Author and public speaker Jay Acunzo has made a career out of challenging conventional thinking to inspire organizations to do their best work.
In a recent conversation, Acunzo, a veteran of Google and HubSpot, among other marquee brands, shared some insights from his book Break the Wheel.
Q: How would you advise healthcare marketers to challenge conventional thinking in a highly regulated industry that is literally built on best practices and a “follow the leader” mentality—especially when it comes to marketing?
Jay Acunzo: Finding best practices isn’t the goal—finding the best approach for us as marketers is. Unfortunately, as healthcare marketers, we’ve started to conflate “best practice” with “best for us.” My goal isn’t to help the healthcare industry challenge conventional wisdom or break from it so much as understand why it works—or whether it does—for each of our specific situations. After all, best practices aren’t answers, they’re possibilities. Then it’s up to each team to vet those possibilities for a given context.
When we base what we do on a generality or absolute, we’re missing key variables—like us and our team, our specific physicians, the brand we represent and what it stands for, the market or audience or region or topics we aim to serve and discuss, and of course, our specific resources. In every instance, a “best practice” fails to take into account those and other variables that make up a specific context. So we don’t need to break from conventional wisdom, per se. We do, however, need a better system to vet any idea or “right” answer to ensure we’re doing what works best for us. It shouldn’t matter whether others accept it as a “best practice.”
Just think: Not every physician is the same. If a doctor were to take advice about how to improve their bedside manner, and that advice came from someone who was naturally charming and funny, how terrible would the academic, quieter doctor feel to a patient if he or she merely glommed onto what someone else told them to do? Likewise, we need to improve our ability to use firsthand details from our environment to inform our marketing, rather than what works in general or on average, because we don’t operate in a generality, and we don’t aspire to be average.
Q: You suggest marketers “act like investigators” and pay more attention to the audience than the industry. What are some proven methods that healthcare marketers can use to get closer to their consumers?
Jay Acunzo: As marketers, we are communicators, and yet we often inform how we communicate by talking to peers, bosses and other internal stakeholders and not those with whom we communicate. This may be the most mind-boggling thing about our industry.
If you were giving a gift to someone in your life, and you were trying to determine what to give them but rarely, if ever, spoke to them, what would you give them? I can tell you: a generic gift card, a forgettable greeting card or a bottle of booze.
Is that what’s become of healthcare marketing? We don’t carve out time to chat with those we serve, and so we just keep handing them generic and, potentially rather dangerous, gifts. Each time we do this, we’re effectively telling them, “I didn’t care enough about you to be thoughtful about this, so here’s something forgettable or generic.” Honestly? It feels like we’re under the influence of conventional wisdom or experts who know absolutes and have pithy ideas for us.
When we act like investigators, we ask great questions. When we act like investigators, we refuse to accept the status quo and find clues buried in our environment—nowhere more rife with ideas than the audience we serve.
Go for coffee. Hold a meeting. Run a survey. Use a chat app. Just whatever you do, find a way to talk to people who are visiting your site and your blog and hoping for a great experience. Understand what they love. Identify what they hate. And improve accordingly. It may be hard, it may be new, but when we resist, it's like a patient who says they don’t want physical therapy to recover. Tough! That’s what it takes.
Q: What role do you feel content marketing plays in building and differentiating brands like Death Wish Coffee, Drift and others cited in your book?
Jay Acunzo: In their specific situations, content marketing made a ton of sense. Death Wish Coffee began as a struggling, single-location coffee shop, Saratoga Coffee Traders. Today, that location and their e-commerce offshoot, Death Wish, are both thriving.
So what changed? Founder Mike Brown began researching his audience. He realized they were truck drivers, entrepreneurs, and other hard-charging people who reach for coffee like most people reach for Red Bull. They wanted the transaction, not the artisanal experience. Thus, the bean Mike chose to roast (robusta) was a perfect choice due to its potency—despite most coffee experts claiming you should avoid using that bean and choose arabica instead. The decision to create, in his words, “the world’s strongest coffee” then led him to create an aggressive-looking brand, which then led him to create an initial community who felt a kinship with the brand, which then led him to publish a blog, a podcast, a video series and an amazing Instagram account—just to name a few tactics—thus embracing content marketing.
