By Robert Palmer


Every once in a while it’s refreshing for a healthcare digital strategist or innovation officer to take a close look at how marketing technology is being used outside of pharma. One great venue for such an exploration is TechCrunch Disrupt, an event that takes place in San Francisco every Fall. Hundreds of digital devotees attend this event to see what’s new and trending. There is a small but growing healthcare vertical at TechCrunch, but most of the crowd is made up of innovators and entrepreneurs who want to share their ideas and knowledge. The value proposition for attending this event is the emphasis on big ideas.

Although most of the speakers and panelists at this year’s TechCrunch were not from healthcare companies or startups, it’s easy to envision how some of the innovations discussed can be – and should be – brought to the attention of pharma marketers looking for truly innovative technologies that offer real-world solutions to patients, physicians and caregivers.

Speakers this year included LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, who addressed topics including artificial intelligence and the emergence of conversational interfaces (“chatbots” designed to simulate human conversations). Marc Benioff, founder and CEO of Salesforce, a sales automation platform widely used in pharma, announced a $100 million fund to invest in mobile, social and cloud technologies. And a panel titled “Startups Supercharging Health” was moderated by Janica Alvarez, inventor of the digitized “smart” breast pump.

Two technological trends that were frequently discussed at this year’s TechCrunch seemed especially relevant to pharma:

  1. Artificial Intelligence that Reads Emotions

 Imagine if pharma marketers had an interface that can map emotions with much more accuracy than simple qualitative research tools or language-based artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms – in real-time. Such a tool would greatly inform a brand’s over-arching marketing strategy, plus guide media planning and other online and offline tactics. Rana el Kaliouby, co-founder and CEO of Affectiva, discussed an amazing AI technology that uses sophisticated facial recognition software to quickly uncover how people really feel about important issues.

Why is facial recognition technology such an important tool for discovering actionable emotional insights? Minute changes to facial expressions that may be undetectable to an interviewer can tell the real story as opposed to a person’s natural tendencies to minimize, deny or simply not be truthful about deep-seated emotions during verbal or written communications. Seemingly similar facial expressions reveal different emotions when mapped against gender, culture, ethnicity, age and income. A simple smile or frown may have different connotations with men than they do for women, depending on the context in which they occur. A Japanese smile may have different connotations than an American smile, and within every country there are ethnic and cultural biases that affect emotion. The same is true of expressions of stress, pain, skepticism, embarrassment, anger and disbelief. For example, gender complicates emotional interpretation when the patient is a woman and the doctor or researcher is a man; throw ethnicity, culture and demographic variables into the mix and the interpretation of verbal communication is greatly compromised.

Affectiva’s “Emotion AI” technology reads human emotions by comparing a person’s facial expressions to a massive database of over four million faces from seventy-five countries. The software then matches the relevant facial expressions to billions of emotion data points, scoring the subject’s answers to uncover deep-seated emotions that may not be discoverable through verbal communications.

The Affectiva software provides a software development kit (SDK) that enables developers to create a variety of interactive emotion-aware apps and digital experiences, opening up a new world of real-time interaction in response to how people truly feel. Emotion analytics bring a new dimension to the digital experience.

Emotion AI technology could be a powerful tool in uncovering and addressing motivations for poor adherence, unhealthy or unsafe behaviors, and disease denial. It could be as valuable – if not more valuable – than the AI-based social listening software that is being used for research and marketing purposes by many pharma marketers.

  1. Pokémon Go and the Future of Health and Wellness Apps

At TechCrunch there was much excitement about Pokémon Go, the phenomenon that has taken gamification to new levels through virtual reality (VR). Pokémon Go uses the Google Maps API and VR to create games while navigating through the real world. The underlying platform promises a great leap forward for gamified health apps and the pharma marketers who help design them.

Let’s face it, gamified health and wellness apps are boring; the average mobile health app is a prime candidate for deletion. And wearables such as Fitbit, while offering tangible benefits, require the rather tedious chore of walking, often aimlessly, to accomplish a predetermined “step goal”. Such tracking devices generally rely on user guilt as motivation, which is neither inspirational or satisfying. Location-based augmented reality apps can dramatically increase engagement by taking the tedium out of exercising and other health-related behaviors.

Part of the genius of Pokémon Go is that it uses intermittent reinforcement to encourage engagement and use. Intermittent reinforcement adds the element of surprise to reward a desired action. By reducing the predictability of when an action will provoke a response, it takes the user out of the repetitive Pavlovian mode and into a truly gamified – and fun – experience.

Pokémon Go should be inspirational to pharma marketers looking for new ways to engage and motivate patients. It’s easy to imagine a Pokémon Go-inspired app that uses entertaining gamification and positive reinforcement for patients with mobility issues. Stroke patients, MS patients, and Rheumatoid Arthritis patients, for example, can be encouraged to accomplish specific daily mobility regimens through cleverly designed location-based augmented reality apps. Diabetics and patients suffering from heart disease or obesity could actually enjoy exercising. The Pokémon Go model doesn’t rely on tangible motivational rewards such as money or badges. The motivation is inherent in the design of the app; entertainment is its own reward.

Looking Outside of Pharma Can Benefit Marketers and Patients Alike

Pharma marketers can take advantage of technological innovations found outside of the pharma category if they are open to the possibilities and proactively think about how regulatory roadblocks can be avoided. Health apps that use virtual reality, for example, are not much different than any other health app from a regulatory point of view. Emotion AI technology that uncovers deep-seated emotional insights can be a valuable tool in qualitative research that drives actionable marketing strategies and tactics and – most important – patient outcomes.

Good, innovative, actionable ideas can come from inside and outside the world of pharma.


Robert Palmer is executive VP, managing director, Juice Pharma Worldwide.