When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the world went virtual, health IT marketers had to pivot immediately. On the eve of one of the industry’s largest tradeshows, marketers scrambled to turn interactive booths into a downloadable content marketing sessions. When tackling the competition and going to market with new products had traditionally been done in-person, transitioning to a remote world brought its challenges - but also opportunities.
We recently discussed the shift to remote work and customer marketing post-COVID with Brenda Fix, Senior Customer Success Manager in the Health and Life Sciences Division at Microsoft. In her current role she builds programs to help Microsoft customers achieve more with their tech investments. She’s also led B2B marketing, PR, and business development roles at Siemens Healthcare, Quest Diagnostics and Care Science. Here’s our conversation on what we’ve learned so far, the bumps along the way, and the future of work for health IT marketers.
Question: Can you tell us a little more about your role, your team and your focus at Microsoft?
Answer: I’ve been at Microsoft for seven years. I was doing health and life sciences and pharmaceutical marketing at the US level for our health sales organization.
We market to decision makers at the C level, and at Microsoft we market to our existing customers at the enterprise level. You’re really focused on growing your business within each customer.
I just started in this customer success role, focusing on Teams, after about 25 years of marketing. I chose this role because I started seeing a lot of what we were doing for our customers during COVID - our hospitals, our pharmaceutical companies, and life sciences companies - and the Teams platform was such a big part of these companies staying alive.
Our hospitals were having a lot of problems with COVID. If someone’s in the ICU, they’re able to do a lot of remote monitoring, looking at temperature, for example. There’s a camera in there that’s used on Teams, and you can look at the camera and see what someone’s temperature or heart rate is. They’re also using Teams for families to talk to each other. So, when I started hearing all the different applications for customers and seeing how we can help, I said, “I’m taking my marketing way of thinking into the customer success role.”.
Question: We have seen a lot written about the transition to ubiquitous remote work, how it has impacted organizations as a whole. Looking from a marketing lens, what have you and your teams had to adjust to?
Answer: I think the fact that we can’t do in-person events has had the hardest and biggest impact. If you’re already in social or content marketing, the change wasn’t as abrupt. But our team meets the customer in person to bring our sales team together. We hear business impacts, we help them, we get to hear what the competition is doing, we get a lot of information and build a lot of high level relationships with executives and the buyers. Without those in-person events, you’re losing feet on the street.
For example, HIMSS (Health Information Management Systems Society) is a huge trade show with about 40,000 people. We had a two story booth right at the main entrance. The show started the first week of March and we had to make a decision - do we want to put our people in danger, do we want to put our customers in danger? The biggest impact, the most immediate impact, was basically taking that global-level investment and canceling our two story booth. Two days later, HIMSS had to cancel the show. So, we felt like we broke first, at least within our industry marketing group. That impact was huge, then it just cascaded from there. I think every marketing team across the country was impacted.
Question: What are you doing now to make up for those connections?
Answer: For HIMSS, I was really worried right away that there was going to be a glut - you think of all the vendors and healthcare IT companies that invest in that show, and if we all go back home and start doing webinars I could just see the tsunami of emails coming at people saying, “Hey come to this one, come to that one.” So, we had to go back and retrench working with our web team, and cut back on the content. We had three activations at this show, and there’s no way you could switch those all to digital, so we boiled it down to about a 3-4 hour digital content play with a big push to promote it for the day it went live. It was a great lesson in how to skinny things down quickly for this type of marketing. We learned a lot. It’s shorter segments that you need to do now, with a lot more interactive panels.
Question: We’ve seen media reports that Microsoft is allowing people to work from home freely 50% of the time and don’t have to get approval. Microsoft is a big company with lots of marketers and agency partners. How has that impacted the switch to remote work?
Answer: A large group of the field marketers already worked at home. It’s the people in Seattle who were impacted the most by this shift. They were in back to back in-person meetings.
However, I think we’re in a unique position because we use Teams to communicate with our vendors, our business partners and creative partners, and each other. We are so security driven, and we have so many rules and processes in place already for budgeting, branding approvals, privacy approvals. You’re trusted to do your job and do the processes correctly, get things done on time, and that’s pretty much the message - continue on as usual.
