Before beginning the MSTC program, I regularly stipulated to my colleagues that I didn’t know anything about marketing. If I’m honest, I didn’t want to know anything about marketing. For me, marketing was mostly a pejorative word reserved for the magical hand-waving and special kind of half-truth whispered into the ears of people reluctant to buy something. Three classes into the MSTC program, though, and it was apparent that I had missed some rich opportunities due to this limited view. More importantly, I had committed the grave mistake of tacitly accepting the status quo paradigm of my customer. Worst of all, perhaps, I myself have been (kind of, maybe) a marketer without even knowing it.
For the last two and half years I have been a part of an Austin-based startup aiming to stymie the deleterious effects of preventable chronic diseases like Type 2 Diabetes and COPD. As is generally the case in startups, my compatriots and I have worn many hats. One of my hats involves conducting in-depth interviews with users so that we can learn about their needs and experiences. Following the revelation that user interviews are not just an aspect of but a central part of marketing, I retreated (appropriately chastened) to my recordings of the interviews I conducted to reevaluate my conclusions. Following are three observations that I consider blunders I made by not applying basic marketing paradigms that I hope other entrepreneurs in healthcare (and beyond) can avoid.
1. People that share an attribute don’t necessarily share a need.
Treating a person based on a disease or diagnosis is a logical and necessary approach for medical professionals in acute situations. However, when engaging with people as consumers rather than patients, segmenting by disease is often the wrong approach. Why? The mere fact that people share a disease does little to inform us of what people need. For example, consumer interviews revealed a broad range of needs for people with Type 2 Diabetes, from accountability to encouragement, healthy meal recipes to reminders to take medication. Some people simply need a trigger to remind them to make good choices, while others need hands-on training in how to healthily navigate a restaurant menu. Some just want to know that someone cares. Recognizing this range fundamentally changes the nature of the solutions we can and should employ.
2. Don’t assume people will pay for a problem to be solved at any cost.
Navigating healthcare payments is notoriously complex and, despite the sheer size of annual healthcare expenditures, health system margins are often slim. Consumers daily feel the impact of the real growth rate of per capita expenditures, especially at lower income ranges. But, as pernicious as some diseases can be, we should neither assume that people can or will pay for solutions nor that, in the grand scheme of their lifestyle, people can adapt to radical change. Rather, we should consider how we can meet them on their own terms.
3. Seek out the experience people want to have, not just the one that you can provide them
In most cases, a visit to a doctor or a hospital is a matter of necessity. Optimizing that experience is an important undertaking, but the reality is that in those circumstances people generally wish they were somewhere else. It isn’t an experience they want to have. The task in front of healthcare entrepreneurs is to envision experiences beyond this environment where consumers can willingly and positively engage.
A hallmark of worthwhile education programs is their ability to expose new paradigms and frameworks that can be immediately applied to areas of weakness, especially when you do not initially recognize the area as a weakness. The MSTC program has done that for me. While all the appropriate humble caveats apply (I am neither a healthcare professional nor a true marketer), recognizing the breadth and depth of the marketing paradigm has fundamentally altered my ability to assess the business landscape. Now, when I say I don’t know anything about marketing I don’t mean it as a willful choice but as a desire to learn about and understand the people who matter most: those we aim to help.
Elijah D Kelley is a graduate of the MSTC Class of 2018. He is currently a Solutions Director with Wellsmith Inc., a startup which gives people the tools to make simple, memorable and actionable choices to manage their health.