SXSW 2016 & The New Alchemy of Hope

Apr 01, 2016

Bill DrummyIn many life situations, it’s difficult to be hopeful. At SxSW Interactive (#SXSW2016; #HealthMedTech) last month, it was difficult to be pessimistic.

I know, I know… Get 30,000 tech geeks together in a salubrious, well-lubricated enclave, quarantined from from the real world (Hell, alien even to the rest of Texas!), and one’s perspective can take on quite the rosy hue. (IBM was actually serving “Cognitive Cocktails” in my hotel). Add to this exceptional scene the incentives for entrepreneurs and investors to impress their way to epochal tech celebrity (Twitter was born here ten years ago!), and Austin can seem imbued with the narcotic perfume of a promotional hothouse. 

And yet, I consider myself a highly critical person, no stranger to the hype-fests of the Consumer Electronics show (in subtle, sober Las Vegas), Health 2.0 (at tech-sedate Silicon Valley), and even TEDMED (recently convened on the sanctified ground of a golf resort in Palm Springs). I question everything to an irritating degree and mistrust Utopian forecasts. So when I tell you I headed out of Austin shaking my head at what I’d seen, give me the benefit of the doubt, for a few minutes at least.

On my first day at SxSW, I heard this:

“In the next ten years, Genomics will change the world more than the Internet did. It will change how we feed people, how we treat illness, how we develop drugs.” — Dr. Sanjay Patil

And this:

“By the mid 2020s, 80% of what doctors now do will be eliminated.”— John Sculley, @johnsculley, former Apple CEO

And later on that very same day, in a single hour, Dr. Daniel Kraft, @daniel_kraft, Founding Executive Director of FutureMed/Exponential Medicine at Singularity University, @exponentialmed, painted with lightning brushstrokes a transformed healthcare landscape – already upon us in dozens of tangible ways. Dr. Kraft concluded his dizzying performance with this famous declaration from Cyberpunk novelist William Gibson:

“The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.”

But, I hear you wondering, does all this excitement translate to anything tangible for healthcare marketers in the near term? 

Yes, it does, and it’s my job to tell you how. 

Exponential Change Requires Exponential Thinking

The larger point about all these quick-twitch developments is that we need to think very differently about how we communicate with and persuade our audiences; and how we design impactful, relevant solutions for the new healthcare world that exists now, in some places (and everywhere soon), but which most marketers don’t yet fully grasp.

It’s because we normally think in terms of linear progression — one-year plans, three-year maps, five-year war forecasts – which assumes only incremental changes to the existing market reality. The difference now is that technology enables exponential change (think Uber, Netflix, and Seamless) and after years of delay, that same disruptive impact is finally breaking through the frozen ground of healthcare.

What I learned from my SxSW experience can be applied (in fact, is already being applied) in three distinct ways:

1)    Creating Layered Storytelling

2)    Deepening Patient Empathy

3)    Leveraging the Internet of (Healthy) Things

Here is an overview of the trends, along with examples relevant to healthcare marketers.

1) The New Storytelling: Adding Layers of Intelligence to the Brand Story

At SxSW, we saw companies like Aurasma, Thrillbox and Grok+Banter (all scouted by my esteemed colleague, David Sakadelis, Heartbeat’s Director of Technology). Each demonstrated new ways for marketers to deepen and extend the storytelling experience for brands, offering the promise of greater engagement with and persuasion of critical audiences. 

Aurasma is an “augmented reality” platform that enables marketers to layer content over a variety of static, print media. So let’s say you want a doctor to see a mechanism of action leap off the page of a print journal, now you can. The doc would be prompted to point his smartphone at the ad, and voila! the molecule’s unique characteristics rise from the page. 

Thrillbox is a “smart behavioral analytics platform for Virtual Reality (VR) content.”  Translation: The technology allows you to track dozens of data points related to a user’s VR experience, giving you insight about which stimuli your customer is actually responding to. So, say your brand is exhibiting at a medical conference and you persuade a doctor to don VR goggles and “experience” your brand story (it better be a very clever inducement, of course); with Thrillbox, you don’t have to guess about what she likes (or hates) about the narrative – the data will tell you.

