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Healthtech Is the New Healthcare How the leading digital health businesses are marketing during Covid-19.

By Louis Camassa

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

RichLegg | Getty Images

One out of every seven men tends to wait as long as possible to see their doctor. Don't worry guys, you're in good company. Women, conversely, are more health-conscious. They're 33% more likely to visit a doctor when they have a health issue or injury.

Last year was my first experience with telehealth, after about a year of putting off visiting a doctor. I rarely get sick, and it wasn't a mission-critical issue (though it was something I wasn't comfortable discussing with my doctor). Fortunately, I discovered that Blue Shield offered an online portal providing access to healthcare practitioners on demand. After a few clicks, I was live streaming with a nurse practitioner who provided the care I needed. Though the issue was unavoidable (it comes with age), I found the care efficient and enjoyable without the uncomfortableness of a live visit.

Related: Here's The Greatest Barrier to Quality Health Care (and It's Not Pre-Existing Conditions)

Telehealth eliminates wait times, unnecessary travel, and the inconvenience of leaving one's home. Thanks go to COVID-19, which has become a catalyst for traditional and nascent healthcare providers to accelerate their adoption of non-traditional (e.g. digital) services. Certainly, this includes telehealth and telemedicine, but it also personalizes awareness and educational programs that meet patients where they live. And, finally, there's the shift in marketing budgets toward digital campaigns. Though digital ad spend overtook non-digital spend in 2019, the duopoly that is Google and Facebook are battling to serve more ads. For the first time ever, Google is predicting a decline in ad revenue. That slap stings, especially since Facebook is expecting an ad revenue increase by the end of 2020. Both are begrudgingly watching Amazon inch into their territory, kind of like Amazon has been sneaking up on, well, almost everyone else's territory (healthtech included).

Being an avid observer of human behavior, I was curious about how customer research, digital platforms, and marketing strategies have changed for health and wellness brands. Eventually, I enrolled in Dan Ariely's behavioral economics course, Changing Customer Behavior Master Class. Having already interviewed over a dozen marketing professionals, what I learned from the course validated some of what I had already assumed, but insights like "cancer doesn't stop," from Bill Lepler, Director of Marketing Analytics at City of Hope, reminded me that although behaviors have changed, systemic diseases have not.

Know what customers want and success will soon follow

"The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated demand for existing products," said Steven Keller, Steven Keller, Global Director, Digital Marketing and Strategy, Ultrasound and Life Care Solutions, GE Healthcare. "As hospitals were being overrun with patients in critical care units, we forged collaborations with technology and thought leaders like Microsoft and Oregon Health & Science University Hospital to safely connect doctors with patients." This collaboration, and others like it, facilitated safer connections and allowed them to scale up to meet rapidly increasing demand. A much-needed desire from their customers. Additionally, seeing the impact that COVID-19 had on their healthcare customers, Keller and team focused their marketing efforts on providing information to educate and empower, rather than inundating their customers with untimely and sales-style messages.

Knowing what your customers want is key. "Insufficient knowledge is the largest challenge that many companies get wrong," says Matt Dixon, Chief Product & Research Officer of Tethr, a cloud-based conversation intelligence platform. He explained that while design and customer experience management are often executed poorly, it's not because of a deficiency in the team, resources, or tools. Their poor performance results from a lack of insight, knowledge, or data. "Companies still lead with assumptions, and they never go out and test the data. If you throw bodies at your untested assumptions, you'll only get faster at being wrong."

Related: 5 Technological Innovations Changing Medical Practice

The mantra, "fail fast," which Eric Ries popularized in his 2011 book, "The Lean Startup," was largely misunderstood. "Fail fast" focuses on creating agility and increasing velocity through decision making that is rooted in data-backed hypotheses. Dixon's advice is to develop those hypotheses by taking the time to understand what your customers actually want, like, and dislike, not what you think they want. "You're going to be a lot more effective, even with minimal resources, limited tools, and less capital than a company who leads by assumption and sets an army of people pursuing the wrong direction."

Craig Kartchner, AVP of Marketing and Customer Experience at HonorHealth, agrees. One of his first objectives, when he joined HonorHealth, was to develop a deep understanding of the customer. He asked people directly what they wanted and how they wanted it delivered. "We learned, directly from our patients and customers, about their biggest frustrations, biggest barriers and key delight points." Additional questions included the infamous, Start/Stop/Continue framework; what should we start, what should we stop, and what should we continue doing? Perhaps the key insight Kartchner shared lies in what they did with that data. "We gathered a tremendous amount of pain points and ideas on how to improve. So after organizing the list, we went back to the customers and asked them where we should invest." That's getting skin in the game. Now they're running down the list, based on customer feedback and internal insights that align with their brand aspirations. As an additional step, they could take the newly developed improvements and vet them with the customers who recommended them, like a premier beta test group that self-perpetuates brand ambassadorships.

