I had a bit of an epiphany recently when I realized that digital communications, like many of the people who work in our field, is a Millennial and, like other Millennials, is now in its adulthood. Many (though not all) of its growing pains are now behind it. That’s something to celebrate as well as reflect on.

Once upon a time, the Web was beautiful newborn, Facebook was faceless, and the iPhone just a twinkle in Steve Jobs’ eye. In the nineties, exciting new media opportunities were popping up like mushrooms on a lawn after a summer rainstorm. Eager not to be left behind as these channels emerged, clients clamored for new capabilities from their communications agencies.

But at the beginning, the digital world could seem bewildering. Few of us knew where and how to find audiences on the Web, or how to engage them. Many of us didn’t know for certain whether digital would be enduring or a passing fad. In the medical communications world, too, FDA guidance on such issues as fair balance and safety information in these new channels was late to arrive. Metrics, too, were a mystery: should we measure page hits, time spent engaging with the site, links clicked on, or none of the above? At first nobody knew.

So it’s kind of a shock to realize that the Internet is now its 29th year, and so much about how we deal with it has matured. Just as Millennials are birthing babies, there’s now a Web-enabled smartphone in just about everyone’s hands today. We all Google everything we have questions about, without giving it a second thought. All of us, marketers and audiences alike, work, study, and play online as well as offline, almost all the time.

And for better or worse, thank our digital strategists and pioneers in social media, marketers can today follow footprints we leave in cyberspace to calculate potential return-on-investment (ROI) with pinpoint accuracy. The guardrails for what can be said digitally about prescription drugs, too, have become a lot clearer.

The digital world has woven itself inextricably into our thinking about how to reach and motivate audiences. I see a time coming soon when the distinction we now make between “digital” and other media starts to seem like an anachronism. In our grandfathers’ era when radio first became a viable communications medium, it may have initially made sense for agencies to talk up their “radio capabilities.” Same with TV when it was new, I imagine. Then these media became so essential to communications plans that every strategic plan considered the strengths and weaknesses of these media as a matter of course.

I think we’re coming near to the day when all communications firms will routinely plan and strategize with digital as well as non-digital savvy, the way we now do at Cadent and Syneos Health. Still, the industry is not quite there yet. Some clients still consider digital channels an add-on, not realizing how mainstream they’ve become. Some agencies out-perform others in their ability to weave Web and social strategies into a powerful communication plan. Digital is still growing up, even as it reaches middle age.

Yet I think it’s clear that the time has come for every communicator, client-side and agency-side, to be up to speed on all channels, digital and otherwise. To make effective decisions today, digital best practices, issues, and options are increasingly fundamental to achieving results. The time may not be far off when, in describing strategy, we can accurately assume that we’re talking as much about digital strategies as strategies involving other media—without having to add the adjective, “digital”. That will be a great day for medical communications.


About the Author:

Wendy Balter is President of the Cadent Medical Communications agency specializing in the integration of multichannel planning, clinically driven scientific strategy and flawless execution of medical education programs.