Are we living in a ‘postmodern healthcare marketing world’?

It is safe to say that most communications professionals have learnt the fundamentals of today’s changing environment: communication is now a two-way model; using social media presents the opportunity to tell human stories and enhance online presence; content is king; and we are all moving towards transparency, supported by well-earned public trust. But has everything changed? Does every customer crave an enticing experience, and do they really want to engage with brands through self-expression all the time?

‘Postmodern marketing’ is a term I have come across quite often in opinion pieces, articles and blog posts. Although many dismiss it as an intellectual ‘fad’, postmodernism is present in many academic disciplines, marketing being one of them.

Chris Bilton, a cultural studies specialist at Warwick University suggests that the term came about when several marketers established that the predictions and certainties that ‘modern marketing’ puts forth are no longer applicable: simple demographics are no longer a reliable way to carry out market segmentation analyses, as society is no longer bound to one particular place, class, or even ethnicity. Within the communications landscape, this is even more evident due to the rise of emerging channels such as social media platforms and mobile applications. Thus, so called ‘postmodern’ marketing practices focus on the individual, his/her personal data, the user experience/journey, and the personal relationship (or the appearance of one) between them and the company.

If we explore postmodern marketing techniques from a pharmaceutical industry perspective, the issue of whether online adverts aimed at healthcare professionals are still worth investing in is more than likely to come up (note we will not be focusing on DTC advertising of prescription products, which is only allowed in the USA and New Zealand). Dismissed as an ‘old school’ practice by many, engaging in online advertising might sometimes raise questions such as: ‘Have emerging channels really transformed everything within the communications landscape, or is it ‘traditional things’ that really matter?’  A study carried out by the PharmExec blog last year revealed that most pharmaceutical brands could purchase more HCP-targeted search terms than they are now, as not only are they only reaching 50% of the potential total number of physicians, but they have also failed to keep them engaged for more than 2% of their online time.

Blogger Stephen Denny disagrees with the hypothesis that we are living in a so called ‘post-marketing world’, stating that while social media has given everyone a voice, “there’s a disconnect here between real life – the real life of powerful brands that have a vision and execute against it – and those who think the world revolves around Motrin Moms.”

While it is true that often a blogger has the power to ‘break’ a news story before journalists do, it seems that simply reacting to online communities is not enough: ‘joining the conversation’ is not always appropriate, post-launch strategies are not always thought through, and the size of an online community is not always indicative of its success.

An initiative that some might brand ‘postmodern’ is the creation of non-branded resources such as Breastcancer.org, which has been supported by a wide range of sponsors including healthcare and pharmaceutical companies, or epilepsy.com, also supported by commercial healthcare companies – these are platforms that provide information and support, as opposed to carrying a heavily branded or corporate message. Naturally, such websites rely on relationships between the membership base and interactions between members in order to understand user behaviour and carry out related analytics. In support of the aforementioned argument, it is worth noting that recent studies have revealed that up to two thirds of Britons are not interested in engaging with big brands online, in spite of Pepsi, Burberry and Tesco’s million pound efforts to engage customers this way.  Perhaps the majority of the population just does not care enough to engage with brands for a few seconds of the day. The question that remains here, however, is: are non-branded online communities the only way forward, and have digital marketers forgotten about practices such as HCP-directed promotion in favour of these ‘postmodern’ activities? Some of the responses from the industry have headed in the direction of mobile application building to reach HCPs. On the whole, little effort has been put into understanding their preferences and then developing strategies around those – perhaps doctors prefer to go elsewhere.

The truth is that emerging channels such as mobile and/or social media are just that: channels (although the question of ‘are they just another channel’ is one that needs to be tackled separately). At the end of the day, they are both a means to an end and it is imperative to tie them into other parts of the business.

Confronting some of the problems of ‘digital’ is important, as it is to understand that a particular campaign’s objectives, channels and metrics should come from the internal environment, i.e. not from ‘the outside’, because “others are doing it.”

That being said, no particular tactics should be classified as ‘old-school’ or outdated: marketing channels do not need to be ‘high tech’ as much as they need to be relevant, and usable. Building an app or a Facebook page for the sake of having them, thinking that ‘if we built it, they will come’, has proven not to be the right way of going about things. Instead of being attracted to the latest trend and focusing only on delivering a high-tech, quirky user experience, perhaps it is time to look towards partnerships that have often been overlooked, such as supporting the public health agenda.

It can be difficult to find a ‘bottom line’ when talking about the pharmaceutical industry’s digital activities and their integration into their overall business plans, as the digital landscape is moving extremely quickly. However, simply reacting to an online community or building costly applications that do not necessarily fit business needs are not sound plans on their own, no matter how much social media has allowed individuals to express their views on every existing subject. It is ‘traditional things’ that really matter, such as having a holistic vision and following through with it without putting ‘the cart before the horse’, as it were, as sometimes no single channel has the power to capture all the customers or business you need by itself. Hopefully in time, the integration of currently emerging channels into healthcare businesses will be so seamless, that we will not even notice they are there.



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