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What Can Health IT Marketers Learn From Our Pharmacy Peers?

When I heard that the second annual Future of Pharma Marketing Conference (#FutureofPharmaMarketing) was once again being held in Toronto, I jumped at the opportunity to learn something new (and share my findings with the HITMC community, of course!). So for two days, I immersed myself with a rather vocal group of pharma marketers, and listened to what they had to say about marketing.

Here are seven things I learned:

1. Give your “creative velocity” real thought.

What exactly is “creative velocity,” and why do we need to think about it?

According to Neil Follett, President at Brightworks, a Toronto based agency that works with pharma clients, creative velocity is the time it takes to go from idea to deployment. The clock starts ticking from the moment a new idea is formulated – be it in the shower or in a brainstorming session with colleagues – and encompasses all the time needed to get executive buy-in, budget allocated, resources assigned to the project as well as actual execution.

Follett said that for most industries, creative velocity is increasing, meaning the time between marketing idea and implementation is shrinking. Take for example the fast food industry and in particular Wendy’s. Over the past couple of years, the Wendy’s social media team has been on fire with clever responses to Tweets about their competitors, like this one:

The creative velocity at Wendy’s is very high. There is almost no delay between idea and execution. Their social media team can respond without having to run their tweets up to a VP to get approval before posting it.

Unfortunately, creative velocity in healthcare is heading the wrong way according to Follett – we are slowing down. Legal, finance, C-suite, sales, patient relations, and others all want input and the power to veto any marketing communication/campaign. Although this level of oversight may be necessary given the regulatory environment, having so many stakeholders makes for a slow marketing process. It can take days, if not weeks, to get all the proper approvals.

Successful healthcare marketers, in pharma or otherwise, must find ways to maximize their creative velocity and bring great ideas to production as quickly as possible. Those that do, will outperform their competitors.

2. In pharma, SEO isn’t just “good marketing;” it’s a moral imperative.

A very interesting question was posed by a #FutureofPharmaMarketing presenter:

As marketers in pharma, do we not have a moral imperative to ensure that the scientifically accurate information about our product is what shows up first in a Google search?

Consider this: If you’re like most of the world, when your doctor gives you a new medication, you Google it. We all want to know things like – Who else has taken this? What are the side effects? Follett stated emphatically that pharma companies need to ensure their own website appears at the top of Google searches for medications they bring to market.

How awful (and potentially harmful) would it be if patients found a misleading “study” that recommended using the medication in a way that wasn’t intended or to a site created by a former employee claiming the medication isn’t safely manufactured.

There’s a great takeaway here for marketers in non-pharma healthcare. We are responsible for products and services that impact patients, clinicians and administrators. So do we not owe it to our clients to ensure that the information found is a common search is credible and accurate? I believe the answer is yes.

I must admit I never looked at SEO in this way before and now I’m not sure I’ll ever look at it the same way again.

A little bit of caution here. There is a distinction between false + inaccurate information and someone expressing a difference of opinion. A patient that posts how a medication didn’t work for them isn’t creating fake news – that is their opinion and a factual statement. A post from a former employee that your app causes epileptic seizures because it is designed so poorly, yet has no link to a credible study that demonstrates this – that is a false and unscientific statement.

The latter should be fought (not just because it causes reputation damage), but because you owe it to the person who HASN’T yet used your app but who would benefit immensely from it. If that person reads an inaccurate story about your app and decides to forgo its use, that would be a tragedy.

3. Healthcare doesn’t grant us immunity from providing good customer experiences.

I heard someone at the conference say, “Just because we’re in healthcare, that doesn’t mean we get a pass when it comes to customer experience or digital experience.” Booking an appointment should be as easy as booking a flight or hotel. And there’s really no reason it can’t be, with the right tools and budget.

Patients shouldn’t have to tolerate a subpar healthcare experiences.

4. We need to move beyond “digital transformation” and begin thinking about “experiential transformation.”

I know I don’t have to tell HITMC readers that “digital transformation” is one of the latest industry buzzwords. But the term implies that the onus is on technology, not people, to create better experiences. That’s the wrong focus.

