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How to get people to want and like hearing aids

Creating demand for hearing technology

One of the most widely-held myths in hearing care is also one of the most damaging. It's the belief that, "Nobody wants hearing aids, do they?"

This, perhaps more than any other myth, is responsible for holding back the entire from becoming as acceptable to the public as eyecare or dentistry, and it's about time we addressed this head on – because if we don't, we'll be having this very same discussion ten, twenty, thirty years from now.

In this article we'll begin by looking at where this myth has come and why it's essential to eliminate it from our thinking if we're serious about wanting perceptions to change. We're then going to learn about powerful, yet simple, tools that each of us can use to get people to want and like hearing aids. 

It’s all in the past

Here's the uncomfortable truth: If people don't want hearing aids it's ultimately our own fault because we've been screwing up the messages we've been presenting them with.

In fairness this only part of the story. The other part is historical: it is only in recent years that hearing technology has reached a point where the 'side-effects' of using them (e.g. feedback, occlusion, superfluous noise etc.) have been addressed effectively enough not to draw attention to the reduction in hearing they were supposed to be "covering".

So in the past most of our messages were aimed at individuals who already recognised the need for hearing aids but weren't satisfied with some aspect of them (e.g. "I sound like I have my head in a barrel…" led to the message: "This new open fit product will solve the problem of occlusion.")

But when our messages are about solving a problem with the actual hearing aid itself ("You won't get whistling with this hearing aid!"), it creates and reinforces that link in people's minds between the unwanted side-effect and the hearing aid, a link which triggers an "avoid" response in our audience.

So a person's need (even desperation!) to "aid" their hearing difficulties had to reach a climactic enough level to outweigh all those side effects associated with hearing aids ("I can put up with a bit of whistling if it means I can at least hear. And to hear something is better than hearing nothing.") So the inherent limitations of our technology really meant that it was best suited to more debilitating reductions in hearing, which statistically excludes the majority of people with a reduction in their hearing range.

On the threshold of something big

We are now at a very exciting time in the evolution of hearing care because the developers of hearing technology have worked hard to eliminate many of these side-effects so there is no longer the same need for our messages to address problems with hearing aids.

But this has also had other implications, which many in the industry are only just beginning to realise: because many of these side-effects have been tackled there is now less need or incentive for current wearers to upgrade their hearing aids for the simple reason they're still satisfied with their existing ones.

So whereas in the past it may have been relatively 'easy' to give existing users a reason to upgrade ("Have this one: it'll give you less whistling, less occlusion and it's better in background noise…"), more and more users are finding it harder to see enough tangible reasons to change their present hearing aids (and justify the relative cost impact to them of doing so) when they're already reasonably satisfied with the present ones.

 Let's pause a moment and see where we're currently at:

  1. Up until this point in time our messages have tended to focus on tangible improvements to the hearing technology itself as progress was made in eliminating the unwanted side-effects.
  2. Now that our technology has reached the stage where such side-effects are less of an issue for wearers, such messages about tangible improvements (and, by implication, failings of hearing aids!) become less relevant to our audience and the market needs to change accordingly.
  3. In fact to continue with these messages of the past is counter-productive because whilst there will no doubt be some incredible technology breakthroughs along the way, those breakthroughs will become less relevant as general satisfaction with hearing aids increases incrementally.
  4. So we are now on the threshold of something truly great for hearing aid adoption providing we get our messages right.

This is why it's so important for us to understand that if people don't want hearing aids, it's our own fault; it's because we haven't got our messages right.

“Nobody wants a hearing aid, right?”

We've seen how the evolution of hearing technology up until now has given us perhaps a valid reason for the messages of the past, but these messages are no longer capable of taking us forward and increasing hearing aid adoption. We need a new message.

Of course a new message would be pointless if nobody could ever be persuaded to "want" hearing aids. So before we can progress we need to eliminate this notion from our thinking - because if we ourselves don't believe it can be achieved, there's no way on earth we'll persuade others.

So let's look at some examples from other fields.

How good at marketing are you?

