Decoding the Disruption: Making Meaningful Marketing Out of Top Trends

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Separating the meaningful from the merely novel, Bill Drummy outlines his Top Ten digital marketing trends for 2017.

There’s power in predictions. If you can figure out where a market is headed, or which technology will win the day, you can profit strategically and financially. That’s why people invest enormous time and considerable cognitive energy to gain even a slightly better idea of how the future will play out, where the tide will break, how a trend will tend.

In the business of pharmaceutical promotion, though, oftentimes this fascination with the latest trends (evident in the agenda of every healthcare conference as well as on the covers of countless industry publications) can be more distracting than illuminating. In brutal fact, obsessing over every shiny object can lead to purposeless investments and gassy, self-congratulatory, but ultimately ineffectual initiatives.

To me, the secret to unlocking value in the predictions business has always been in knowing how to distinguish the meaningful from the merely novel. By separating the signal from the noise, we gain a tangible market advantage-one that will not only lead your brand to superior engagement with your customers, but also, ultimately, higher conversion to a script or a sale. It’s as simple, and as vital, as that.

2017: The Top Ten Healthcare Trends

Since we’ve all been conditioned by David Letterman to think in terms of “Top Tens,” and since that’s a good number to give you some indication of just how massively healthcare is being disrupted today, I give you my Top Ten Healthcare Trends of 2017.

Note: These are not the only trends that matter, and they are not presented here in order of importance.

(Drummy roll, please)


90% of all the data created in the history of the world has been generated in the last 2 years. As a result, it’s growing increasingly more difficult for patients and even medical professionals to keep pace with the mountains of healthcare data.

Source: Dan Tinkoff, McKinsey & Co., at the Digital Health Coalition Spring Summit, May 8, 2017.


Within 5 years, 50% of all hospitals will adopt AI to enable their physicians’ delivery of medical care. In fact, because of Data Smog, without AI, doctors could well be completely unable to navigate the treatment landscape.

Source: Healthcare IT News and HIMSS Analytics survey, April 11, 2017,


The VR market grew by 168% in 2016-to $5 billion-and is expected to reach $38 billion by 2020. One of the greatest areas of potential is the healthcare sector, where VR promises big impact by improving training, expanding educational vistas, and increasing empathy for patients suffering from a wide variety of conditions.

Source: Superdata,


By 2018, 63% of millennials will want to provide health data from wearable devices to their HCPs. We are entering a world where “the Quantified Self” is becoming normalized in healthcare.

Source: Welkin Health blog,


60% of articles shared on social media are never read by the sender. Admit it, you’ve done it too: “That looks interesting/reinforces my world view, let me spam it out to everyone I know!”

Source: The Science Post, June 4, 2016,




In 2015, mobile searches surpassed desktop searches for health information-fundamentally changing health info consumption behavior. For example, Google found that, once mobile searches eclipsed desktop searches, location-based searches grew dramatically (where is the nearest pharmacy? nearest doctor? best urgent care clinic?).

Source: Google.


By 2021, there will be more than 50 million home-health monitoring devices in US homes. Whether a general-purpose device like Amazon’s Alexa, Google Home, Apple’s HomePod, or a health-specific device, embedding health monitoring in the décor means patients will have higher expectations for responsiveness and service.

Source: Circle Square, HIT Trends, February 2017.


In 2016, 50% of all doctor-patient interactions at Kaiser Permanente were technology-enabled, and that number is rising-fast. Patients have tried Virtual Healthcare, and they like it. Stay home in your pajamas, have a consult on your laptop, go back to bed. The 21st century house call.

Source: Physicians News Network, October 26, 2016,



86% of all social interactions now occur by means of messenger apps instead of over “standard” social platforms like Facebook and Twitter. The “message” here is that radically simple technologies like texting are dramatically preferred by the vast majority of people you’re trying to reach.

Source: RadiumOne, 2016.

10. QUICK. VISUAL. QUIET. (QVQ): The new syntax of digital communications

84% of Facebook videos are watched with the sound off, but less than half of these videos are designed to be understandable without sound. Viewing behaviors are changing, so you need to design your content to take advantage of them.

Source: Facebook study, 2016.

Making sense of trends: signals in the noise

You could easily drive yourself crazy trying to keep up with all these epochal changes, much less figuring out how they will impact your business. So it’s not only sensible, but essential for good mental hygiene, to winnow down the list … to separate the trends that are interesting from those that are likely to have a substantial impact on your business-the business of pharmaceutical promotion.

