What the 1920s Taught Our Healthcare Marketing Agency About 2020

Today is tumultuous. Tomorrow is uncertain. Here's what our healthcare marketing agency learned that the past can teach us about adjusting to a new future.
What F Scott Fitzgerald Taught Our Healthcare Marketing Agency

Tough making sense of it all this year, isn’t it?

If you work at a healthcare marketing agency like ours, or any agency really, there’s no need to get more specific than that. It’s been a helluva few months for all of us.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve definitely needed a break from everything from time to time. For me that usually means picking up a book. I’ve usually got 4 or 5 of them going at any given time. Usually they’re old books, from different times that it’s nice to escape to when our own gets to be a little much.

Ironically, a lot of those books tend to be from the 20s. The other 20s. A hundred years ago today, a whole generation was coming to grips with a world war, a global pandemic, and not long after that, an unprecedented economic catastrophe. Sound familiar?

Must be something about the 20s. Remind me to sell all my stocks in 8.5 years.

Reading F Scott Fitzgerald at a 21st century healthcare marketing agency

I’ve got a special weak spot for the man who gave us Gatsby. Reach into the stack of books I’m working through, and you’ve got about a 20% chance of pulling out one by Fitzgerald. So it was no surprise that I found myself thumbing through an old paperback of his a few weeks ago when things were just too much that night and I needed to ride some ink to a different time for a while.

"It is sadder to find the past again and find it inadequate to the present than it is to have it elude you and remain forever a harmonious conception of memory.”

He’d just come back to a city he once called home and discovered that the person he’d become no longer fit with the place where he’d once belonged. And now here we all are, entering a new era wondering what parts of the world of 2019 are worth holding onto in the new world taking shape around us. If that thought makes anyone else want to drink a whole bathtub of gin, stay put. I’ll get us some straws.  

Past, present & future, all in flux at once.

For all of us at a healthcare marketing agency like Distill Health, there’s at least some (icy) cold comfort in knowing that we’re all asking the same questions at the same time.

  • What channels will still be relevant and valuable in the COVID economy?  Which can we just switch off entirely?
  • What parts of last year’s sales process are still viable? What’s the future of the funnel for business in medical devices, healthtech, and life sciences?
  • How are we supposed to wine and dine our clients with takeout??


And the answers? Like good Distillers, we’ll boil it down for you: Right now, everyone’s guess could be a good one.

It’s always tough letting go of the past. Especially when the future is as uncertain as it is today. In those moments, it’s nice to know that some things never change – like the power and relevance of a century-old observation from someone who lived through a global war, pandemic, and depression, and still made a dent in history. Better to let the past be past, with all its good memories undisturbed, that to try dredging up what’s left of it and find it just doesn’t measure up to what we need today.    

And today, in the healthcare industry, we’re surrounded by good examples of that principle at work. Here are just a few.

Trade shows: Thin ice finally broken

The grumbling from our clients was already getting louder before COVID. Trade shows were becoming irrelevant. The ROI is fuzzy at best. You keep going because it’s better than not being there at all.  And then there’s the dreaded phenomenon of the booth full of 80% sales reps, 10% post-grads on a travel stipend, and 10% everyone else (including, occasionally, a real prospect).

But it was never just about who showed up. It was about who didn’t.

Eons ago – ie, mid-2019 – I was at a major regional tradeshow where I interviewed a rising entrepreneur surgeon in a booming therapeutic space. During our session, I noted that of the 30+ surgeons I’d spoken to that weekend, he was the only independent practitioner.

He cracked a smile at me. “Of course I am,” he said. “Everyone else here has surgeons back home doing the work.”

Growing challenges, shrinking value

In healthcare, conferences are hard-coded into everyone’s industry communication software. But even before COVID, there was already a growing sense that trade shows were losing traction. The Big Shows had become overwhelming panopticons that delivered increasingly underwhelming returns.

Travel is expensive. Customers’ reimbursement margins were shrinking. Healthcare professionals were getting all their information online, on-demand, remotely. Why pay to show up at the podium when you can read that hot new research or learn about that new product from your couch the next day? For every set of credentialed eyeballs who see your product in person, multiples more watched the video on your site. Now that trend is accelerating…

…and saving millions in un-trackable investments. Liberating our clients to explore new ways to leverage their podium influencers. Freeing up extensive tracts of marketing budget that can be redirected to initiatives that make brand and scientific content accessible to bigger audiences than ever. Not just to those that can pay the travel and registration costs to show up in person.

