Excitement about wearables like the Apple Watch or Fitbit sometimes fuels unrealistic hype about healthcare marketing opportunities. Wearables do offer rich and impressive possibilities for health, but let’s clarify what they can really deliver.

Healthy Innovations

Many sophisticated health wearables are under development, promising to substantially improve health management and outcomes, but they are not marketing-oriented. Examples include:

1. Breast-cancer detection: iTBra collects data for early detection.

2. Implanted medication dispenser: Microchips Biotech implant replaces oral pills.

3. Automated adherence tracking: Proteus Digital Health monitors using an ingestible sensor and patch.

4. Wearable artificial kidney: A “wak” eliminates the need for hookup to a dialysis machine.

5. Infection risk reduction: The Biovigil badge monitors healthcare worker hand cleanliness.

6. Bicycle head protection: The Hövding hood instantly expands from collar to helmet when in a bike accident.

Expanding Market

Wearables have not achieved critical mass yet, but adoption rates match those of tablets. Consumer awareness is high (up to 75%), but ownership is low (at most one in five) and usage is even lower (only half the people who own wearables use them daily and 25% cease usage within six months). Yet there is high interest, thanks to the Apple Watch, so category sales are projected to almost double by 2018.

Wearables come in many forms, the most prominent being:

1. Smart clothing embeds sensors to monitor fitness and health. Athos is one example.

2. Smart glasses such as Google Glass provide computer and smartphone functionality but are activated hands-free by voice and gestures.

3. Activity trackers like Fitbit measure daily activity such as the number of steps taken, calories burned and time slept.

4. Smartwatches track activity, manage calls, texts and email, get directions and pay at checkout. This includes the Apple Watch.

Activity trackers are the most commonly owned, thanks to low-priced fitness bands, with smartwatches lagging behind. However, consumers primarily buy smartwatches for fitness tracking, so the Apple Watch’s health-monitoring apps are expected to accelerate smartwatch sales, as one million Apple Watches sold the first day.

Healthcare Marketing Applications

Because trackers and smartwatches will prevail in the near term, healthcare marketers are first leveraging the tracking and alerting capabilities of these devices. The most effective approach incorporates these wearables into a healthcare brand’s existing marketing strategy, such as reminders that help increase medication adherence, monitoring to improve provider care and working to decrease clinical trial costs.

Three leading healthcare marketers are utilizing wearable trackers to improve healthcare management and outcomes:

1. Walgreens’ Balance Rewards. One million Walgreens customers transmit data from their fitness trackers   using their Balance Rewards app and receive points redeemable for purchases. Participants earn points for every mile traveled, daily weight log and daily checks of blood pressure or glucose levels. To motivate health awareness, points are earned for checking in, but not for achieving, health goals like weight loss, since  individual behavior targets differ.

2. Hospitals use health apps. Fourteen of the top 23 US hospitals use Apple’s HealthKit tool for health apps to collect personal health information like weight, blood pressure, steps taken and glucose levels. Merged into patient files, the data is accessible to doctors for early detection and treatment of patients with chronic conditions such as diabetes and hypertension, helping hospitals save money from fewer repeat admissions.

3. Biogen and PatientsLikeMe use Fitbit to track patients with multiple sclerosis. Multiple-sclerosis patient activity and sleep patterns were tracked to assess disease progression information and quality and patient comfort with 24/7 monitoring. Nearly 250 PatientsLikeMe members received Fitbit trackers, monitored activity for three weeks, connected with fellow MS patients and provided feedback. Although the majority had never tracked activity, patients synced their data 87% of the time, and four of five said they would continue using the device. 

Richer Marketing Opportunities

Healthcare marketing opportunities will multiply as wearable messaging capabilities expand and higher ownership creates scale for wearable advertising. TapSense already touts an Apple Watch programmatic ad platform, watch-optimized ad units and hyper-local targeting.

Small screen sizes can limit wearable marketing content and user interaction, but the following tools will boost effectiveness:

1. Glanceable content. Deliver at-a-glance content such as notifications that are easily understood, immediately actionable and clear about what to do.  

2. Engagement over interaction. Single-finger touch makes interaction difficult, so minimize reliance on two-way response or back-and-forth dialogue.

3. App integration. Capitalize on the vast choice of health apps to integrate with tools like glucose monitors and pill reminders.  

4. Direct to other screens. Direct consumers to another device that displays ads or more information, like a smartphone, or to apps that use nearby screens, like a gym treadmill.

Healthcare marketers can immediately benefit from wearables’ tracking and alert functionalities to motivate healthy behavior, quantify outcomes, enhance care and reduce costs. Future wearables will provide even more robust marketing capabilities to improve health management, delivery and outcomes.

Michael Maher is president of ID Health.