Imagine you were tasked with running a marketing campaign for two new products. Look carefully at each of these products' qualities and think whether you would have any hope of marketing them:

Qualities of Product A

  • Your product will cost your customer around £7,000 / $7,000 / €7,000 over a 5 year period, the price of a small car.
  • Your ideal audience (i.e. those most likely to be persuaded to become your customer) is legally barred from purchasing your product.
  • Your potential customers are unlikely to like the product the first time they trial it – in fact they'll probably find they react to it, maybe even vomiting. But you need to persuade them to persist until they get used to it.
  • Using your product has unpleasant side effects: your breath will smell, you'll wake up coughing, and your fitness and health will plummet.
  • Your product will result in the death of an estimated 5 million of your customers every year, customers that you, as marketing manager, will be responsible for replacing with new ones.

Qualities of Product B

  • Your product greatly restricts people's movements with cramped conditions that in other circumstances might be considered inhumane.
  • Your customers will often come away from your product feeling drained and sometimes physically ill.
  • Your customers' surroundings will be monotonous with little sensory stimulus and you will greatly restrict their personal choice and freedom, even subjecting them to personal humiliation before they can access your product.
  • Your product will force your customers to endure these conditions for 10 hours or more at a time and you will expect them to pay hundreds of pounds / euros / dollars for the privilege.

No doubt you've already worked out what the two products are. Product A is cigarettes. Product B is a long haul fight. Understanding the marketing of both these products can help us with hearing aids, but for different reasons. Both represent products which IN THEMSELVES do not appear to be particularly attractive propositions. And yet both are successful. Why? Because the message focuses on the destination not the journey. 

Focus on the destination…

The reason that cigarettes are so popular, when they clearly are a terrible proposition, is a testament to the ingenuity of the cigarette manufacturers' marketing people. They have taken a product that just doesn't make sense in terms of likeableness and usefulness and they made them appear SO attractive – even when their negative side-effects are so widely known – that around a fifth of the world smokes and entire governments struggle to reduce their popularity!

More impressive still, manufacturers have taken many of the NEGATIVE aspects of the cigarette and turned these into BENEFITS in the minds of their target audience. For example, the high fatality rate with cigarettes becomes part of the allure: "I am the sort of person who is not afraid of taking risks. I am tough." The laws restricting smoking below a certain age or in certain places becomes an opportunity for smokers to show that they are "more mature than their years" (many teenagers want to be seen as adults) or that you are rebelling against the status quo.

Once these messages are established, they reinforce these ideas through their marketing and imagery and sponsorship.

Whatever one might think about smoking or the cigarette manufacturers in general, few would deny the effectiveness of their marketing. It's not just because of the addictive qualities of cigarettes either. Remember, it's not those addictive qualities that GETS someone to try their first cigarette and persist with them long enough to get addicted, and to do so in the face of so much opposition and reasons not to. It's down to the marketing. It's the way the manufacturers pinpoint the messages that their target audience with identify with and use these to captivate their very thought processes, emotions and imagination.

If cigarettes were marketed like we’ve traditionally marketed hearing aids…

But observe how they tobacco manufacturers achieve this in comparison with the hearing aid marketing of the past. Because if cigarettes were being marketed like hearing aids we'd see messages like this:

“NEW Rolboro Plus! It will make your breath and clothes less smelly, and you'll die two years later than with other cigarettes.”

If they marketed cigarettes like hearing aids today they would be offering "Open Houses" and "Free Samples" and "Cut Price Cigarettes". I can guarantee that whilst this might appeal to existing smokers, it would do next to nothing to bring in the new customers to replace the 5 million plus customers who die every year from their product. You would see numbers stay stagnant then rapidly decline.

No, instead they keep the message focused on the DESTINATION. It's the place you will arrive at because you are a smoker: you'll be considered cooler, rebellious, sophisticated, sexy, more mature, part of an elite. All these are MEANINGS that have been imputed to smoking and smokers over the years – but they are meanings that we must remember are completely invented by the manufacturers, then reinforced over and over again.

Think about it: Why do people actually think it's cool to smoke? Or that it makes you more attractive? Or rebellious? Or sophisticated? Or any of the other associations cigarettes have had over the years? It's because some clever marketing people have conjured up the idea, turned it into an effective message and marketed it with precision and an eye on the long game. People rarely take up smoking because they want or like cigarettes; they do it because of what it will make them in the eyes of people that are important to them.

So if cigarette companies can take something as unattractive and senseless as a poison wrapped in paper that you set fire to and suck, and CONTINUE to make it so popular that an estimated 1.3 billion to 2.4 billion people in the world smoke, let us never, never, never make the excuse (and it is an excuse) that nobody wants or likes hearing aids. They do. It's just that we've been so lousy at explaining why – because we haven't focused on the Destination. 