Microsoft’s been doing a good amount to recognize that the transition isn’t easy for everyone, and they’re encouraging us to take breaks. For example, if you need to go to the grocery store try to exercise - we have flexibility on if you need to take time. There’s still that business goal that needs to be met, so, there’s a challenge and it’s a balancing act for everyone.
Question: What new processes or technology adoption went into making things a little easier for teams who were used to working in-person full time?
Answer: We’ve been cutting back on meetings - for example, those all hands meetings, the update meetings. It’s a funny Teams feature, but we’re being encouraged to have our meetings end five or ten minutes early, so they’re 50-55 minutes and we get a little five minute reminder at the end of meetings.
The whole switch to digital has been a big point. There’s a lot of different things we have to do now. We can’t do as much email - we have spam rules and GDPR in place - everyone’s reaching to do digital now and I think that’s something we’re still working through. There’s a volume there that is trying to be met.
The other thing with healthcare customers is, how do you be mindful of their needs without being too sales-y? You don’t want to go to them and say “hey, we got this great solution for your ICU by Microsoft.” You have to be really customer focused and mindful of the situation that they’re in, and how you can also help them with your solutions. That’s an ongoing balance we have to find that probably isn’t going to be changing for a while.
Question: With the lack of in person collaboration, do you think creativity has been suffering?
Answer: I think creativity is still really in-person, and I’ve been thinking about how to recreate that experience. How do you still feel like you’re connected with people? I think from an agency perspective or the social media team, we already had that tech infrastructure in place - we don’t have a lot of in-person meetings with the creative agencies, it’s done virtually. So, not all of us miss sitting in a room with our agencies, but, you have a problem creatively engaging your customers if you’re not getting in front of them. I think that’s a bigger piece of it.
Question: In your work are you using agency partners differently? Or is it more that the interactions are different?
Answer: The interactions are different. We did have a little restructuring in terms of how we reach out to our agencies and how the trafficking gets put forward. At Microsoft we’re focused on processes, so I don’t think the creative activity and collaboration changes, I think it’s how do you reach the agencies and how do you provide the information they need? How do you prioritize what project gets sent to the agency? It’s more on the front end for us, making sure that we’re not spamming and not getting quality work because they’ve got so much work to do.
Question: What do you think have been the biggest lessons learned for health IT marketers? What sticks post-COVID, and what goes back to normal?
Answer: I think one lesson is, obviously, change is hard. It’s hard for customers, it’s hard for us, especially in the health IT marketing space, There are things that broke my heart that we couldn’t do. But it also is a bit freeing, because we can say “hey, we have to chuck this whole plan.”
I also think it’s given us an opportunity to work with our business partners and associations more, because they need help too. They don’t have a huge marketing staff. They’re coming to us and saying “how can you help us?” So we’ve been able to learn from each other.
Long term, it gives you a chance to reimagine your whole plan - while it’s a lot of work, I think it’s kind of cool. Going forward, I think a lot of the lessons that we learned on digital will remain - making our event sessions 20-25 minutes, making work three to four hours versus a whole day, keeping little sizzle reels between sessions or sections, make sure you have a panel discussion, make sure you have a compelling speaker and some cool case studies, and making it digital afterwards so people are able to download it.
One other thing that will continue to change is the use of data. If you’re not doing in-person events and you want to scale, you really need to look through your data and see who are the best customers to target for any one campaign. That’s hard for anyone to do, but will be important.
Question: For you personally, what have you really learned with the transition to remote work, and how will you use that as you go forward in your career?
Answer: Two things: one is, this is really a time to align with your management and leadership. Your way of reaching a customer needs to change and it’s a good time to get management involved. Our GM went up the chain to our corporate president and said “hey, this is changing, you need to understand that the role of marketing probably isn’t going to look the same, but we still have the same goals.” Those are discussions that are difficult when marketing is basically a cost center, and you have to make sure that you can prove your value.
For me personally, I’ve been in healthcare my whole career and you start taking for granted what your customers do. But when you start seeing the day to day things our customers are doing to help their patients and how we can help them, it gives you perspective. Our sales teams were working day and night over the weekend to help people get set up on the tools that they needed. That really pushed me to take this customer success role, because especially in healthcare, we have to remember that our customers are doing fabulous things. That makes it personal for me.