Fortunately, while all these trends are important to the overall healthcare landscape, they do not all hold equal, or at least not immediate, significance for pharma marketing. So let’s do a solid for our collective sanity and focus on three of the trends that portend the most significance for you. Today.

1. TELEMEDICINE: The doctor will see you NOW!

No digital health trend has had a more significant and surprising impact than the rapid growth of “Virtual Distributed Medicine,” also called Telemedicine. You saw in trend #8 above that 50% of all doctor-patient interactions at Kaiser-Permanente (that enormous, California-based healthcare system) were technology-enabled in 2016. Whether those interactions were merely assisted by a digital technology (smartphone, tablet, kiosk) or were entirely conducted over technology (full-scale telemedicine), the effect has been profound.

“What we’re now seeing is greater interaction with our members and the healthcare system,” said Kaiser CEO Bernard Tyson (@BernardJTyson). “They’re asking different questions; they’re behaving more like consumers; and medical information now is becoming a critical part of how they’re making life choices.”

But how, you may be asking, does this relate to pharma marketing? Well, to see the relevance, you need to fully comprehend the changing nature of the patient-physician experience. The marketers at Orexigen Therapeutics saw it when they thought differently about marketing Contrave®, their product indicated for weight loss. Contrave faced a number of unique challenges, and the marketers at Orexigen understood that:

  • health insurance was not likely to cover the treatment

  • in the current environment, doctors are often reluctant to prescribe a pill for weight loss

  • patients were often reluctant even to ask about a prescription therapy for weight loss, for fear of being shamed by their doctors (a shocking but very real phenomenon)

Facing these challenges, the Contrave brand team knew they had to reach consumers directly, but they couldn’t rely on the “standard” pharma DTC approach.

That’s where the telemedicine trend became highly relevant.

Orexigen devised a completely online selling model, wherein digital advertising led prospects directly to the Contrave website. After providing some basic information, the potential patient could request (and pay a small fee for) an online consult with a doctor-right then and there. The telemedicine service (provided by a third party) enables a direct video consult between the patient and a doctor, who assesses the patient’s suitability for Contrave, advises the patient of risks, and then, if the doctor determines the patient is appropriate, authorizes the prescription. The whole process takes just a few minutes.

Orexigen even makes the fulfillment process easy and efficient, enabling patients to get the product shipped overnight directly to their homes, thereby adding an Amazon-like element of speed and convenience to the sale of a pharmaceutical product.

So the trend was telemedicine, but the innovation was re-engineering the DTC selling process: accelerating the patient journey to conversion while increasing throughput. And it seems to have worked. At the end of March, Orexigen reported “dramatic growth” and its Chief Operating Officer and President of Global Commercial Products, Dr. Thomas Cannell, shared, “Our telemedicine pilot program has also demonstrated early signs of success in California and Texas, and we’re now targeting the expansion of the offering to 47 total states by the end of May. The combined effect of this novel, broadly integrated commercial effort is clearly visible in our prescription-volume and net-sales performance to date.”



2. “Dark” Social Media and the radical simplicity of texting

Dark Social Media may be a new term to you, so a moment’s explanation: I’m not referring to anything nefarious lurking in the nether regions of the internet. Dark Social Media simply refers to internet communications among people that does not take place on public platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Snap. It’s called “Dark” because it can’t be seen (except by the NSA) as easily as normal social media interactions. (If the word “Dark” makes you uncomfortable, you can refer to it as “Private” Social Media.) Whatever you call it, this kind of social communication has two major characteristics: it’s extremely simple and low effort (it’s texting) and for that reason, it’s become the clearly preferred mode of daily communication for most people most of the time. According to social media monitoring firm Radium One, 86% of all social media is now of the “Dark” variety, and that’s not just among millennials, that’s for everyone.

So virtually everyone you are attempting to communicate with prefers simple texting. That’s proven. Yet, most pharma marketers persist in creating CRM programs that are primarily based on websites and emails. Of course, this might make sense for some demographics (although I would challenge you to look critically at the data before conceding that point) but for the vast majority of audiences, email is no longer their preferred mode of communication. So why don’t we give our customers the kinds of experiences we know they like best? Namely, why are we not using automated, anticipatory, context-sensitive technology to give customers superior service experiences?

