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How Images Have Evolved in the Medical Marketing Sector

The branding and creative design sensibilities of the medical marketing sector have come a long way in, oh, say, the past hundred years. Gone (for the most part) are the advertisements for pills and tonics painted on the sides of barns along US highways. Gone, too, is the era of the Yellow Pages and flyers left on doorsteps. Today the primary challenge facing a creative agency working for a healthcare client is less about building general awareness than it is about researching which stakeholders to target within the patient access journey—everyone from pharmacies to providers to the patients themselves—and identifying which digital channels they frequent.

As the audience for medical marketing has grown (and become more specialized), the options for online content creation have sprawled. Healthcare advertisers now deploy blogs, videos, podcasts, interactive quizzes, and newsletter campaigns, just to name a few. Yet eye-tracking research demonstrates the particular importance of images to a website’s business value, especially if those images are product-specific, convey the information that users are looking for, and depict people who seem genuine or uncurated—actual patients, for example, rather than models drawn from libraries of stock photos. So let’s trace how medical marketing images have evolved over time and examine some current design tactics that could help your customers find you and feel comfortable about signing up for your products or services.

A Brief History of Medical Marketing

The field of medicine is always in flux. Even today, new research has revealed that most of what we thought we knew about human metabolism was—what’s the word for it?—wrong. Still, it can be jarring to learn how many medical treatments in the past weren’t just wrong, they were addictive or absurd or even lethal

Prescribing cigarettes to treat asthma, eating Kellogg’s corn flakes to stymie the urge to masturbate, taking heroin because you’ve got a cough or arsenic because you’ve got syphilis, mixing wine and cocaine as “a general cure-all”—many of these snake-oil tinctures and placebos killed people or ruined their health, and the advertising that accompanied them was toxic, sometimes literally. RadiThor, a 1920s energy drink consisting of the element radium dissolved in water, billed itself as “Perpetual Sunshine” and “A Cure For the Living Dead.” An ad for the “Tapeworm Diet” shows a woman gazing at a pile of pantry items—peanuts, macaroni, graham crackers—under the words “Eat! Eat! Eat! & Always Stay Thin! How? With Sanitized Tapeworms Easy to Swallow! No Ill Effects!”

Even though the FDA was founded in 1906, it’s safe to assume that they weren’t regulating a lot of the mountebank medical pamphlets and ads circulating in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Take RadiThor again: The guy who came up with it was a Harvard dropout and—this is the salient point—not a medical doctor. Today, healthcare marketers have to work within HIPAA compliance parameters, which means they cannot ooze lies from every fiber of their being. (Considering, however, that some Big Pharma execs today are going to prison for bribing doctors to prescribe a fentanyl mouth spray, we admit it: People always seem to have a penchant for lying.)

Ever since 1883, hospitals and enterprising physicians have advertised in the Yellow Pages, and, once cars became mass-produced, on barns or billboards along the road. (The eyes of T. J. Eckleburg, anyone?) Soap and shampoo manufacturers reached a larger audience with the invention of radio. By the 1950s–60s, hospitals adopted a community-customized approach to their marketing, distributing newsletters to nearby families to inform them about their facilities and their care services.

Responsive Design

Fast-forward to the 1990s: The internet forever changed medical marketing. Hospitals created websites that were way simpler and way more HTML-y than the sites that we’re used to today, but that also combined many elements that we still use: photography, copywriting, creative design. Early websites often resembled ads and posters—aesthetically pleasing templates that informed the public about which healthcare services a company offered. Websites today are built with responsive design that lets patients access the interface across a range of devices—tablets, laptops, smartphones—and that feature addresses, phone numbers, and contact pages where users can fill out a form to ask a question or request a consultation.

Since the people who are clicking around on healthcare sites may be worried that they’re ill or misdiagnosed, they’re probably searching for providers who will give them answers and treatments with minimum hassles and turnarounds. So designers tend to choose images on those sites that evoke an aura of professionalism, or that soothe and reassure the viewer. They also make the UX smooth and intuitive—guiding users to the services they’re looking for. The importance of user convenience often means that a creative agency will spend just as much time on the “Login” and “Search” and “Subscribe” buttons, or on any instant payment or one-tap registration functionality, than it will on developing striking visuals or original artwork. As we’ll elaborate on later: The marketing in this industry is all about the consumer.

Interactive Content

Thankfully, the messages in medical marketing have evolved from the P. T. Barnumesque days of “Eat! Eat! Eat! & Always Stay Thin!” (Although, granted, the myth of being thin is still alive and well.) Today, medical advertising tends to be more interactive, which makes sense: Live Q&A sessions or educational infographics or calculators based on customer inputs help people steer through the byzantine systems of US healthcare. Messages in healthcare—at least, smart messages—aren’t blared out at the world anymore. Instead, they better resemble tools that give consumers behind-the-scenes insights and, in turn, evoke trust for their brand. Here are a few of the content types that tend to inspire loyalty and lead to a conversion:

Microinteractions:

Scrollbars, digital alarms, email notifications, pull-to-fresh animations—these are all microinteractions, UX elements that help prevent system errors and provide feedback to users. Combine these triggers into your design arsenal to engage and empower your customers within the interface that you’ve created.

