Q2 Digital Health Outlook: 5 Trends to Watch in 2012

Looking back, 2011 certainly left an imprint on the field of health communications, with many exciting new tools, technologies, and uses of digital media inexorably changing the way organizations reach and engage with their target audiences. Based on what we’ve been seeing in Q1 of 2012, it looks like the rest of 2012 will be dominated by a maturation of some of the familiar trends from 2011 as well as some exciting new ones. Below, we discuss five trends to watch as well as their implications for communicators.


Today, individuals are perpetually “mobile” and “social.” They are always connected and are often using their mobile devices to search for information while simultaneously engaging in multiple other activities (e.g., watching television, riding a train, or waiting for a meeting to begin). Health communicators must respond by adjusting the type, format, and delivery of information to align with audiences’ shrinking attention spans, constant interruptions, and evolving media habits.

The trends below represent early manifestations of this shift. In 2012, the charge will be to incorporate these tactics and to explore and invent new ones. Happy communicating!


1. Responsive Brands

In 2011, social platforms were enhanced to cater to brands. Facebook offered several changes to its Facebook Page design to make it easier for brands to use the platform to run entire campaigns. It is also actively rolling out its timeline feature to Pages. In an attempt to keep pace, other platforms, such as Twitter and Google+, launched their own version of “brand” pages. Within weeks, the White House, NASA, and many public and private healthcare systems created brand profiles on Google+.

These rollouts were not only important, but also timely. In 2011, we saw a huge uptake in demand for brands to not only have a presence on social networks, but to also come to the conversation with high-value content and an explicit intent to engage in two-way dialogue with users:

  • Over 50 percent of users use social networking sites to connect to organizations/brands (Source)
  • More than half of these users said they are more likely to recommend a brand after becoming a fan on Facebook (Source)
  • The majority of feedback shared about brands is positive rather than negative/neutral (Source)
  • One study found that over 97 of users say that their online experience has influenced their purchasing decision (Source)

In 2012, brands should not only join the conversation (if they haven’t already), but should also use it as an opportunity to solicit feedback from an already captivated audience. Based on their growing popularity, Tumblr and Pinterest are two newer platforms that brands should consider to round out or compliment their existing offerings.

2. Viral Video as a Focal Point of Campaigns

If content is king, then video was certainly the prime ruler in 2011. The year saw an explosion in both demand for, and consumption of, video content:

  • Globally, YouTube is among the three most popular websites (Source)
  • 1 in 4 Americans watch a YouTube video daily (Source)
  • YouTube captures the attention of more eyes than major prime-time cable networks (Source)

With video’s ability to spread virally across the internet (and its low production costs), many organizations are taking a broader look at video as a strategic communications tool, even positioning it at the center of entire campaigns. There are a number of recent examples that leverage bold statements, humor, or pop cultural anecdotes to engage viewers with the subject matter, including ONE’s anit-poverty campaign that seeks to reposition “Famine” as “The Real F-word” and the David Cornfield Melanoma Fund’s “Dear 16-year-old Me.”


3. “Mobile First” + Content and Solutions for Mobile Use

Mobile may be a buzzword, but for good reason. Mobile adoption, sales, and solution development are all on the rise and are projected to grow exponentially in 2012. Already, there are some striking statistics to note:

  • Worldwide, more people own a mobile device than a toothbrush (Source)
  • Mobile internet use is expected to outpace desktop internet use by 2014 (Source)
  • More than half of all local searches are performed on a mobile device (Source)

The growing popularity of mobile has important implications for health communicators. Given that the efficacy of an organization’s communication efforts will be tied to the ease with which its key content and messages can be consumed via a mobile device, many organizations must start thinking mobile first. This philosophy, birthed largely by Google, involves planning your online strategy and solutions around the mobile context of use (busy, distracted users that have a touch pad interface and a small screen rather than a mouse and full keyboard as input mechanisms). This requires strict prioritization of content and features as well as the creative use of mobile capabilities (e.g., GPS locators and smartphone preferences). Some applications of mobile include:

If leveraged properly, mobile presents an opportunity to reach an increasingly wide and diverse user base (in fact, mobile is one of the few modern technologies shrinking, rather than furthering, the digital divide). Health communicators should look for innovative ways to use mobile to increase their impact.

4. Delivering a More Personalized, Localized and Interactive User Experience

In years past, many organizations stepped up to answer the call for greater transparency and participation. They built or redesigned accessible websites and put their data online. However, it was soon apparent that greater availability/access didn’t necessarily equate to better outcomes or decision making. In other words, the ability to access the content is a prerequisite, but users also need the will/interest/motivation to use it. This is where organizations will need to get creative.

Luckily, advances in modern technology, including smartphone GPS capabilities, localization engines, APIs, and solutions that serve up tailored content based on an individual’s past inputs, personal preferences, or social data, are making this increasingly possible. Some recent applications include solutions for:

Localized Decision Support

Personalized Tracking/Monitoring

  • Runkeeper enables you to set personal exercise goals and track progress to such goals, even delivering custom reminders.
  • MyPlace History App allows you to keep a personal record of the places you visited in order to periodically chart your exposure to certain environmental toxins or hazards.

Interactive Learning

Social Cause Marketing

  • BloodSignal.ca: provides an interactive infographic that can be personalized with Facebook integration to help underscore the fact that the disease touches everyone
  • RED’s digital quilt: makes the issue relevant by visualizing personal images of all the everyday people it has hurt and helps users pledge to end.
  • Coca-Cola’s Happiness Machine: Coca Cola regularly uses cause marketing to associate its brand with specific issues and universsal human emotions of happiness and love. For Valentine’s Day, the company installed coke machines that would only work if a couple showed they were a pair by hugging or kissing.

In 2012, many organizations will use such tools and techniques to foster highly personalized, localized and interactive user experiences that furnish the will and interest needed to move beyond information access to ACTION.

5. Using the Power of People to Move Missions

With new health2.0 tools and techniques, it is now easier than ever for organizations to involve the public in influencing and achieving their mission objectives. We saw crowdsourcing really hit mainstream in 2011, and we are likely to see the trend continue to mature in 2012, especially via the use of:

Health communicators should continue to look for ways to put a new spin on this largely successful trend in order to improve their mission effectiveness.

2012: Turning Trends into Tactics

The aforementioned trends are just the tip of the iceberg. In 2012, we will continue to see growth in user demand for new types of content and interactions to meet their increasingly fast-paced, mobile, and social lifestyles.

For the short term, health communicators can start by increasing their responsiveness and engagement (not just their presence) in social networks; leveraging viral video as a campaign anchor; adopting a mobile first methodology and using mobile in a smart and strategic fashion; and engaging people directly in their organizations’ missions using modern technology. For the long term, communicators proactively look to either supplement or replace their traditional marketing efforts by using tools and techniques that combine the purely informational with the social and by giving users on-demand access to their friends, favorite brands, and content all within a single location.

Post Credits: This post was co-authored by Emily Springer and Colleen Gray, two members of the Digital Health Team at BAH.