mHealth – healthy social media we will adapt

To make you and any innovative marketer think healthy!

mHealth or, simply put, the mobile version of health care, is just starting to become one of the most important topics in our ever more digitalized world. As Merkle has very important clients in the field of health technologies it becomes even more relevant for me. Just think about customized insurance plans and predictive healthcare. Thus, it is important to talk about ideas and motivations behind these societal developments. How did mobile media take over in such a short time and what does mHealth mean to us? Is it good or bad – or both? And how can marketers bring it to the people? I will not provide all the answers but some groundwork to think further ahead. And, well, I decided to use funny animal pictures so you keep reading – they do fit the story though:)

We should not just eat everything we are served. Instead, collect information, be critical, evaluate, and then decide if we want to eat it and how much of it. Picture found on Pexels, by Irina Irina.

Step 1: The Knowledge-Base

“[mHealth] refers to the use of portable mobile devices, e.g. smart phones, PDAs and tablet computers for administering, monitoring, diagnosing and treating medical conditions” (De Ridder et al., 2008).

Thus, while eHealth depicts healthcare enabled by information and communication technology, especially the Internet (Eng, 2001, p. 1), mHealth can be understood as an extension which takes care of your health when you are on the go. A good example of this is the running app like Runtastic by adidas or apple’s smartwatch which constantly monitors your body. In this case the smartwatch is a mobile media and Runtastic a mobile social media (Humphreys, 2013).

Having worked that out, it is of importance to look more deeply into why we, as a society, adapted mobile media and social media so rapidly.

Do we just try to fit in with society? Or are we the exact opposite and try to be more ourselves? Picture found on Unsplash. (source: S N Pattenden)

Step 2: The Societal Adaptation

One might argue it is logical that we quickly adopt things which make life easier. True, but that does not say anything about the mechanisms behind the adoption. Thus, it is important to know about the three logics behind mobile and social media’s success story.

The Network Logic refers to autonomy regarding place and time (Vanden Abeele, De Wolf, & Ling, 2018). Before the smartphone, we were tied to our homes to communicate to the outside world. There was one telephone for the whole family. Generally, it even had a cable so you had to speak from where it was placed – probably in the living room or the kitchen. For me that meant that my family could be standing right next to me, listening in on my conversation with a girl I barely had the courage to ask out. Meanwhile, her family could also be standing next to her and listening in on the other side. Therefore, I picked my words wisely – and maybe did not say what I actually wanted to. Sounds absurd for modern times. With our individual smartphones nowadays we can lock ourselves in our rooms, or, if we do not have a key, even go outside. We can have all the privacy we want to and can call anyone from any place at any time. We are autonomous.

(source: Namics)

Most of you probably have a messaging app on your smartphone … and a “family group” where you sometimes post something like this:

(source: Lukas Pohl)

The Social Logic refers to feeling belonged via perpetual, phatic contact – although you might live on the other side of the world (Vanden Abeele, De Wolf, & Ling, 2018). Perpetual means that, enabled through our mobile devices, we keep our loved and close ones up-to-date on our lives – maybe daily, maybe weekly (Katz & Aakhus, 2001). Phatic contact depicts communicative acts which only serve socializing purposes but strongly lack information (as you can see in the pictures above) (Licoppe, 2004). Therefore this interplay only serves to deliver a feeling of presence between the people involved in the conversation. This presence is also referred to as “connected presence”.


The Personal Logic underpins the facilitation of the individual agency (Vanden Abeele, De Wolf, & Ling, 2018). Basically this means that, enabled through our personal devices, we can independently and anonymously choose platforms, channels, and content from all over the world without other people interfering. This helps us to define our own personality in terms of preferences, ideas and opinions. For instance … we can be ourselves, have our own interests and choose our friends – just like in the next picture.

Picture found on Pexels. (source: Pixabay)

Find someone, who challenges and inspires you; spend a lot of time with her or him, and it will change your life. 

To summarize it all, firstly, we can text and call whomever from wherever at any time. This means, we are autonomous regarding place and time (The Network Logic). Secondly, we feel some kind of connected presence and belongingness to our loved ones through perpetual and phatic contact although we may be far away (The Social Logic). Thirdly, we can develop individually connecting to diverse groups and communities that we choose for ourselves throughout the world (The Personal Logic).

While these three “logics” are already good reasons for why we join in on using mobile and social media, there are more factors that play into the “adaptation game” when we look at mHealth devices and applications.