I’m thinking of a technology such as a Chatbot-an automated means for patients (or HCPs for that matter) to get answers to their questions immediately. Chatbots are being used to great effect in other industries (leaders include Disney, Whole Foods, and Pizza Hut), but why not in pharma? A well-designed Chatbot would be smart enough to understand the general nature of a patient’s question, steering the patient to the answer by means of an input no more complicated than a text message, or even the most radically simple interface device of all-a voice command. To my mind, this is the future of CRM for pharma, and several companies have already taken steps in that direction. Synergy Pharma stepped in it with their “Poop Troop” emojis, meant to simplify the conversation about Chronic Idiopathic Constipation between patients and professionals, using a friendly form of (truly) Dark Social Media.

3. QVQ: The new syntax of digital communications

Another term that may have surprised you in my Top Ten is QVQ, which stands for Quick, Visual, and Quiet. The acronym (coinage uncertain) refers to the way in which new modes of media consumption are leading to different forms of content design. And while this trend may be surprising, it also may well be the one with the most immediate impact on the way you need to think about your marketing.

When people interact with websites and social media properties (and, despite the growth of Dark Social Media, these remain extremely vital channels), they do so in ways that are significantly different than were common even a few years ago. Why? Because as technology has evolved, so have the habits people exhibit when they are consuming information. To put it bluntly, many people now digest information in a state of near-permanent distraction-often using several digital devices at once-and they focus on any one platform for only a few seconds before the next Pavlovian ding distracts them. Consumers are typically viewing their favorite websites or social channels with the sound off, scanning for interesting or entertaining content as they multitask. To put it another way, their experiential syntax has changed.

To reach people effectively in this transformed information environment, you need to design your content very differently, acknowledging that attention is now the scarcest commodity. So you need to deploy different techniques to capture it. Specifically:

  • Your content assets must be highly condensed: they need to be Quick.

  • Your content must be graphically distinctive to command attention: they must be Visual.

  • Since we know that people are often viewing with the sound off, the assets must be comprehensible without the benefit of audio: they have to be Quiet.

Thus, QVQ.

But despite the reality of this new syntax, it’s startling how few content developers are building assets designed to work optimally in this new reality. Remember, Facebook says 84% of their videos are viewed with the sound off; they also say that 41% of videos on their platform are not easily comprehensible without sound.

In the world of pharma marketing, that percentage is likely to be far worse.

Of course, that discrepancy spells opportunity for the more sophisticated marketer who takes advantage of the QVQ trend-just as the savvier content developers on Facebook have realized. For example, Buzzfeed’s Tasty food videos ( earned the second highest engagement of any sponsor on Facebook in 2016-engagement that led to some 142 million actions.

I am sometimes challenged by those who say, in effect, “You can’t do that sort of thing in pharma; we have to be serious.” But I counter: If your audience isn’t picking up what you’re putting out, your communication is impotent. So it’s really incumbent on us as good marketers to design messages and message delivery that will connect with the experiential reality of our viewers. Not the reality we may wish were the case, but the reality that is the case.

Which is why keeping QVQ top of mind is critical. It’s important to communicate even complex messages in serious therapeutic categories like oncology in ways that will arrest the attention of our distracted audiences, to pry open a sliver of cognitive space so that a productive conversation may begin.

Decoding Disruption: Making Meaningful Marketing

The Disruption roiling the healthcare environment today isn’t going away; as with everything in the digital age, it’s accelerating. Accordingly, we all need to get very good at making sense of the trends without being hypnotized or paralyzed by them.

To that end, you need to keep these three things in mind:

  • Focus only on those trends that will have immediate, real-world relevance to your promotional strategy.

  • When seeking to exploit a trend, be willing to think different(ly) about the marketing possibilities within a broader solution landscape-just as the Orexigen marketers exploited the telemedicine trend to help re-engineer the selling process for Contrave.

  • Finally, and most importantly, whatever marketing assets you are developing, you must give your audiences something of unique, highly differentiated value. Pharma marketers are competing with other information sources that are more highly trusted, so we have to earn attention and trust by creating far superior assets using the most meaningful new techniques.

And, in the end, that’s why knowing the trends that matter, matters so much to marketers.  

Bill Drummy is Founder & Chairman of Heartbeat.