As marketers the technology and channel should be secondary to the experiences we create. People don’t want to engage on social media, they want their opinions and voices heard. People don’t want interactive videos, they want to consume content that is relevant to their specific situation.

Follet put it well: “Digital is a channel not a strategy. We don’t go around asking people what their paper strategy is or what their in-person strategy is. Digital is just a delivery channel. It’s all about connecting with your target audience through the channel they prefer.”

Furthermore, healthcare needs to put more focus on the experience of patients rather than on the digital technologies used to deliver care. We can get caught up sometimes in our own excitement over new medical and Health IT technologies that we lose sight of what’s really important – namely the experience of patients.

5. Marketing is the new sales.

When marketing is done right, sales should be easy. In years past, a salesperson was needed to open doors (or literally knock on them) and engage with prospects. Nowadays a well executed marketing campaign can achieve the same results – leaving your sales team to focus on the prospects that are ready to buy NOW.

To achieve this, marketers need to map every step of their buyer’s journey and ensure that they have relevant, useful materials at each step.

Martin Husar, Director Digital Transformation, Allergan Canada, noted, “We need to clearly map how and what we need for the local market. That’s the only way you’ll be able to be effective.”

6. Know when to stop.

Think about this. When was the last time you stopped marketing to a specific target or group? We collect analytics all the time, and we know some campaigns work better than others. We are adept at tweaking those campaigns based on the analytics, but how often do we stop a campaign without first exhausting all options?

The answer is not often. Healthcare marketers in pharma (and I would say all marketers in healthcare) should using as much rigour and analysis in ending ineffective campaigns as they do justifying why they should start a new one. Stopping a campaign quickly can be as beneficial as starting up a new one.

Husar wisely said, “We need to stay agile – test and iterate. You can’t just go all in on one strategy or on one channel; you have to remain flexible and give yourself the ability to engage/disengage quickly if your metrics are telling you that it isn’t working.”

7. It’s not all rainbows and cotton candy in pharma marketing.

Okay, fine. Pharma does have big budgets and well staffed teams (at least compared to Health IT and healthcare organizations). But that doesn’t mean it’s a wonderland of bottomless marketing resources and champagne receptions on yachts.

In some jurisdictions like Canada, you can’t market directly to patients. Instead, you have to go through care providers to drive sales. This means relying on a “go-between” (a physician or practice) that has a lot of other priorities that are more important than helping you gain market share.

To be successful in this type of market, you need to artfully describe how your product helps their patients. This requires education, and lots of it, rather than clever TV commercials or media campaigns. This was not something I had considered when looking jealously at the budgets of our pharma marketing brethren.

I was surprised and delighted to hear from #FutureofPharmaMarketing attendees that they perceive themselves to be behind in the adoption of digital technology: “Pharma is the least digital savvy market, far behind other industries”. I know that I’ve said the same thing about the Health IT market…which just goes to show you that everyone has the same problems in healthcare. I take solace knowing that even pharma marketers, who have 10x the budgets we have, struggle with the same challenges.

An enjoyable educational experience

I thoroughly enjoyed the #FutureofPharmaMarketing conference. I found the principles and strategies they use to market and reach their target audience translatable to Health IT and general healthcare marketing. I also learned that pharma marketers aren’t all that different – we have similar challenges and frustrations. I found that oddly comforting.

About the author


Colin Hung

Colin Hung is an award-winning Marketing Executive with more than 15yrs of healthcare and HealthIT experience. He co-founded one of the most popular healthcare chats on Twitter, #hcldr and he has been recognized as one of the “Top 50 Healthcare IT Influencers”. Colin’s work has been published in the Journal of the American College of Radiology, American Society for Healthcare Risk Managers, and Infection Control Today. He writes regularly for Healthcare Scene and here at Colin is a member of #pinksock #TheWalkingGallery and is proudly HITMC. His Twitter handle is: @Colin_Hung.

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