Live Stream Videos:

As of 2017, 71% of healthcare companies offered two-way video and webcam functionality. Translation: Telemedicine has arrived, and if you use it to make it easier for your patients to reach you, they’ll thank you for the convenience, likely in the form of repeat visits.

Digital Tours:

Imagine that you’re eight months pregnant and preparing for your upcoming trip to the hospital. Would you want to read directions on how to get there (“Park in Lot B, go to the East Wing, take the elevator to the fifth floor, and proceed through a maze of antisepticized corridors”)? Or would you prefer to click on a series of 360° photos and watch videos with a friendly voiceover that describes where you should go and what the rooms will look like? We’re guessing that you want to see the hospital for yourself rather than just read about it, which is why this video feature can be so compelling for prospective patients.

Videos:

According to surveys from 2021, 84% of consumers reported that they were swayed to buy a product or service after watching a brand’s video. The importance of video marketing continues to rise, and it seems poised to become the preferred medium to replace face-to-face sales in the COVID era of contactless-everything. Since most people don’t trust advertising, it’s probably best to keep your video content pithy and informative rather than over promise anything. Another strategy is to create video testimonials of patients who do trust your services, which people tend to share with each other, perhaps because the unscripted quality of the messaging can feel more sincere than a PR statement that 15 people in a corporate comms department all left their paw-prints on.

Consumer-Focused Content

Pore over vintage medical advertising, and you’re likely to come across the same message again and again: “Buy now.” Focusing on all the wackadoodle products or panacea health solutions of the past—vitamin donuts, the “diet dodge” benefits of sugar, the wonders of amphetamines for weight loss—is easy enough from our historical vantage. Yet what’s just as noteworthy is that while the phrasing may differ, the essential CTA within these ads seems to stay fairly uniform: You, Customer, order this thing from us.

Medical marketing today, which has largely migrated over to a digital context, instead chops up the customer into a hundred psychographic profiles and serves each one behavior-based and bite-sized ads. Yes, you want your customers to interact with your content, but you also need to tweak your content so that its interactive features appeal to the right customer. When healthcare data analysts talk about their jobs, they sometimes describe themselves as experts who cull insights from within “the noise.” That term itself is an insight into the vastness of US healthcare, which accounted for 17.7% of our GDP in 2019 and has been described as “the most consequential part of the United States economy.” That’s a lot of noise, and to cut through it, modern medical marketing needs to feel personalized. 

The customer, then, is no longer that single Customer who’s pelted with buy-now CTAs. Instead, the customer is guided to different content types depending on which stage of the funnel she’s in. If she’s Googling how to find a nearby provider, a banner ad can route her to a hospital’s landing page. If she’s deeper in the hospital’s site and doesn’t know whether her insurance covers certain procedures, an educational infographic can answer common FAQs. Take a look at a few more examples of consumer-focused content strategies:

Beacons:

A beacon is a Bluetooth-enabled device that you can use to broadcast notifications to the cell phones of patients within a certain geographic range of your office—sending them questionnaires, follow-up messages, or reminders about their upcoming appointments.

Marketing Automation:

Take some time to research the best CRM (or “customer relationship management”) platforms on the market right now. Most likely, you’ll want something with the capability to track leads, follow up with customers, or segment your audience according to age and location.

Accessibility:

Adhering to web accessibility standards is not only legal best practice (and just the right thing to do)—it also communicates the distinct message that your services are inclusive. Everyone, you’re saying, is welcome to our practice. Some ADA web compliance must-haves include adding alt tags to images, using appropriate color contrasts, captioning your videos, or providing a text transcript for audio files.

Social Media

The images associated with the word “medicine” are rarely all that inspiring. Surgical lights, microscope slides, lab coats, pills, syringes—it’s hard to move anyone to action when most of the pictures you’re showing them suggest blood being drawn or the human body diagnosed, analyzed, cut open. The old solution to that issue was to show healthy people looking ecstatic about guzzling back tonics or elixirs. Medical marketing today relies more on social proof of the efficacy of a clinic, a new medication, the importance of getting your flu (read: COVID) shot this winter—namely, people, preferably real people, who have gone to said clinic or taken the aforementioned medication or gotten their shot.

You could, potentially, reach billions of patients across social media, and because social is often more about retention than acquisition, you should use it to boost your brand awareness and manage your reputation. To the extent that you can—we realize that HIPAA, rightfully, establishes protections around patient privacy—be sure to tell the stories of the people you serve. Post one of the video testimonials that we mentioned earlier. Open up your accounts to reviews, and pay to boost the most glowing, praise-heaping of those reviews. Just bear in mind that companies can’t delete reviews on Yelp!, but they can change them on Facebook and Twitter. So while you want your social media to immerse your audience into the stories that make your branding feel relatable, it’s also important to choose your platforms wisely.

It’s Business—And Personal

Healthcare marketing has garnered a certain reputation for being outmoded—the last bastion of Yellow Pages ads and the only niche that still thinks direct mail is a smarter investment than email newsletters. All the tactics that we’ve listed above can help your medical marketing efforts thrive in the digital age, but unless your content feels personable, those tactics won’t amount to a heap of asthma cigarettes. Crafting a creative design that assuages people’s worries and leads them to answers that are relevant to them may set them at ease enough to filter out the rest of the noise in this industry and focus on the images that you show them.

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