Personalization Marketing Healthcare Marketing

Personalization in healthcare is broken: Introducing the ‘user-forward’ paradigm

By Dagmara Scalise, Vice President, Client Strategy



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April 30, 2024 | 9 min read

Next-generation CRM in healthcare is here – but are ethics and personalization at odds? For The Drum’s health & pharma focus week, Merkle’s Dagmara Scalise and Erin Kelsh investigate.

A pair of hands giving thumbs-up in surgical gloves

Time to rethink personalization in healthcare, say Merkle’s Dagmara Scalise and Erin Kelsh / Diana Polekhina via Unsplash

Today’s dominant personalization framework is all about knowing the individual and applying that information to intercept their journey and serve up relevant content that meets their needs. The end goal is to drive a relationship with the brand or product.

That’s the theory.

But the way it tends to play out in the real world is much less compelling. How useful, really, is it to send (or receive) an email saying, “Hi, Sarah,” if the email content is only tangentially related to who Sarah is and what she needs?

Personalization in name only is particularly common in healthcare, and it’s no wonder, given the sheer effort involved in building out robust identity solutions, standing up clean rooms, and building look-alike audiences to target customers all while avoiding that third rail of healthcare marketing: incursions into patient privacy. But we can do better.

A tough market for personalization

Healthcare marketers routinely struggle with the ethics of targeting consumers based on health conditions or other sensitive information.

According to data security firm BakerHostetler, healthcare (including biotech and pharma), is the industry most impacted by data security issues, accounting for nearly 1 in 4 (24%) incidents.

Pixel litigation (lawsuits related to website tracking technologies) has surged in recent years. The company’s 2023 Data Security Incident Response Report notes that, since 2022, more than 50 lawsuits have been filed against hospitals alleging they track and disclose patients’ identities and online activities via third-party analytic tools without the website visitors’ knowledge and consent.

It’s little wonder that healthcare marketers are generally happy to achieve even minimal levels of personalization given the complexity and risk associated with audience tracking, targeting, and retargeting.

The paradox of data and personalization

The scaffold for personalization is the often-extensive data collection and mapping process, wherein we stitch together a mosaic of data points about an individual’s behavior across the digital (and, if possible, offline) ecosystem over time.

Again, that’s the theory.

Our industry and culture are awash in data, and reams of it confirm that consumers and healthcare professionals want us to know, or better yet, anticipate their needs. They prefer personalized, relevant offers and services and multi- or even omnichannel engagement. According to McKinsey, nearly 60% of HCPs say they prefer omnichannel engagement. This preference drives efforts to build out detailed data portraits of who is engaging, where, with what kind of content, and how. However, too often, that data doesn’t actually lead to better experiences, engagements, or ROI.

What if instead of focusing on stitching together a 1:1 identity, we first stepped back and approached our customers not based on who they are (and what their journey looks like), but on what they do? How might reframing the goal from personalization to relevance change tactics and results? What if the current approach to personalization is all wrong?

Speed, content, and the need for relevant messaging

Outside of privacy risks, possibly the biggest roadblock to personalization is the scale at which we need to deliver personalized experiences once we move into omnichannel marketing. The omnichannel machine is demanding: the more channels we use for activation, the more content we need. And today, there’s strong demand from pharma companies, providers, health retailers, payers, and others in the healthcare space to deliver content at scale, at speed, and compliantly. We’re challenged to meet people where they are and to know more about them and their health journey.

So, how do we navigate the twin roadblocks of privacy and scale? With data-driven, user-forward messaging. This means thinking about personalization differently, and shifting strategy (not necessarily changing data collection itself).

Rather than determining Sarah’s experience based on a pre-defined journey (‘if she clicks X link, serve Y message’), we look for data signals in her behavior and use that information to personalize her experience based on her real actions.

User-forward messaging leverages both unified customer profiles (accurate, secure data) and their customers’ behavioral actions, but is flexible and reactive, enabling organizations to create content that can be modular and personalized at the same time. It’s a simpler approach to personalization, without the same level of risk as targeting or retargeting messages based on personal identifiable information (PII), and a more robust and agile approach that enables an organization to create a library of content that can be delivered quickly.

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The components of a user-forward messaging approach

All of this does mean making some changes. In brief, that includes:

  • Identity analysis to determine the percentage of your database that is known versus unknown, and developing strategies for each audience.

  • Using anonymized data to help build understanding of user behavior, preferences, etc (when identities are unknown).

  • Building a repository of approved audience data that can be activated in real-time with approved modular content, developed to dynamically react to the individual and not to a large subset of personas.

  • Deploying creative generative AI messaging strategies that enhance marketers’ capabilities by setting new standards for efficiency, production, campaign/journey optimization, and personalized customer experiences.

  • Developing large language data sets that follow brand-approved guidelines to achieve secure, ethical copy and content.

  • Using behavioral triggers that don’t mimic retail historical use cases like ‘abandon cart’, but assist the provider or patient during their journey.

User-forward messaging enables us to reach customers with information that is genuinely relevant to them, which, after all, is the intent of personalized messaging. And it allows organizations to leverage scale since content can be developed and repackaged into many different formats, quickly (or at least agilely) in the service of building brand trust and nurturing patient and HCP relationships. It’s truly a win-win-win.

For more analysis of the health and medicine landscapes, head over to our health and pharma in focus hub.

Personalization Marketing Healthcare Marketing

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Merkle is a leading data-driven customer experience management (CXM) company that specializes in the delivery of unique, personalized customer experiences across...

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