Step 3: Ideas for Marketers and Critical Thoughts

The multidirectionality of social media offering a big playground for persuasive approaches is no secret anymore (Neuhauser & Kreps, 2003). Still, we can improve our techniques and therewith, our persuasiveness. Opening up a conversation in which both sender and receiver of the message can interact, having a dialogue and discussions, will work better than a one-directional marketing initiative such as a website banner. We have to realize that we are talking about health data which people perceive as highly personal. Hence, they are more reluctant and skeptical. Opening up a conversation will give them the opportunity to express their thoughts and discomfort concerned with the topic. Or maybe they are older and less keen on digital technologies, feeling uncomfortable talking about it. Opening up a community which openly discusses mHealth – online and offline – will give the topic societal approval.

Picture found on Unsplash, (source: Paul Carroll)

On one hand we all want to be individuals. On the other hand, we like to fit in with society and enjoy when the people around us share our values and interests. 

Also, behavioral change theories find their practice in mHealth marketing. The theory of planned behavior states that people with a positive attitude towards a behavior who believe that their community wants them to perform it, will have a higher intention to perform the behavior (Neuhauser & Kreps, 2003). Thus, a person who is surrounded by people who think very positively about working out and optimizing their health by using certain devices and applications, will be more likely to engage in the trend. Once again, building a community that fosters online as well as offline word-of-mouth (WoM) can act as a strong pillar for mHealth marketing.

Finally, there are several gamification approaches that work very well in regard to mHealth, especially for “lighter” apps such as a running app which may only work with geo-data. For instance, the application Zombies, Run! lets brain-eating zombies chase you during your run. Sounds a little crazy and may not be everyone's type of app. However, thinking about virtual reality technologies being integrated into the experience – that may help us run a lot faster.


We should also have a look at – let’s say – the downside of mHealth, because there is one.

Starting with responsibility, governmental as well as medical institutions have started to back away from their duty to take care of the people. That is due to the fact that people, enabled through mHealth, have the ability to take care of themselves more and more (Vanden Abeele, De Wolf, & Ling, 2018). If you are aware of your blood pressure because you can see it on your smartphone, why would you continue drinking alcohol? And would the insurance company support you in doing so? In the end, it is your own fault that you drink so heavily. We realize, there is a shift from institutional responsibility to personal responsibility regarding health and health care.

I can stop boozing whenever I want, really! Picture found on Unsplash. (source: David Clode)

Then, there is the ever-present topic of data protection. Have you ever heard of Bentham’s Panopticon? Probably not. Bentham was a philosopher, and developed a prison in which only one guard, based in a guard tower standing in the middle, was needed to watch all the prisoners in their cells built around it – the Panopticon. Foucault, also a philosopher, took up this scheme and describes how the prisoners became objects of information under constant observation and thus, policed themselves due to the fear of punishment.

So, looking at mHealth we could say that – because we provide our data to the public – we police ourselves to behave in a certain way. In more detail this means that we are less ourselves because we are so transparent and subconsciously stick to societally approved pictures to not be “punished” for misbehaving. Let’s take an actual example: You buy the new apple watch and start sharing basic fitness data with your friends, just for comparison. You realize that your friends walk more steps a day, sleep longer, live healthier, and have a better weight for their size. Automatically, without you even realizing it for yourself, you will most certainly start changing your lifestyle. Not necessarily because you think it is better, but because you know that your friends can see your status around the clock. In times of the Corona Virus, glueing a pair of eyes over the sink doesn’t seem so wrong. 

To sum it all up: While we want to market mHealth successfully, we also have the responsibility to include a humane perspective. However, one question remains open: Does using mHealth make us healthier? What do you think?

What definitely makes us healthier is thinking about and discussing emerging technologies and applications that will be intertwined with our lives. Thus, I want to thank Mariek Vanden Abeele and Frans Folkvord for their input during my time at Tilburg University regarding this topic – which still makes me think.

Important Literature:

  • Christian Licoppe (2004): 'Connected' presence: The emergence of a new repertoire for managing social relationships in a changing communication technoscape.
  • James Katz and Mark Aakhus (2001): Perpetual Contact: Mobile Communication, Private Talk, Public Performance.
  • Lee Humphreys (2013): Mobile social media: Future challenges and opportunities.
  • Linda Neuhauser and Gary Kreps (2003): Rethinking Communication in the E-Health Era.
  • Mariek Vanden Abeele, Ralf De Wolf, and Rich Ling (2018): Mobile Media and Social Space: How Anytime, Anyplace Connectivity Structures Everyday Life.
  • Michael de Ridder, Jinman Kim, Yan Jing, Mohamed Khadra, and Ralph Nanan (2008): A systematic review on incentive-driven mobile health technology: As used in diabetes management.
  • Thomas R. Eng (2001): The eHealth landscape : a terrain map of emerging information and communication technologies in health and health care.