For those with immediate needs who don't have time to prepare and send in a survey, take a page from Chuck Eberl's playbook. He is the Chief Strategy and Marketing Officer at Navvis, a healthcare market innovator and analyst of customer trends. "We thought we weren't generating enough content, so we analyzed our content strategy and compared it to our competitors. What we found was that the only people who were engaging were other vendors."

With that insight, they looked at the people they wanted to sell to and those they were currently reaching. "We could see that there were three categories of content they liked. One was about their company, the second was about their community, and the third was updates from colleagues." He explained how challenging it would have been for them to curate content within those themes, so instead, he explained, "we're taking a sniper-shot approach at finding the right profile of people based upon title and leadership." For B2B brands, LinkedIn comes to mind. Targeting by title, check. Seniority, check. And although LinkedIn (and by extension Microsoft) generates a small sliver of ad spend (3.8% net ad revenue 2019, compared with Google at 37.2%), their targeting opportunities for certain demographics have proven vastly superior.

Identifying unmet customer needs, things that exist but surveys haven't unearthed yet, can also be discovered through cost analysis. Robb Vaules, Vice President of Sales & Marketing at ONRAD, a full-service radiology services provider, explained how they empower rural hospitals. "Many small regional hospitals don't have the volume to staff full-time radiologists. We provide them with capabilities that are flexible and scalable so they can fulfill their radiology needs, remotely, usually within minutes." Even larger hospitals that have the volume use their services for night shifts, again reducing costs and providing relief for overburdened in-house staff. They've adapted and evolved their services to meet their clients' needs, and are planning ahead for the next changes in practices, including the growing need for radiologists since many are retiring from the field. Vaules continued to explain the unique service value ONRAD delivers, which is, in part, transforming healthcare as we know it, "Using the Internet to deliver medical services opens a lot of doors and that's great, but it can (unfortunately) commoditize that same healthcare service. We are changing the way healthcare is provided while also fighting against negative perceptions in regard to changing a model of medical service delivery that has been around for decades, if not longer." Sometimes it's easier to identify unmet customer needs vs. the effort to fulfill them. That's because the very solution to bridging the gap is so innovative, it requires systemic transformation within an industry.

Preference for digital and self-service

Matt Dixon, Chief Product & Research Officer with Tethr, shared a story from a recent webinar he attended. His comments and observations resonated deeply with me. The webinar speaker had said that in the current environment, certain preferences will shoot through the tunnel of time and take root faster than their normal pace. "One of them is the preference for digital and self-service, and telehealth fits into that area."

Tunnel of time indeed. COVID-19 shattered common routines. For many, it felt like a time warp. Courtney Wakefield, Digital Strategy Director at Children's Health, explained that when COVID-19 hit, they couldn't see kids in their clinics, but they still needed to schedule follow-up appointments. "We quickly adapted to strengthening our online visits, and shifted our entire team's focus to developing a patient journey that eased the process of scheduling and explaining how patients can access their virtual visit." She discussed how multiple teams' priorities shifted, literally overnight. Insights, integrated marketing, strategy, and communication teams worked together to map out the new digital service.

Related: What Chadwick Boseman's Death Tells Us About Workplace Healthcare

What was once frowned on by patients and practitioners is now the number one service option, says Mike Maron, President & CEO at Holy Name Medical Center. "Patients love telehealth. It's quick, convenient, and effective. My staff loves it too, for the same reasons. It takes out so many hassles and makes people more productive." Perhaps one of the most important points is that the quality of care is increasing: care is actually better with telehealth. It's also the safest option. "Keeping patients at home reduces the points of accidental contact," Maron said. At the peak, they had over 5K people on home monitoring and virtual connections on telehealth, which is exponentially more than pre-COVID-19. Maron fully recognizes this behavioral shift—so much so that they are investing heavily to expand their entire hospital-at-home platform experience.

Maron wasn't the only one to note how telehealth benefited staff and how they adopted it with open arms. Howard Reis, CEO at The TeleDentists, explained how dentists, many of whom were closed under COVID-19 mandates, flocked to his platform to leverage telehealth for remediation, prescriptions, and emergency visits for their patients. The TeleDentists platform empowers people with dental problems to quickly find on-demand care. If the problem warrants an in-office visit, they can schedule it with a local dentist within 24 to 48 hours. Their platform is unique in that they offer direct access to their network of dentists, and they also offer a whitelabel version that dentists can use in their own practices.

