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Introducing Confluency

Right-side-of-the-menu marketing. Whack-a-mole marketing. Zombie brands. We’re not shy about applying new labels to trends or practices we see in healthcare marketing. Now we have a new one – we call it “confluency” – that stands to have a dramatic impact on how you approach marketing and communications in healthcare. What is confluency? First, take a few minutes and ask yourself this question: “Who would I turn to – either internally or externally – to ensure success in the following scenarios?

  1. We need to develop a landing page for a service line campaign.
  2. We want to explore expanding our Facebook advertising.
  3. We should expand our use of social media for a specific marketing initiative? 

We asked attendees at our February Joe Public Retreat this question, and not surprisingly, their answers were scattered. Who do you turn to ensure a successful landing page is developed for a service line campaign? Some said their digital team. Some said their marketing leads. Some said their ad agency. What about Facebook advertising, or the increased use of social media? Could be digital again, or marketing, or the PR team, or a specific social media team member. 

Rise of a New Trend

The struggle we have in answering these questions, and the subsequent disparity of answers, is a symptom of a trend we’ve been following for awhile now. That trend is the growing confluence of the various marketing communications disciplines such as marketing, branding, public relations, and digital. It is having a profound impact on our industry and promises to continue changing and shaping our organizations. More importantly, it is bound to have a significant impact on those of us responsible for leading marketing communications efforts at our rapidly evolving organizations. 

We’ve been talking about “integrated marketing communication” for the past few decades, but that is something different than the confluence we’re talking about now. With an integrated marketing communication approach, the goal is to ensure you’re appropriately using all of the disciplines when you tackle a specific marketing or communications challenge. But you’re still thinking about them as distinct disciplines – marketing, PR, digital, and brand – that need to work together somehow. With this new trend, the walls between the disciplines are breaking down and their definitions and applications are blurring together. With the new confluence, it’s becoming harder and harder to know where marketing stops and public relations begins, or what should be labeled “branding” and what should be labeled “digital.” 

Social Media Sparks the Fire

This confluence of disciplines has been happening for awhile now, beginning with the rise of social media. Consider this: what is social media’s primary role? Is it a marketing tool? A public relations tool? A digital tool? A branding tool? The answer, of course, is yes – to all of it. Which is why you see social media housed in so many different departments within health systems – marketing, public relations, communications, or digital departments. While most systems place social media under either digital or public relations teams, there is no emerging move toward one or the other. We can’t figure out where to place social media responsibilities because they don’t fit anywhere neatly. And that is the confluence trend in action. 

In the past, it was fairly easy to segment and separate strategies, channels, tactics, as well as personal skills and experience, into one of the fairly rigid disciplines of marketing, public relations, branding, and digital. But when social media hit the scene, we had our first taste of a marketing channel and strategy that didn’t fit neatly into any of the disciplines.

Digital Adds the Fuel

If it had started and stopped with social media alone, we probably could have managed the discomfort of leveraging a non-conformist discipline. But if social media was our first taste of this trend, the growth in digital in all of its forms has brought the impact of the confluence to new and difficult-to-ignore levels. Brand journalism, SEO, content marketing, online reputation management, personalized marketing – these are among the hottest marketing tactics out there, and they all represent approaches that don’t fit neatly into one marketing discipline box. Even how we leverage the web has accelerated this confluence. While websites were around long before social media, it wasn’t until we began using them in more interactive and cross-functional ways – everything from patient portals to online health risk assessments – that they truly became a marketing/public relations/branding/digital strategy for health systems. 

There are many, many implications of this trend for how organizations effectively go to market, and we’ll be exploring those implications in upcoming articles. The biggest implication, however, lands on you – those responsible for leading marketing and communications efforts at healthcare organizations. That’s because the increasingly complex confluence of marketing communications demands new skills, new expertise, and new strategies from marketing leaders. 

As the walls come crumbling down, what was known and neat is becoming unknown and messy. We’re dubbing this new skill set an individual’s “confluency” – your ability to successfully navigate the continued blending of marketing disciplines. With any new term, it helps to use it in a sentence. For example, “How do you build your confluency to better deal with the nebulous distinction between marketing, public relations, branding, and digital?”

After presenting our preliminary findings on the trend of marketing confluence at our Joe Public Retreat, the concept clearly resonated with those in attendance. As one attendee put it: “I can’t believe how well this captures the struggles and anxiety I and others have been feeling. And now you’ve just put a name to it.”

So how, exactly, can you build confluency as a leader and learn to master the new world of marketing and communications? Stay tuned – we’ll be exploring that more.

April 19, 2018
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