It wasn’t too long ago — as few as five years, by some accounts — that some healthcare organizations were siloing digital marketing and messaging from so-called traditional ones. The distinction was made more out of laziness than anything else: This was the way it’s always been done, so this is how we’ll continue to do it.

However, in the wake of COVID-19 and the limitations on in-person encounters it imposed, the digital/non-digital division has finally collapsed for good. No longer is there “digital marketing” and “traditional marketing”; there’s just “marketing.”

As Joe Shields, president and cofounder of consultancy Health Accelerators, puts it, almost incredulously: “Are we still using the word ‘digital’? Everything essentially is digital. Marketing is marketing and 99% of it is probably digital in some way.”

One would be hard-pressed to find anyone working in medical marketing who disagrees. But the industry’s all-digital-all-the-time bent has given rise to a different problem: a homogeneity of approach has crept into many of these programs. A majority of the work is cool, creative and effective; the issue is that much of it looks or feels way too similar.

The question becomes: What should healthcare marketers be doing to distinguish their digital offerings? Needless to say, veteran digital marketers — ahem, veteran marketers — have many thoughts on the matter.

It goes without saying that many of the marketing trends that emerged before COVID-19 rained down its havoc and misery have only accelerated. So yeah, good luck finding any expert who doesn’t see data and analytics as one of the key differentiating factors, if not the key differentiating factor.

“The real magic is in how marketers are using data to meet patients and HCPs where they are in the buying cycle,” stresses Real Chemistry group president, global integrated services David Magrini. “There is innovation around the use of ad tech, whether it is artificial intelligence, customer data platforms or even account-based marketing techniques. It’s all about the delivery of messaging at the right time in the right channel and using data to drive that.”

“We all talk about experience and engagement, but it is really about being able to harness data and leverage it to reach those audiences,” Magrini adds. “That is going to continue to grow as we come out of the pandemic. It has changed our lives in every aspect.”

For his part, Shields believes that marketers can and should target their approaches far more precisely than most are currently doing. It follows that those who are able to do so will differentiate themselves from the many who are content with the status quo.

“The promotional part of digital has gotten more refined. It has exploded in terms of channels where you can reach physicians, particularly with video,” he explains. “But then there’s a layer of digital that goes toward better, higher-precision targeting, so that there’s less waste of your promotional spend.”

Shields sees similar inefficiencies that, if eliminated, can improve the effectiveness of tried-and-true tactics. “Lead generation, in the traditional way it has been conducted, particularly with pay-per-click, paid search and things like that — I don’t know if it is burning out, but it is starting to be a lot less effective and a lot more expensive,” he adds. 

To that end, when asked about which digital approaches might be overhyped, Ogilvy Health EVP Corina Kellam points to video.

While she acknowledges that Ogilvy has run a number of successful recent campaigns that leaned heavily on TikTok, she questions whether video-centric campaigns are cost-effective — and whether they vary enough from one program to the next.

“Video advertising is super tricky,” Kellam says. “Advertising on YouTube and connected TV is very expensive. Is it really worth it if it is 200 times as expensive as search, social and display blended together? Often the answer is no.”

Pressed for other potential distinguishing tactics and approaches, Kellam says she would like to see marketers either make better use of chatbots or eliminate them entirely.

“They can be phenomenal for routing customers to the right part of a website, but plopping a chatbot on a branded website is probably not a good idea,” she explains. “It would be nice to not have any more lengthy conversations about that.”

The same holds for gadgets such as virtual assistants, including Amazon’s supposedly ubiquitous Alexa. “Everyone is hot on sonic programs right now. But if you actually look at the data, very often only 5% to 10% of your market has them while 97% have a phone. Not everyone can afford an Alexa and is at home asking it questions.”

Similarly overhyped in Kellam’s mind, at least in their ability to help marketers distinguish their digital offerings from the competition, are telehealth and so-called doctor finders. 

“We talk about the telehealth explosion, but in general it isn’t happening,” she continues. “With telehealth, you have to pay to reach every consumer, versus making an HCP a fan and then reach all their patients. It’s a gamble.” As for doctor finders, Kellam adds: “If a rep calls on a doctor, the doctor may feel ostracized because they are not in the doctor finder, then you also have all the database issues and maintaining it. There’s a techlift there.”

Central to all of this, of course, is an overall shift in attitudes toward digital tactics. Prior to the pandemic, many of these tactics were filed under “nice-to-have.” Nearly two years into it, they’re basically the oxygen that sustains the life of medical marketing campaigns.

That represents a huge shift in mindset, according to Relevate Health chief innovation officer Hans Kaspersetz.

“Five or six years ago, people would point to the technology and how it wouldn’t get approved by MLR,” he recalls. “But then, about two or three years ago, people finally stopped talking about obstacles and started talking about what they were doing.”

That, Kaspersetz believes, was the moment when “digital marketing” became “marketing.”

“We made the transition from digital being new to ‘we are marketing these brands and digital is how we do it in a digital-first world,’” he adds.

As for what comes next, experts don’t agree on much — that is, beyond a firm belief that strategic and tactical innovation will continue to thrive as COVID-19 slowly retreats from its current prominence.

Kaspersetz expects non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and blockchain technology to find a foothold in telehealth and clinical trials. “We have leapt from not being able to get permission to do social media to people being comfortable with these remote interactions,” he explains. 

“When you layer in telehealth and mail-in prescriptions, you end with the ability to follow the full spectrum of the customer journey like we never have had before …. I am absolutely certain the ability to track the provenance and authenticity of patient-directed communications will enable us to do things in clinical trials that were never possible before.”

Kaspersetz is also leaning into the growing recognition that all healthcare is local — if hospitalizations are falling in the New York metropolitan area and surging in the Midwest, it obviously makes sense to adopt different approaches for each region — and will continue to move in that direction post-COVID-19. 

“Innovation has taken us to a place where we can do that sort of analysis and build near-personal content that is highly locally relevant and based on a national campaign, but targeted and contextualized,” he says.

The bar that those technologies and tactics must clear? Differentiation. “If we can’t get the reps into the office, we need to figure out better ways to engage them. COVID has reinforced that all healthcare is local and every market behaves differently,” Kaspersetz adds. 

While this should go without saying after two years of pandemic-prompted chaos, flexibility remains essential. But it’s not enough for marketers to be able to change approaches if circumstances warrant; they must be empowered by their organizations to do so.

“There is this idea that you make one round of content and have it live a long time. That’s not good marketing,” Kellam says. “Being able to get pieces up and measure them, then pivot and sequel, is.”

Shields agrees, adding that marketing “is becoming much more of a science. It still has the need for good creative, but we are able now to dynamically try different things with audiences that we hadn’t been able to in the past.

“The smartest marketers have a balance between understanding the fundamentals and trying new things. They balance the now and the new.”