So, while it may be painful to let yesterday’s flagship events slip into the past, this one is ready to set sail. Some congresses will no doubt be back in some smaller, more focused form; live ad boards and doctor dinners will still happen. But right now, that shift is creating exciting new opportunities with the potential to more than offset the value of conventional trade shows. Onward.

The salesforce: Moving to the mid-funnel (and maybe out to pasture)

For as long as there have been medtech companies, their sales reps have been the front lines of customer engagement. They built the deals from the ground up: made the in-person visit, got the first handshake, delivered the first detail, sent the first follow-up, and got the signed contract.

Now, rep access is crashing, down to 20% case coverage for some. In a new era of sterility hyper-vigilance, every non-essential body in the ward or office is one too many. Reps — and many a healthcare marketing agency are struggling to adapt to the new reality of ZOOM details and virtual handshakes.

That shift hasn’t simply changed the platform for those conversation. Reps aren’t just moving their key callpoints online; their callpoints are also becoming one of many digital, on-demand touchpoints in a fully online funnel that extends from awareness to trial or sale. The content chain of custody no longer starts with a detail and ends with a contract, with a quick due diligence Google search along the way. It starts with Google, evolves across your website, blog, social profiles, testimonials, and explainer videos, and only reaches the rep when the customer is ready to book a ZOOM call.      

The future comes calling… earlier than expected

The smart money saw this coming. Back in the Paleolithic (2017), Forrester research showed that customers had already relegated sales reps to an as-needed troubleshooting function in the buying process. Nearly 70% of B2B buyers reported that they wanted to do all their business online, with a sales rep involved only when necessary. Now, with COVID, that preference is a necessity for most of those buyers – especially in healthcare businesses.

Forrester also predicated, way back then, that up to 1 million salespeople would be “displaced” by this trend. We believe these masters of customer relationships have a vital role to play in our partners’ success. To play it, many of those reps will need to leave yesterday’s detail-and-dinner world behind, and discover and whole new future in the funnel.  

Virtual IRL: Reinventing relationships for digital media

Here’s the good news: locking everyone in our market away from each other has led to a huge groundswell of communication innovation in every corner of the industry. Telehealth. Remote patient care. Supply chain monitoring. Smart watch heart monitors. TikTok nurse jams about good hand-washing techniques. If you work with a healthcare marketing agency like ours, your tactical plans have probably never been more diverse.

Here’s the tricky news: There’s a big difference between using these solutions in place of a direct person-to-person connection, and counting on them to replace those connections.

Everyone who’s been on a 2-hour ZOOM video call knows exactly what I mean. Why does looking at people through a webcam feel so much more exhausting than looking at them across a conference room table? There’s science for that.

We’re all living how challenging it can be to rely on digital simulacra of our real-life interactions and communications. For brands, and the partners they rely on to get eyeballs, build connections, and generate revenue, that’s the real challenge. Not just picking which new digital channels to turn on and when – we could get away with that when there was always a safety net of in-person touchpoints – but also figuring out how and where those channels fit differently into all the different moments and functions of our newly, fully digitized daily lives.

Virtual is inextricable from real life now, and that’s a big shift for a lot of customers. How and where brands try to make themselves part of that transition will determine whether a product becomes a vital part of that new daily life, or just one more content input that harried customers can’t exclude fast enough.

How do we navigate that transition consistently and successfully? The past may not have many good answers for us. But it’s a great question for us to chat about on a ZOOM tomorrow.

There's more good news: We've done this before.

A hundred years ago, as war, contagion, and economic calamity ripped through our world, F Scott Fitzgerald came back to his old home only to realize that that old life was better left in the past. He got through it, our world got through it, just like we’ll all get through this. But sooner or later we’ll have to ask ourselves the same question: how much of the Old Normal still fits into the New Normal?   

Whether the answer is more or less, it will undoubtedly surprise us. And until we find it, you’ve got a partner in us to help you explore all possible paths that may lead us to it.

Distill Health is a leading healthcare marketing agency specializing in healthtech, medical devices, and digital health. Reach out any time to learn more about how we can develop simple, powerful, human-first communications solutions for your brand or product.

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