It's Time to Move from Engagement to Embedment in Digital

In health technology and marketing circles, engagement has been the name of the game.  We work hard to get people to engage with social health content.  We obsess about improving consumer engagement with our apps and devices over the short — and more importantly — long term.  And, we struggle to incentive physicians to engage with the latest health technology of the moment. 

It’s funny, but perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned over the past decade or so is this: People really don’t want to engage – at least not in the ways we’d like them to.

Let me explain what I mean by looking at a few common trends in digital health.  There are tens of thousands of mobile health applications available on the Apple and Android stores.  Most are of dubious quality and are ignored by consumers.  New wearable health devices are being introduced each year.  In time, most of them will be forgotten.  Dozens of digital initiatives are being launched each month online and via social media.  Most of these projects will gain modest traction — at most.   

Why is engagement with technologies, devices and digital initiatives so low?  It’s simple.  Blame the attention, time, usability and money deficit. Most people don’t have the patience to use more than a few mobile applications. Many health wearables are complicated, ugly and too dependent on mobile devices.  The majority of digital communications and marketing projects have an inherently short shelf life, due to budgetary and human resources constraints. 

Is trying to convince people to proactively engage with new digital initiatives, technologies and devices a losing strategy?  Well, we’re never going to stop fighting the engagement battle.  But we can make it much easier for people to interact with what we build — on their terms — by focusing less on engagement and more on a strategy I call “embedment.” 

As described above engagement focuses on getting people to actively adopt digital health tools.  In contrast, embedment is all about integrating digital health technologies and initiatives into the framework of people’s lives.  Those practicing embedment strive to build things that are:

  • Invisible: While all technologies will require some education and engagement at the beginning, over time, the need to have people use these tools in ways that interrupt the flow of their daily lives should be minimized.  For example, rather than asking people to manually input information about their exercise routines, passively collect this data and provide personalized advice about how people can correct their form and burn more calories over time via weekly emails. The technology fades into the background, but the actionable insights it delivers are at the forefront.  One company working toward a truly invisible fitness tracker is Atlas Wearables. Atlas is manufacturing a device that not only tracks activity, but can passively learn new exercises and even automatically provide users with pointers on how they can improve their form and work out more efficiently.
  • Integrated: In research my firm conducted with digitally active health consumers in October 2013, many respondents to our survey said it was important that health technologies fit within their lifestyles, backgrounds and culture.  If there’s one device that’s embedded into our daily lives, it’s our mobile devices.  Why not build digital health tools and devices that take advantage of the one piece of technology we don’t have to be reminded to use?  This is where Apple has it right with its rumored Healthbook application. Rather than asking people to adopt a new technology, Healthbook appears to leverage a powerful sensing device within the phone that passively tracks activity and other parameters.  Healthbook also appears to be extensible, meaning that other device and technology makers can leverage Healthbook to collect and display data and information.  Apple appears to be following the old adage: go where the people already are, in its effort to make a big splash in the health arena.
  • Relevant: Communicators and marketers know that relevance is the name of the game when it comes to ensuring people pay attention to — and potentially act on — health information. The best embedded technologies will leverage data from a wide array of sources to deliver highly personalized and impactful information and insights to users.  This could include using a tool like IBM’s Watson to analyze a wide array of data from patients’ medical records, genetic profiles and more to deliver just the amount of information doctors need to make a diagnosis, or prescribe the right medication.  Embedded tools could also use patient-provided information about their medical history to analyze medical research and information published on the Web to deliver helpful and personalized content to caregivers and patients coping with serious illnesses.  This is what a company called Medivizor does for people using its medical information service. 

Invisible, integrated and relevant.  These are the key attributes of digital health initiatives and solutions that are developed using the embedment strategy. Embedment promises to increase the odds digital tools will be used and positively impact people’s wellbeing over the short and long-term. 

I’ll leave you with this question: Are you ready to move from engagement to embedment in your digital health technology, communications or marketing strategy? 

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4 comments about "It's Time to Move from Engagement to Embedment in Digital".
  1. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , April 18, 2014 at 10:44 a.m.
    As long as there is Do Not Track on these, then terrific.
  2. Bill Jackson from Empathy Lab , April 18, 2014 at 11:01 a.m.
    I have read other commentary from Fard on this issue - but this blog post really nails it. And the distance between where we are, and where we need to go is not far - but there still will be financial limitations for many and we cannot forget this. Also, most all health instructions must be written in a way a 2nd grader can understand - so these systems also need to be as simple or as complex as the user wants/needs to use them.
  3. R.J. Lewis from e-Healthcare Solutions, LLC , April 18, 2014 at 11:45 a.m.
    Fard, You are spot on. Fish where the fish are. Whether it is mobile, web, email, or other forms of digital - that is a critical key to success, particularly with the physician community. It is difficult to change workflow, and much more effective to "fit in" to existing workflow (and much more appreciated by the end user by the way, which shows up in better adoption). Nice article!
  4. Walter Sabo from SABO media , April 18, 2014 at 8:14 p.m.
    I believe in selling stuff. Does this sell stuff?