Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the Curtis & Coulter BioPharma eMarketing Summit in San Diego. There were some outstanding sessions led by digital marketing gurus and marketing leaders from medtech companies who shared their experiences in digital marketing. Kudos to a well-organized and well-attended conference.


Digital marketing has a lot of hype surrounding it, and many medtech executives I’ve spoken to are skeptical about its place in our industry. Plus, investing in new technologies can be expensive. With the level of regulation and the historical legacy of the sales rep being at the center, it’s no wonder that many company leaders have been a bit gun-shy on jumping in. In many companies, “digital marketing” is its own function, with a small budget and not strongly engaged with core divisional marketing and sales. Even at this conference, several of the company presentations centered on innovative approaches to use digital tools to better or more efficiently enable the field vs. new ways to engage with customers.


One session included one of the more moving presentations I’ve attended, facilitated by Katie Busse, a marketing leader at Medela, the manufacturer of breast pumps. Katie described a very successful and emotionally charged program that Medela sponsored called “22 Victories,” all about empowering new mothers through the challenging early days after giving birth. In this program, Medela followed two new mothers through their first few weeks and provided a platform via Instagram for thousands of new mothers to support each other through this challenging time. At the end of her presentation, Katie posed a very interesting question to the audience: “What’s your story and who’s telling it?”


After drying my tears after such an inspiring story, her question made me think that this is exactly what medtech companies should be asking of themselves. In the past, the answer to that question was very simple: The rep told the story to the physician. In some cases, the story was defined via marketing messages while in other cases the sales rep was empowered to develop and tailor a story on his own for his customer. Therefore, the “story” was very controlled and highly dependent on the rep and the direct access to and relationship with his customer.


Today, digital marketing has the potential to upend this dynamic and enable a different kind of story to be told by very different people. In fact, for many of you, this has already happened, whether you like it or not—or, in some cases, whether you know it or not. Patients are communicating with other patients. Doctors are communicating with other doctors. And patients and doctors are communicating with each other on all kinds of platforms: Facebook, Instagram, disease area online communities, etc. Don’t you want to play a role?


So what should medtech companies do? Here are three key steps:


1. Develop your story. Digital marketing provides, and virtually demands, the opportunity to go beyond talking about features and benefits. Your story depends on your business and strategy, of course, but consider different ways of telling your story than how you’ve done it previously via the rep. Can you provide an emotionally driven story via real patients? Can you celebrate the amazing surgeons who accomplish incredible things using your products? The story should be tied to your value proposition but designed so that it can be delivered in a very different way than in the past. With digital, it’s not just what you say—even more importantly, it’s how you say it.


2. Empower your storytellers. At the heart of the amazing Medela story was the role of the influencers, and those influencers weren’t ones with millions of followers. They were real people dealing with real problems that others could relate to. For Medela, it was patients who other patients could build an emotional connection to. For some companies, having patients be the storytellers to the physicians might be the right approach, while for other companies, the storyteller could be the physician speaking to other physicians. Actively engaging with these storytellers enables you to drive the story you want to tell and be credited with being the platform where the story is told. Regardless of what the right approach is for you, just think of how different this is: In none of these situations is the story being told only by a rep to a physician.


3. Evolve your mindset. The keynote at the conference—led by Ted Rubin, an amazing, thought-provoking speaker—started with what sounded to me as a sound bite filled with hype: “Digital is a mindset.” After hearing that, I thought, Here we go again… But as I listened to Katie from Medela and the other company presenters talk about how they’ve used digital marketing to enable a very different kind of customer engagement, I now agree with Ted and think that he hit the nail on the head. Digital is a mindset, and I think that it’s time for medtech leaders to embrace the opportunity to engage with customers beyond the rep. At this conference, there were even innovative programs presented from companies in orthopedics, one of the most historically sales-rep-led categories. At these companies, digital is at the front and center of how they engage with customers. The rep still plays an important role but isn’t the only way these companies tell their stories. If it can happen in orthopedics, it could happen anywhere.


While medtech executives are right to be careful about engaging in digital marketing, the time is now to start evaluating this channel as a critical part of your customer engagement strategy. There are many vendors out there with amazing technologies and tools, and it’s easy to get caught up in the shiny object fallacy and spend lots of money with little return. Medtech companies can no longer afford to ignore this channel or include it as an afterthought in their strategy.


Don’t you want to write your story instead of having it written for you?