Grok+Banter presented another method for a marketer to measure customer response. Their technology actually “watches” a human in meatspace watching a digital display ad (think of a backlit display ad in an airport terminal), and then uses facial recognition algorithms to gauge the customer’s emotional response.

Grok+Banter’s platform is cool. But I thought we could take this idea a step or two farther. Rather than ‘just’ measure the reaction, why not also change the ad in real time, based on the customer’s response? Imagine there are three different versions of an ad for a new medication, each of which is based on a customer insight. Let’s call them: happy, sad, and neutral. When the customer passes by, initial facial recognition determines which ad style is likely to be most effective, then the customer is shown the most impactful creative. Over time, the system may even be able to predict which ad will work based on who is approaching the display. The ad could react to factors such as the time of day, weather conditions, body language, or any other observable variable you can imagine. The point is that now we are in living a world of truly interactive displays, so (thinking exponentially) why not look beyond merely testing ads and take that potential to its logical conclusion — greater persuasive power?

2) Generating Emotional Connections between Doctors and Patients

A second theme to emerge from SxSW concerned, paradoxically, the ways in which empathy and emotion can be enhanced through virtual experiences. It has long been the implicit promise of Virtual Reality that it would enable healthcare companies to help HCPs increase their understanding of (and empathy for) their patients, particularly in categories where HCPs chronically underestimate the pain, anxiety, or quality-of-life sacrifices their patients are enduring. 

Of course, Virtual Reality is no longer new, even in healthcare marketing. (At Heartbeat, we launched an HCP VR experience for a client in the CNS category more than three years ago.)  But what is new is the speed of advancement and the easy, affordable availability of the technology. With Oculus Rift, Sony, Samsung, HTC and Google all offering increasingly affordable options (most of them on conspicuous display in Austin), 2016 is fast becoming the year when VR goes mainstream. 

Unlike Augmented Reality, which adds a “layer” to the real world, Virtual Reality provides a truly immersive, “empathetic” experience – the user enters another reality and encounters visual, aural, even tactile experiences. Today, many healthcare companies are experimenting with VR in a number of settings – medical conferences where brands spare no effort or expense to capture a doctor’s attention; patient forums, where disease education, new treatment options, and even patient support programs are brought to virtual life with experiences and avatars; even on sales calls, where a rep can introduce an HCP to a truly differentiated (and illuminating) patient experience. 

All of these 3D experiences are aimed at deepening empathy in one way or another. At SxSW, the empathy theme came up in several other contexts as well. Esther Dyson, @edyson, the esteemed technology analyst turned healthcare investor, lent her prominent voice to the topic in a panel called “How Data & Empathy Can Improve Health Outcomes.” Ms. Dyson cited her experience in places like Spartanburg, SC, where doctors can’t provide much empathy in the mere 15 minutes spent with each patient. But in this clinic, empathy can be delivered more effectively during “the other 45 minutes,” by a medical student who has the latitude to spend quality time with the patient. 

These newer models of healthcare delivery are rapidly changing the fundamentals of the patient-doctor dynamic. And that’s where the third trend I digested at SxSW offers so much relevance.

3) The Internet of Healthy Things, and an Exponential Vision for Your Brand Promise

I referenced earlier John Sculley’s prediction that in ten years, “80% of what doctors do today will be eliminated.” But it’s not just healthcare entrepreneurs forecasting this (Sculley is an investor in MDLive, a telehealth platform, so he’s hardly disinterested). According to the American Medical Association, 75% of in-person visits will be handled virtually — by 2020 (that’s just four years away, by my calendar). Ask yourself: if you’re sick as a dog in your jammies, would you trek out to the doctor’s office if you could get the same (or better) care while lying in your bed? No, you would not. And this is the world that the “Internet of Healthy Things” now makes possible (among many other head-snapping discontinuities).