Digital isn't only about software-based healthcare evolutions. It's also about improving and advancing the hardware containing the software. "Interest in small, portable and affordable handheld ultrasound devices, such as Vscan Extend™, have exploded during the pandemic. Primary care and other physicians are already carrying these devices on a daily basis much the same way that doctors have worn a stethoscope around their neck for over 100 years," says Steven Keller, GE Healthcare. Because this technology is easy to use at the point of care and helps to confirm and monitor the progression of acute respiratory and cardiac diseases, it can be useful for clinicians in triaging patients.

As with most modern digital technology - the real magic lies at the intersection of a hardware platform with a data-rich software layer. "There are a lot of protocols and data sources that hospitals can use to help determine the patients most in need of attention," Keller says. He used the example of Mural, GE Healthcare's Virtual Care Solution, that pulls data from multiple devices, and systems in near real-time to present and help clinicians determine which patients should receive attention by digitizing hospital defined protocols.*

The gig economy started with fractional information workers. Now radiologists, dentists, and other healthcare practitioners can work and earn remotely, too. Although telehealth is still undergoing mass adoption compared to pre-COVID-19, the hockey-stick growth chart has receded as many gravitate back to their old routines and preferences. But recent telehealth practices have set a high watermark, and many individuals, both patients and practitioners, will continue to enjoy the benefits of digital care.

Use all marketing channels together

"Marketing and advertising are additive and cumulative — just because there are new digital channels, doesn't mean you don't still use OOH, media, and print," says HonorHealth's Craig Kartchner. He explained that although preferences have shifted (or were forced to shift) to digital, we should use all channels simultaneously. It's not a case of either/or, but AND. Chirag Kulkarni, CMO at Medly Pharmacy, concurred. "It's not either/or, it's about optionality." He also pointed out how marketing and services should be inclusive "although research and common knowledge say older customers resist change, in reality, they are more than happy to change if it benefits them." He used their strategy of providing both phone and digital support, letting their customers choose their preferred channel, as an example.

Karchner went on to explain how marketing is about "determining the time, channel, and message that works best for the customer." Corey R Jentry, Ph.D., Director Of Marketing and Business Development at Iris Healing, agrees. "The challenge is perfecting the message. I don't know anyone who's cracked the code because preferences and interests change as the market changes." The age-old debate of message timing, content, and channel faces the same challenges on digital as it does in traditional media. That said, more companies are increasing their spend on digital platforms, perhaps signaling that they have become the preferred channel. According to Bill Lepler, Director of Marketing Analytics at City of Hope, "Good practice says that there is a mix of awareness building offline and online. Then, in that moment of truth, when the patient needs you, digital comes to the fore in acquisition."

Brands like Compound Solutions, Inc., a distributor of patented ingredients scientifically proven to improve human health and performance, have also been forced to adopt new channels. Brand & Content Manager, Chelsea Airola, explained that two major trade shows used to generate most of their leads and sales. As trade shows were canceled throughout 2020 and some into 2021, Airola worked with her team to spearhead digital marketing transformation. "We were all set for our trade shows. Our booths were ready and our team was prepared. Then COVID-19 happened. We decided to take our strategy online."

She explained how digital marketing has become their sole channel for generating leads. "We adapted our digital strategy to cater to B2B customers through LinkedIn (among others), which has become our best source." She started posting content to their company page, then grew into the paid advertising platform. "COVID-19 has become a catalyst for us to invest in these platforms. We wouldn't have done so before." She says their strategy now extends to Facebook and Instagram, and they are seeing good results. Her opinion was that even when trade shows are back in operation, they may stick with digital and avoid shows altogether. She said, "There is more opportunity to try different things online."

And online events are in vogue now. Case in point, GE decided to transition from traditional trade shows into virtual events. "We recently launched a product, Voluson SWIFT, using a virtual launch platform that empowered attendees to navigate through rooms, interact with videos and augmented reality demonstrations, and listen to speeches by clinical experts," says GE Healthcare's Steven Keller. He and his team launched this virtual event using social and paid media, as well as sending physical invitations to select customers for a personal touch.

Early adopters are quintessential for launching novel technologies, solutions, services, or products. Remember how many people said they would never get into a stranger's car (Uber), or stay in a stranger's house (Airbnb), or buy groceries online (Instacart)? Once initial inertia is overcome by those early adopters, fear subsides and other users flock to the new services. Telehealth is no different. Perhaps the fears and privacy concerns are stronger, but as with all innovations in the past, early adopters, with the help of COVID-19, have accelerated their acceptance.

Louis Camassa

Managing Partner of EMPATH

Louis Camassa has led teams in fostering brand innovation to drive growth. He has advised over 150 brands, taking two marketing technology companies to acquisition.

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