…minimise the journey

The second product, a long haul flight, is also a good example of the importance of the destination being the message. Few would take a long haul flight because they wanted to spend hours in cramped, monotonous and fatiguing conditions. We do it because of where we will get to by enduring the hardship. We will see other countries! We will gain new experiences! We will spend time with loved ones! The journey is simply the means to the end.

So clever airline companies will increase the appeal and desire of the destination to a significant enough point in our minds that the discomfort of the journey pales into insignificance. They will tell you about new places you can visit and spark your imagination, so you consider taking another flight. And they will do whatever they can to make that journey more comfortable for you, less monotonous and simpler so that it pales into insignificance. They want the memories of that trip abroad to be the thing that sticks with us, because that's what will get you on their plane again.

Hearing Aids: the means to the end, not the end itself

Let's pull this together and bring it back to hearing aids.

If you still believe that nobody wants or likes hearing aids, you need to understand that hearing aids are not what people are interested in anyway, so stop trying to get them to "like" them or "want them" as a product in their own right. That's been our distraction.

By all means work towards better, more visually appealing designs – but don't make the mistake of believing that this is what will transform the market, despite what the analysts might say. These factors all have their role to play but they're not the key to increasing adoption. Why? Because hearing aids are simply the journey, not the destination itself. Unless people want to get to a particular destination, they won't be interested in taking the journey, however pleasant we might make it.

Also, don't make the mistake of presenting hearing aids as “a device to solve hearing loss or deafness”. That may have been the Destination in the past, but if we want to increase the number of new users you'll find this message is completely irrelevant to the majority of potential wearers.

People don't walk into a hearing care practice and say, "I really want hearing aids." They say, "I want to hear better," or "My family want me to hear better." That's the destination for us right there: to have the best hearing you can BECAUSE of what your hearing makes you and gives you, and how it enables you to belong to your social group. 

Using ‘Destination Marketing’ to change attitudes to hearing aids

 So how do we put this all into practice? How do we use this principle to change people's attitudes to hearing aids?

1. Raise the significance and appeal of the Destination

Make people WANT to have the best hearing they possibly can, to refuse to miss out on anything that they don't need to miss out on. Show them that their hearing lets them be the person they truly are or have always wanted to be. Make that Destination so significant, so essential to how they see themselves that they are prepared to endure any hardship to get there. Remember that if teenagers can put up with that first drag on a cigarette and persist long enough to become addicted because of the Destination, and if travellers can endure the monotony of a flight because of the Destination, there is absolutely no reason in the world why hearing aids can't be the highly desirable technological breakthrough they were always destined to be. No reason, except our own self-imposed limitations that is.

2. Change the meaning of wearing hearing aids

Hearing aids should not be a badge saying, "I have a problem with my hearing," or any of the other messages we've presented people with over the years in our language and imagery.Instead they should be a badge saying, "I believe in myself (and therefore you should too). Society is better off because of all the unique things that I bring to it. So I don't believe in compromising on who I am and what I am, and I'm going take every advantage of every piece of technology at my disposal to ensure that I am all I can be, whether that technology is a smartphone, a laptop or a hearing aid."

3. Minimise the Journey

The purpose of the journey is to get someone to their destination as quickly and as comfortably as possible so they hardly notice it. If the impact of the journey is too great, it will overwhelm the focus on the destination.

We'll cover minimising the journey in more detail in a later article, but for now ask yourself how airlines minimise the journey? They entertain you to make the time go quicker. They break down the journey into manageable steps ("It won't be long till we get a drink. It won't be long before they switch the seat belt signs on.") They make the process as simple as possible. Essentially they're looking at what the worst aspects of the journey are for travellers and they look to reducing the impact.

So put yourself in the shoes of the person making the hearing aid journey. If it was you, what would make that journey smoother, simpler and less noticeable for you? Then put those things into place in your own processes.

And finally…

Always remember this: never, never, never make the journey the end in itself.

Keep your focus and your customers' focus on the Destination itself. The more we do this, the more we'll appeal to their “Approach” response. And the stronger their approach response, the more they will want to make the journey. The more they want to make the journey, the more we'll see something many of us never thought possible: that people really do want and like hearing aids.

See you at the other end! 

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