The NHS is emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic with limited resources to meet the huge pressure it is under. That’s focusing attention on national targets and upping the stakes for health tech companies with digital solutions to help deliver on them.

At times like this, effective sales, marketing and PR campaigns are essential. Highland Marketing co-founders Mark and Susan Venables have some pointers to offer.

This is a challenging time to be looking to work with the NHS. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the health and care system moved rapidly to implement remote working and virtual clinic solutions. Now, progress has slowed.

One reason is that there is relatively little money in the system. The last Budget returned NHS funding to the trajectory that it was on before the pandemic hit. Yet Covid-19 has left healthcare with permanently higher costs; and it is being hit with the same inflationary pressures as the rest of the economy.

At the same time, trusts need to clear a huge backlog of elective care, while integrated care systems have yet to gain the Parliamentary authority they need to really drive joined-up care and population health management in their areas.

That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to sell digital innovation to health and care. One of the good things about that rapid adoption of health tech during the pandemic was that it created a raised awareness of the importance of IT and interest in some of the innovation that is available.

So, progress has slowed, rather than stopped. However, it does mean that a lot of activity is being concentrated into a few areas of the market, particularly those for which there are national targets. In the ICS space, this includes the roll-out of digital outpatient initiatives, virtual wards, and remote monitoring.

One of the further effects, as far as suppliers are concerned, is that these areas of the market have become incredibly competitive. Existing suppliers, UK companies with platforms that can be put to new uses, and European companies with products that have proved their value in other countries are all looking to support the NHS in these areas.

Marketing is a value activity, not a cost

So, what does this mean for sales, marketing, and PR? Well, the first thing to say is that in this kind of market it’s important to see sales, marketing and PR activity as a core business activity, rather than as a cost.

Naturally, if you’re working in a company that finds itself in a challenging and competitive market, in which it takes time to secure business, and even longer to expand, you’ll need to think about controlling costs. But slashing marketing spend is a false economy; particularly if you want to sell to the NHS.

One of the realities of working in healthcare technology is that trusts and commissioners like ICSs find it hard to scope the market and work out what kind of innovation is available to them. And, even when they do, they rarely want to be the first to try out a new idea or product.

So, the only way to succeed is to make sure that your brand, values and products are known, and that you make prospects aware of any great work that you’ve been able to do for organisations like them.

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Work out your addressable market, and how to address it

Another, important reason for putting together a sales, marketing and PR campaign is that it’s an opportunity to think clearly about what your addressable market is, who you need to be talking to within it, and what you need to be saying.

Highland Marketing often talks to prospects who are not familiar with UK healthcare, and they say they want to “sell to the entire NHS.” They also say they want to do that using generic messages about the functionality of their solutions or their “potential to transform health and care”.

Our advice in response is always that the NHS is not one market. Central bodies, ICSs, trusts and other providers have different IT demands and work with different suppliers to meet them.

Also, while many people in the NHS are truly committed to driving change for the better, when the service is under the kind of pressure that it is under at the moment, their first question is not going to be “how can we transform” but “how can you help me, right now?”  

What we’re hearing from our advisory board and our extensive network of contacts is that people are looking for answers to precise questions.

How can your platform help me to roll-out a virtual-ward without adding to the workload of our clinicians? How can you help my organisation to deliver digital outpatients in a way that reduces the risk of running our waiting lists while increasing capacity?

Integrated marketing is key

At Highland Marketing, we spend time getting to understand our clients and their solutions. We also conduct research into addressable market and advise companies on who they need to reach; and what approaches will cut through.

That might mean improving a website or creating a white paper that can be used to support a dedicated sales acceleration campaign. It might mean organising a webinar or writing an opinion piece that will explain where a company, product or approach can solve a pressing problem.

Or, it might mean crafting press releases and case studies that spread the news about contract wins, successful deployments, and the benefits they generate.

We always advise our clients that they should get their customers to tell their stories whenever possible, and not just because NHS organisations like to see they are following a well-beaten path before piloting or adopting an idea.

Your customers will appreciate positive media coverage, and so will your staff. In a competitive job market, positive PR, reposted on the right social media, can help to show that you’re an employer that’s going places and making a difference.

Find the right partner – and work in partnership with them

When the NHS is facing challenging times, it can be challenging to work with the NHS. That’s true at the moment, when organisations are facing huge demands with limited resources, and ICSs and trusts are focused on delivering the big targets that are being sent down from London and Leeds.

In those circumstances, it’s tempting to axe sales, marking and PR activity, to trim campaigns, or to look to cut costs and rates. Yet the reality is that sales, marketing and PR activity is more important than ever; it ‘just’ needs to be the right activity, delivered by the right partner.

That means a partner that really understands its market, can deliver good, professional advice, execute content that resonates with customers and journalists alike. We’d like to think that’s Highland Marketing.

For twenty years, we’ve been on the look-out for #HealthTechToShout about, and when we find it, we roll-up our sleeves and work with you to make sure the right people hear about it. Because that’s the way to succeed in digital health.

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Susan Venables

Founder and Client Services Director
Susan takes a fresh approach to marketing and public relations. She established Highland Marketing in 2002 after a long career working with well-known agencies and clients ranging from SMEs to multi-nationals. During the past 20 years she has helped many companies within the technology and healthcare IT sectors to raise brand awareness and reach new potential customers. Susan is respected by clients, getting them and their services noticed when and where it matters, and by the media where she has many long-standing contacts.
“Effective marketing and communications demands a lot of passion, commitment and experience, and that's exactly what we provide for clients. Right from the start I match them with a team of people who each have at least ten years' experience, and who often know what it's like to run their own business. That mixture of maturity and determination is very potent. Clients really notice the difference, especially those who have previously worked with agencies that send in their top people to win an account then hand the actual work to inexperienced junior staff.”
A little about Susan:
  • Champion athlete - During her first year at Durham University she thought she would have a go at rowing. By the third year she was winning national competitions and was later part of the GB women's lightweight rowing squad.
  • Dog lover - Susan developed a love of dogs when she was a little girl in the Warwickshire market town of Southam when the family's pet used to protect her pram. These days she has two black Labradors, and a Samoyed to exercise.
  • No second best - As a child she always had a rebellious streak combined with a determination to excel, especially at sports like hockey, athletics and netball. Those traits carried over into adult life where she found her niche establishing and building her own business rather than following a corporate career path.

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