From a healthcare marketing point of view, this is arguably the most disruptive trend on the immediate horizon. Imagine a world where, when you’re ill, a well-trained and digitally equipped doctor, nurse, or nurse practitioner turns up at your home on demand (UberHEALTH, Circle Medical, Zipdrug, Pager). He brings his “black bag” (they will probably keep calling them black bags, out of a sense of nostalgia or camp), but this black bag contains FDA-approved digital devices (or simply apps and attachments to his smart phone or tablet) that enable a complete patient examination. This magic bag contains a digital stethoscope, (Otoscope), an ECG (Alive ECG); a CT scanner (Heartflow) or a device to conduct a full cardiac exam (Arterys). He also brings a medical “tricorder” straight out of Star Trek (Scanadu); plus a related device for urinalysis (Scanaflo). Suspect something more serious? He could perform a blood test for cancer (Illumina), right on your night table. 

Every one of the devices mentioned in the previous paragraph either exists today or is in late stage development and on the (admittedly perilous) road to FDA approval. (In fact, every one was described in that bravura performance I mentioned earlier by Daniel Kraft, MD.) So when the AMA says that 75% of what doctor’s do now they won’t be doing in four years – this is kinda what it will look like. The doctor will still play a huge role, of course. Some will actually do the digital house call themselves, while others (most likely, the majority) will be connected to the HCP in the field via a telehealth platform (MDLive,, even WebMD seems to be getting into the act). The doc reviews your data, examines the high-res image of that thing on your back, and offers diagnosis and guidance. She dispenses advice, prescribes medicines, maybe makes a joke about her bedside manner. She gets paid for her time, but mostly her pay is now tied to outcomes (the most significant impact of impact the Affordable Care Act, which in 2020 still has not been repealed).

What’s the Role for Your Brand?

If this is the nearing new reality (and it is), do you really think you will be marketing the way you are now? Detail aids, in-office materials, mass-market, non-targeted TV commercials? Nuh-uh. 

So is there a role for the brand? Yes. But it’s not the role we’re all used to. 

Remember, in this world, patients and payors have way more influence than ever before. And you have to talk to all your customers – patients, HCPs, and payors – about your brand in new ways, making sure you explain not just why your medication is better, but use evidence to prove it’s superior, maybe even be willing to stake the price you’re paid on why it’s going to be better (and cheaper) in the long term. You’ll need to be smart about using all that data spewing from all those devices (and from inside the pills themselves: e.g. Proteus) to validate that you’re helping patients get better, or at least preventing them from getting worse. 

You also have to add value to your brand promise in new ways.

Think about what you can do to improve the patient experience, and the doctor-patient dialogue. There will be many shortfalls in the new world of healthcare delivery. And that means opportunities for marketers to fill in the gaps no one else is incented to bridge, with added value that adheres to the brand’s benefit. So offer patients richer experiences about your product’s advantages, bring them to life. I mean that literally, or at least virtually: Deliver other happy patients projected as avatars into the potential patient’s bedroom to talk to them about their satisfying experience with your product. Let the doctor trigger an animation that explains, in patient-friendly, 3D cartoons, how this Immuno-Oncology product is triggering your immune system to stop your cancer’s growth.

I realize this is not the way we are used to thinking. But it is the kind of “exponential”, integrated, proactive, and participatory mindset that healthcare visionaries like Kraft, Dyson, Patil, and Sculley so inspiringly advocated in Austin last week. 

So yeah, my mind was blown at SxSW.  How’s yours doing?


Bill Drummy
Founder & CEO
Heartbeat Ideas
Heartbeat West







Hey Bill, Thanks for the

Hey Bill, Thanks for the Write-up as medical, and training are industries we are pursuing. Would you mind linking in the article?

Love this! Great wrap-up

Love this! Great wrap-up Bill!

lorem ipsum