The Not-so-New Normal: Part 1
How will COVID-19 accelerate the shift to non-personal engagement?
Ross Toohey | March 31, 2020
I’m sitting here in my home office, fresh off my ninth video conference of the day (it’s only 10 a.m.), and I have to admit how tired I am of hearing people lecture about how COVID-19 is going to “fundamentally transform the way all business is conducted forevermore.” Not because I don’t believe it will have a lasting impact (I imagine the marriage counseling industry will be roaring when this is all over), but rather because I believe we’re wildly misinterpreting the causality of why and how business will change.
There are those who believe the socially-distant, work-from-home dynamic will exist forevermore because we will be eternally battling contagion from one source or another, or because business will be unable to ever return to “the way it was.” This is absurd. I argue that any lasting evolution in business conduct (once the current crisis subsides) will be the direct result of our being forced to accelerate the adoption of tactics and technologies that were already emerging trends, and realizing they aren’t so bad after all. Once we’ve experienced how things can work in this situation, we’ll be more likely to break down entrenched perceptions about how business should be conducted. For example, how many of your colleagues prior to this situation would’ve rather chewed bark mulch than learn how to organize a multi-party video conference, and yet they are now wizards.
There are some industries that will be severely impacted during this period of social isolation, but will return to “business-as-usual” shortly after (e.g., transportation, restaurants, hotels). But then there are some industries that will be eternally transformed by this crisis—an epigenetic drift caused by external factors. The healthcare industry is among them. Due to COVID-19, patients aren’t seeing their doctors. Reps aren’t visiting physician offices. Medical conferences are shuttered. Elective procedures are being postponed. None of these conditions are permanent, but it would be naïve to assume everything will bounce back to normal immediately after this is over. And I firmly believe that once being forced through this crisis to experience new ways of conducting business, the healthcare marketing industry will emerge stronger by having traded entrenched “traditional” tools and tactics for more efficient, effective ways of driving patient and health care professional (HCP) engagement.
So where will these shifts occur?
At the risk of being dead wrong (and I often am), here are a few segments of the healthcare marketing business to keep an eye on. Businesses serving these areas will be devastated in the short-run, but those who adapt and evolve their offerings will lead the pack on the other side of this crisis:
Focus groups and live market research
Marketers rely on focus groups (featuring consumers/patients, HCPs, etc.) to drive all manner of insight gathering and decision validation. Expect this to freeze in the short term, then shift heavily to virtual interaction. The limitations on virtual focus group interactions will push many marketers to rely more heavily on data-driven insights and artificial intelligence for data/sentiment mining. We’ll realize these insights more closely align with human intentions than forced focus group interactions do, and rebalance our research efforts accordingly. Just imagine, we’ll all get to spend a little less time watching strangers through two-way glass critique the color palette of our trade journal ad.
I get it, part of the value of advisory boards is the relationship development with participating key opinion leaders (KOLs) during the actual board meetings. But how much cost and effort is spent on curating, producing and reporting on these interactions? While advisory boards are one facet of healthcare marketing I can’t see going fully virtual (while maintaining its value potency), perhaps we’ll reignite the art of KOL relationship management out of necessity.
Medical congresses and industry conferences
We’ve watched hundreds of congresses already hit the pause button, instantly throwing hundreds of millions in spend into budgetary limbo. But how much of that value has actually been lost? There is certainly value in these massive industry gatherings, but will COVID-19 force us to experiment with (and possibly enjoy) virtual education and training programs? Are there other, more time- and resource-efficient ways to engage with HCPs than through expensive luncheon symposia?
Fax- and email-centered multichannel
Many marketers are scrambling to shift budget dollars into non-personal multichannel platforms, and will soon learn two things: A) Not all multichannel programs are equal in reach or quality—particularly those relying on questionable “opt-in” fax or email distribution lists; and B) The diminishing returns on these programs have a surprisingly narrow curve. Perhaps a silver lining of this crisis is that we break our addiction to email as a seemingly acceptable replacement for genuine human interaction? My relationship with the inbox has certainly evolved over the past days.
Peer-to-peer (P2P) marketing was undergoing an evolution of necessity prior to COVID-19. We’d spent days locked up with various clients pontificating on the future of HCP community building long before the concept of social distancing forced the conversation. Suffice it to say, the days of P2P strategies defined by doctor dinners are extremely numbered. But fear not, lovers of overcooked steakhouse filets, this crisis has sown the seeds of a new universe of HCP peer engagement programs, many of which will see the light of day in the coming months. These programs will leverage technologies like augmented reality to facilitate dialogue between global HCP audiences. If only we had a global health crisis to stimulate the dinner conversation…