless of your industry, are you providing relevant value to your target audience?
- According to your strategy, who’s actually in control — you or the consumers?
- Are you educating, engaging and empowering your audience? Or just pushing content to them?
- Is your digital strategy robust and holistic enough to navigate your organization through the digital landscape?
Outside of my responsibilities at iContact and TIMA, I volunteer heavily in the field of alcohol and drug abuse prevention. The nonprofits, communities and coalitions that I work with are in fact specific forms of healthcare providers, and the state of North Carolina is at the forefront of the digital marketing evolution within the field. Through their use of email marketing, optimized website design and social media integration, many of our state’s top prevention and treatment agencies are leading the way in digital marketing, while maintaining a very simple set of goals for success: provide relevant information, educate the public and engage their patients and advocates. It is my sincerest hope that more and more healthcare providers begin to loosen their reigns, increase their budgets for, and begin to engage through social media channels, because in the end, we all win.