We’ve grown accustomed to thinking that data and micro-targeting will get our content in front of exactly the right set of eyeballs at exactly the right time. Search engines, customer relationship management (CRM), social media, and mobile technology have given marketers the tools to engage with customers in a personalized way at scale. Most consumers largely played along: It can be a very attractive proposition to donate some time and attention in exchange for seemingly useful or entertaining content and services. But all of this is now becoming somewhat more nuanced, forcing pharma marketers to rethink how they define patient engagement. So, what happened to challenge the brave new “Big Data” world?

The Demise of the Data-First Paradigm

Changes came about once people started seeing the flipside of the “data-first” coin: prominent thinkers warn consumers that their privacy could be at risk and that they’re forming unhealthy online habits, which include addictions and a propensity to spread misinformation or even disinformation. With a rising awareness of these issues, regulators have implemented guardrails, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Tech then started to self-regulate, for example, by policing COVID-related misinformation online.

Many tech companies seek to distinguish themselves by giving consumers ever-more powerful tools to protect their data and elude any attempts at tracking. Google, once known for leading the way in hoovering up all kinds of user data, has taken important steps toward adjusting to the new paradigm by withdrawing support of third-party cookies by 2023 and evolving their business model towards paid subscriptions. Facebook has started to limit the targeting functionality for advertisers on their site. One of the most radical steps toward the new paradigm comes from Apple, who has long used privacy protections as a key distinguisher. Its new iPhone operating system iOS allows people to use fake email addresses when they sign up for an online service—a move that soothes our aching inboxes but deals a blow to email marketers.

Engaging with Patients Under the Privacy Paradigm

What all of this means is that marketers are waking up to the reality that their consumers never wanted to simply be a data set in someone’s CRM. Instead, consumers want to find the content and use the services they’re interested in, not the content and services someone else is pushing on them. In addition, when interacting with a brand, consumers also want to be treated as the individuals they are, not as someone else’s target population. No matter how good we get at predictive analytics, patients will always find more value in a two-way conversation than they will as the endpoint of your brand’s patient journey algorithms.

This year, as the new iOS has changed the rules, some pharma marketers have been able to showcase how to successfully navigate the new paradigm. They have used two very effective marketing instruments that don’t rely on data extraction and microtargeting: customer value and human relationships.

1. Customer Value

People aren’t coming to our brands because we want them to; they’re coming to us because they want to. Also, they’ll only come if whatever we have is useful or interesting. For those living with a serious health condition, pharma often has something useful to offer—answers to questions and solutions to problems. However, not all patients can make use of those answers and solutions.

To connect the dots, answers and solutions need to be interesting, understandable, attractive, and relatable. Patient storytelling has empirically been shown to be the strongest format to achieve all these goals. A good story can release oxytocin in the body, a hormone related to trust and satisfaction. A story also heightens the audiences’ attention, which improves learning. Finally, a story’s emotional appeal provides motivation. People act when they hear how people like themselves are successfully owning their healthcare journey.

Patients perceive value when services offer better ways to manage life with their disease. For example, mentor programs that allow patients to connect with others help brands stand out with a valuable service, namely, allowing people to discuss personal stories that only another patient can relate to in the same direct way. Help lines or chat or text offerings also provide a unique benefit that can connect patients with the brand. Health educators who manage those applications provide important resources, such as information on obtaining copay assistance, doctor discussion guides, and where to find which kind of service. Things like these don’t require the marketer to sneakily intrude on the patients’ privacy. Rather, they provide opportunities to openly seek engagement and offer support.

2. Human Relationships

Practicing CRM without the human “relationship” part will soon be a thing of the past. Getting an automated email every now and then does not constitute a relationship, even if the greeting contains your name. Further, even if the content of an email is targeted to where patients are on their journey—it still doesn’t make up for a relationship all by itself. Relationships are human at the core. In a relationship, the name of your counterpart is known to you rather than to your database. Patients will realize that your brand is more than a logo, a color scheme, and a language guide. It’s real humans concerned with improving care for those living with life-altering conditions.

Tech solutions have forced a wake-up call within the marketing community. As a result, pharma marketers can finally get to a place where we can do better things with a lot less data. Data availability is being right-sized, so that the problem that has haunted us over the last 20 or so years—how to turn over-abundant metrics into usable insights—might in fact no longer be so much of an issue. What pharma needs isn’t more data, it’s relationships. What patients need is the fruit of those relationships: better health outcomes. Today, we have a chance to get to where we need to be: in face-to-face conversations with our customers.

  • Phil Storer

    Phil Storer is Chief Creative at Snow Companies. As a leader in pharma’s digital evolution, Phil’s passion is to meet and exceed the expectations set by leading healthcare brands for patients in their online healthcare experience.


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