Bringing a healthy skepticism to health care marketing

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Maybe it was his years on the agency side but Burt Rosen, chief marketing officer of HealthSparq, a health care software solutions provider, just refuses to speak health care. Describing the industry as an "echo chamber" that has "little to no idea how to talk to people," Rosen is a man on mission, looking to reshape not just the vocabulary of the industry but also the way health care challenges are solved. And this is no small challenge.

Rosen's epiphany arrived when he noticed that health care conferences were mainly filled with "all old white guys talking to old white guys about making change in the industry that all the old white guys created." This observation sparked the creation of a new conference called "What's the Fix?" that brings together people who have essentially hacked the system to solve their health problems. Now in its second year, What the Fix? has proved to be shock treatment for the industry and an awareness-driving infusion for the brand.

How is health care marketing different?

Health care, as an industry, has no idea how to talk to people (obviously there are exceptions). I was coming out of a background where I knew how to talk to people because of my consumer brand experience—like doing digital content for hotels and for child care. I'll never forget the first day I got here. I started to look at some of the collateral that existed, and we had one piece that was an image of a cloudy sky with two arms like in a yellow rain slicker holding up an iPad that had sunshine in it. It was product barf! It had no idea what it was trying to say. It just spoke to what we do, not why it should matter to anyone. It was more like "Let's barf everything we do onto a piece of collateral." The industry is a huge echo chamber. It focuses so much on itself, it never actually thinks about the impact it makes on people. We saw an opportunity to really focus on the benefits of what we do for normal people.

So how did you approach it?

We did a survey of all the employees and we spoke to a lot of our clients and did a lot of other research. We figured out what needed to happen: let's not talk about the tool that we offer. Let's talk about the impact that the tool we offer makes on the person at the end. And we shifted the whole brand around it. Our mission statement became helping people make smarter health care choices and we really focused on the people part of it.

Does storytelling have a role here?

The key word for me is "relatability." I want to walk into a client and say, "Hey, let me just tell you a story about Margaret's pregnancy and how she didn't necessarily know where to go, so she did these things and they helped her..." It's just a much different type of sell than "let me show you how my provider finder and cost treatment tools work." When I'm in meetings, I'll say let's just talk about what this feels like for one of your health plan members. I'll actually write a story and I'll make it personal. A lot of the ways we're using storytelling deals with: how do we get people to engage with us, and to articulate their own stories as we're talking about things. We're using storytelling as a way to form a more human connection and to be more relatable to what we do in an industry that should be highly, highly emotional, but isn't.

What were some of the stories you were hearing?

Health care is insane. You read stories every week about somebody who was charged $600 for a Band-Aid in a hospital or somebody who charged $40 for the nurse to hold their child. Crazy stories. We wanted to start collecting these stories, so we started a hashtag: #WhatTheHealthCare. And we aggregated all the tweets on a website, and we got some decent traction on it. But not necessarily as much as we wanted. Then we sat back, and we said: "OK, let's think this through a little bit more." We don't want to be the cranks of health care. Everybody knows it sucks. We don't want to just be the ones who are aggregating stories of how much it sucks.

And were these the same stories you were hearing at conferences?

I have been in health care for about three and a half years and went to a lot of health care conferences early on. The theme always somehow related to consumerism at these conferences. What you'd find is, you go to the conference and you'd never actually see a normal consumer. And hopefully this isn't offensive, and I apologize if it is, but what I found at these conferences is they're all old white guys talking to old white guys about making change in the industry that all the old white guys created. It really is an echo chamber. It's just people talking to each other about stuff that's never going to happen.

Is that the impetus for your "What's the Fix?" conference?

Yes. This is my passion project. I said, "What if instead of the industry hearing from the industry, it learns from people who have overcome health care obstacles despite the system, not because of it, and then have driven change as a result?" That was the elevator pitch. And that was the start of "What's the Fix?". The site for that is whatsthefix.info and #WTFix on social.

How did it roll out from there?

I started reaching out to people and found amazing stories. There was one woman who is a Type 1 diabetic, who hacked her own artificial pancreas and built it open source so anyone could do it. I found another story of a father and a mother whose son had severe epilepsy, over 200 seizures a day, and they read about treatment with CBD, but it was illegal in the U.S. They went to Great Britain, treated him with CBD, and ultimately got his seizures down to under 10 a day, and it's now in clinical trials in the U.S. I looked for stories of people who drove the change instead of the industry driving change.

Seems like a big risk—did it work out as you had hoped?

The risk for me was—I didn't know if anybody would care. I'd never done a conference like this before, so we kept it pretty much on a shoestring, and we were pretty successful. I mean we had 650 people register for it. We trended on Twitter and had 2700 tweets. The business objective for me was that I wanted HealthSparq to be associated with the concept of a company in health care that actually cares about people, that puts people first. We're doing it again this May and the registrations are way ahead of last year!

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