A Health Tech Marketing Lesson... from Toothpaste?

The most memorable presentation I saw at HIMSS19 talked about toothpaste.

Not the merits of toothpaste, mind you. HIMSS is a conference primarily for technology users in hospitals, not dentist’s offices.

Instead, the conversation turned to the many, many varieties of toothpaste – and what they can teach us about marketing.

First, some context. Renown Health, a nonprofit system covering roughly 100,000 square miles in northern Nevada, sought to improve its marketing to Medicare beneficiaries. To do so, the system needed to better understand the members of this population and how to reach out to them. Doing this right means knowing not just their health needs but also their general interests, lifestyles, priorities, and so on.

It didn’t take long to determine that the Medicare population actually consists of a few sub-populations. To illustrate the point – well, that’s where the toothpaste comes in.

Leaders asked focus group participants how many types of toothpaste they had in their homes. For one executive, it was several: One for him, one for his wife, one for the kids, and one for the grandkids, plus whatever travel-sized tubes happen to be lying around.

Yes, it’s all toothpaste, but it’s different kinds of toothpaste. One may be minty. Another makes fizzy bubbles. This one is easy to squeeze. That one whitens. The small one fits in your carry-on. You get the idea.

Toothpaste helped Renown Health understood how different its Medicare sub-populations were. That allowed the system to further segment those populations, target messaging accordingly, and (in this case) boost participation in Medicare Open Enrollment. You can follow my Twitter thread from the presentation for the juicy details.

Owning the Right Sub-Segments

It says something that the most memorable anecdote from a four-day health IT conference was about toothpaste. As I noted in a separate Twitter thread, written while waiting to board my plane back to Boston, this actually isn’t a criticism.

Aside from convening weeks earlier than usual, what made HIMSS19 different than previous years was the lack of a dominant theme. Many topics came up – including AI, patient-centered design, voice tech, social determinants of health, interoperability, clinical workflows, blockchain, physician burnout, and telehealth – but no single topic carried the conference.

In addition, heavily hyped trends from previous years came with caveats. This time around, AI and blockchain, as well as population health management and precision medicine, were all pitched as highly targeted point solutions as opposed to cure-alls for healthcare’s various ills. The blockchain discussion was particularly sobering; in both the Blockchain Forum and a blockchain breakfast panel discussion, disruptive clinical use cases didn’t even come up.

A lack of a clear theme can sometimes signal confusion. As the saying goes, if there are a dozen priorities, that means there are no priorities. I know I can’t get anything done if my to-do list is too long. (Sorry, honey.)

For the health IT industry, though, this is OK. Others have described health care in the United States not as a single $3.5 trillion industry but, rather, a collection of multi-billion-dollar industries. In other words, it’s many types of toothpaste, each with a specific target audience and use case.

The lack of a clear theme at HIMSS19, then, suggests that health IT is pausing to align its solutions with the various priorities of the sub-segments of health care. The care continuum is increasingly complex, nuanced, and methodical; providers, as well as patients, confront unique needs at each step along the way.

Meeting these needs requires a much more targeted and strategic approach to messaging. Instead of grasping onto the buzzword du jour – remember all the solutions hosting big data in the cloud? – vendors must identify the specific problem they aim to solve and stake a claim to the step of the care continuum that they “own.”

This presents a clear challenge. Different executives are responsible for different steps of the care continuum. Their titles often vary – and so do their pain points, goals, desired outcomes, KPIs, and timelines for achieving change. The value proposition that appeals to one executive may be irrelevant to another, and potentially contradictory to a third. (However, we have compiled executive buyer profiles to help you overcome this challenge)

Renown Health had to assess the varying needs of its population subsegments before marketing Medicare Open Enrollment to them. Toothpaste makers don’t say the same things to fussy children, busy adults, and denture wearers.

As health IT continues to carve out subsegments of the care continuum, in 2019 and beyond, it’s increasingly important to deliver messages that align to the specific needs of the proper executives. This takes work – pinpointing executives’ priorities, crafting messaging to align with those priorities, and ensuring that messaging meets executives where you expect them to be.

At ReviveHealth, we specialize in this work. Get in touch if you want to learn more. We’ll even bring the toothpaste. 

March 7, 2019
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