Image via Placeit.

Image via Placeit.

Over the last few years, responsive design has become the new trend in web design. It’s an approach that ensures the way content is presented adapts to any device.

The term is analogous to the “agile” method of product and business development favoured by startups in the healthcare industry and beyond. It involves small, cyclical bursts of development and rapid testing that let brands conceive ideas iteratively and adapt along the way.

I was thinking about the evolution of relationship marketing (RM) a few weeks ago – as I often do – and coined the term “Responsive RM” in a brainstorming meeting. I often come up with new terms (and have been known to buy domain names as a hobby when I get excited about one), but RRM really stuck, and the more I think about the concept, the more I love where it leads.

The problem with relationship marketing

Over the past 10 years, my company has developed and launched almost 50 RM programs, primarily for patients and caregivers. Despite the evolution of digital technology, including social and mobile, much of our approach to RM remains unchanged.

Traditional RM looks something like this:


Traditional relationship marketing pre-defines the target populations and provides messaging linearly.

(e – email; p – phone; o – offline)

People opt into a program either by sending in a business reply card (BRC), by enrolling online or through a call-in phone number. They are then divided into three segments:
A – Patients using our client’s product;
B – Patients diagnosed with the disease but not using our client’s product, and;
C – Patients seeking information about their disease.

Content is then delivered through emails, printed materials and online.

The problem with this traditional model is that it’s neither nimble nor flexible and it isn’t designed to adapt to new media.

That’s exactly what pharmaceutical brands and medical regulatory teams love about this kind of marketing – its boxed-in style makes it easy to adhere to stringent FDA rules and regulations.

The promise of responsive RM

There is hope! Responsive RM is agile and can accommodate FDA rules, such as providing information about possible treatment side effects, that are a fact of life in the pharmaceutical industry. Responsive RM listens first and communicates second.

With Responsive RM, the marketing team and partners won’t sit in a room and bang out rigid segments or opt for linear messaging. It won’t take 12 months to implement a program that’s too cumbersome to change later on.

At its core, a responsive RM strategy will marry content development with a content management system (CMS). Whenever and wherever a consumer interacts digitally with a brand, the CMS will be ready with content that responds to the patient’s needs.

For example, if a patient is tracking her symptoms online, the platform will use that data to serve her personalized content. Say the patient indicates “fatigue” as a primary symptom three days in a row. The platform will respond by providing that patient with a list of causes of fatigue and advice for how to manage it.

The Responsive RM model looks like this:

Responsive Relationship Marketing

Responsive relationship marketing uses online engagement to determine what kind of messaging people receive.

With the Responsive RM model, segmentation is organic rather than predetermined. People are segmented based on their online engagement with personalized content.

And yes, we can still leverage familiar media such as email, phone, offline, etc. The difference is that the messaging for these channels is also dynamically tailored via the same content library that’s used to serve people content on the web. (Remember COPE? Create Once Publish Everywhere.)

Questions we should be asking up front, and iteratively, as we move along the Responsive RM journey:

  • What content do patients and caregivers value most? How do they find it?
  • Who should author this content? (clue: not the brand, but outside experts)
  • What kinds of content are being shared peer to peer?
  • How does content scale, reaching the right patient at the right time?
  • How can brands insert themselves into the content ecosystem in ways that return value to the brand?

So, as you think about your new or existing RM program, ask yourself: Is the relationship designed to be responsive? Is it nimble and flexible, or are you still “planning and canning”?

It’s time to evolve our relationship marketing model so that we are actually building relationships, and not just records.