He didn’t jump on content marketing because that’s what experts say to do. He followed an audience insight, learned and iterated his way forward. He put on blinders, in fact, ignoring what competitors or experts told him to do. From the outside looking in, it seems risky or crazy. But when you talk to Mike, you realize: He just made decisions that would work for his unique situation—his aspirations, customers’ goals and constrained resources.
Likewise, Drift’s CEO David Cancel chose to publish a ton of B2B marketing content to promote their marketing software company, but he did so in an atypical way: He ripped out every forced lead-gen form, setting their content free. Lead-gen forms that gate content are the lifeblood of many B2B marketing teams, and yet David removed them. Why?
Like Mike Brown, it looks crazy or rebellious until you understand Drift’s context. They have a freemium model, allowing users to adopt the product without paying, with a few simple clicks. For Drift, a big top-of-funnel makes total sense. Additionally, they market to other marketers, and marketers would admit to each other that they hate forms, despite using them. Encountering a brand that doesn’t was refreshing.
Content marketing is just a tool or maybe a whole box of tools. We first need to know what we’re trying to build, then understand whether a tool (or toolbox) is right to use. It all starts with understanding our context first, then making decisions to adopt, reject or borrow pieces of any trend or precedent.
Q: Do you have any advice for healthcare marketers who are struggling to find their brand’s “unfair advantage” in a competitive marketplace where differentiation can be a challenge?
Jay Acunzo: When I worked in venture capital, we invested in roughly 60 startups. Each time, the firm’s partners would ask founders, “What’s your unfair advantage?” I can’t speak for my former colleagues, but I don’t think they were looking to see if the team had an unfair advantage. I think they wanted to know if the team had the self-awareness to identify theirs. My belief is, everyone has something unique to offer, but not everyone takes the necessary steps to identify and deploy it.
So, if we consider that the biggest variable in your context, which isn't present in anyone else’s, is YOU (your people), then the question becomes: What are you uniquely qualified to do?
If everyone is blogging, but you have a rather charming couple of teammates who entertain the group over lunch, well maybe, just maybe, they’d be a great pair to put on a podcast. Ask yourself a few questions to start this investigation in your specific situation:
If we white-labeled your content, how would we know it was you? Are you shipping information that looks and sounds like everyone else, with “just the facts” but no differentiation for how they’re delivered? You’re now a commodity. By copying the healthcare providers you admire, your best case outcome is “yet another Cleveland Clinic,” while your more likely outcome is, “a worse version of Cleveland Clinic.”
What do we aspire to do in our work? Are we motivating the team to achieve that? In my time at marketing tech vendor HubSpot, our executives would push us to generate X leads per month. They wanted us to create the world’s best lead-generating blog. I felt we should be “the world’s most trusted informational source for inbound marketing,” and if we achieved that, the leads would follow.
What is our intent for the future, and how must our current behavior change to reach that aspiration? I call this an “aspirational anchor.” Rather than set a goal (a mile marker describing the what and when), set an aspirational anchor (which adds in those two powerful missing pieces: how and why). Aspirational anchors are personal statements. Rather than “grow our social following X percent,” which incentivizes at-all-costs behavior, including copycat work and shortcut awfulness, saying something like “let’s show the world how refreshingly simple healthcare can feel” re-orients ourselves as marketers around our pathway to results, not merely the results themselves. That will produce better results.
Q: Do you have any examples of healthcare brands that have successfully found what works best for them?
Jay Acunzo: The very fact that we think we need an example within our industry to justify our actions speaks to the pain we all feel when faced with conventional thinking and the reason I wrote this book.
Q: Is there anything else you'd like to share with the healthcare marketing community?
Jay Acunzo: Exceptional work isn’t created by the answers others give us but by the questions we ask ourselves. Let’s stop obsessing over everyone else’s answers and start asking ourselves better questions. Forget the experts. There’s nothing more powerful we can be as healthcare marketers than lifelong investigators.
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