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the challenge

Open Box’s Katryn HarrisRafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Each week, we seek out expert advice to help a small or medium-sized company overcome a key issue.

Katryn Harris meditates regularly, practices Tai Chi, and, after a car accident earlier this year, now goes for Reiki therapy.

Despite her personal experience and being a strong believer in the value of holistic health, she knows many others consider it "weird or flaky." And that's precisely the challenge Ms. Harris faces as she tries to market her company's latest service.

Ms. Harris is the founder and chief executive officer of Open Box, a five-employee software company based in Vancouver.  She started the company in 2004, which last year brought in revenues of "just under $1-million." In addition to custom software development services, Open Box also sells a yoga studio management application called PranaStudio.

But today, Open Box's primary focus is a new Web service called VitalityLink. "We're kind of like WebMD and eHarmony, but for holistic health," she explains.

VitalityLink aims to be both a source of information and a holistic health matchmaking service, connecting people with chronic pain to practitioners who may be able to help them.

When VitalityLink launched in October, 2011, the goal was to stock the site with as many practitioners as possible. Now, several months later, "we're right at the point where we're shifting over to the consumer focus. We're now ready to blast it out to consumers."

A big part of the company's consumer marketing strategy involves social media. It has a Facebook page, a Twitter account and a presence on Pinterest.

However, some people are reluctant to publicly associate themselves online with anything related to holistic health, she says.

"There's a feeling that if you use [or] practice holistic health, your judgement is questionable and maybe you're not really sensible or grounded. I think that qualifies as a stigma."

Ms. Harris believes there's a huge appetite for her service, but doesn't know how to best market it, given the "cloud of secrecy" that surrounds holistic health.

"People always say to me, 'I have to confess to a secret interest in Reiki,' or, 'I've been going to see a Hakomi practitioner for years, but I don't tell anybody because they'd think it was weird,'" she says.

This August, VitalityLink plans to run a "Deep Dark Secrets" campaign that will play up the often hidden nature of holistic practice. "People can 'confess' to their holistic health usage in a fun, anonymous way," Ms. Harris says.

The Challenge: How can the company best overcome the stigma that sometimes surrounds holistic health in its marketing efforts?


Juanita Dickson, director of healthcare atMaritz, Toronto

This is an interesting challenge. It kind of reminds me of the Viagra challenge years ago. I think Ms. Harris is on the right track with the Deep Dark Secrets campaign and with the social media efforts. My advice would be to focus on leveraging as many "advocates" as possible to create that tipping point through showing the undeniable results that holistic health is having on patients. I would suggest that the "converts" will be more powerful and influential than the "lifers."

One possible option would be to run a challenge: People submit themselves or friends and family as candidates to see what the results of their health or condition will be after six or eight weeks of chosen treatment. The public can track progress and even vote whether they think that the treatment is going to work. At the end, you have several case studies to leverage, you've demonstrated that there is a high demand for people looking for alternative solutions and you will no doubt have a pool of willing volunteers to become a poster child for your company. The beauty of this type of campaign is that the closet users follow these type of challenges and are more likely to step out of the closet as the masses grow.

Donna Herringer, executive producer,The Natural Health Show, Vancouver

Ms. Harris should try and rid her mind that her challenge is to demystify holistic health. Holistic health has been around for a long time. What I would do if I were her is to connect with companies who promote products that these practitioners are selling. They would be interested in partnering by running messages on their websites.

Social networking is not a quick way to get consumers to come to the site. Expecting consumers to comment on the site is not realistic. As a proprietor of the site, she needs to keep her Facebook and Twitter account interesting by constantly posting "what's new" – either facts or products.

Lynda Goldman, natural health writer and marketer, Montreal

The heart of the problem is confusion about who this site is for, and what it does. The intent is to create a matchmaking service, connecting people with practitioners who can help them. The original goal was to stock the site with practitioners, which it has done well, but the site has not made the switch over to attracting consumers.

Instead of asking clients to reveal their health problems on her site, why not go to the many blogs and social media sites where people are already discussing health problems? Ms. Harris can start a dialogue and offer some insights, and invite people back to her site to sign up for a newsletter or free report. This way, she can capture names and e-mail addresses, and send ongoing, valuable information about her matchmaking services. Potential clients can explore the services without revealing their identities. She can even offer to match up a few customers, to get started. Once people realize the value of her services, word of mouth can take over. She might also want to create a few short videos about her services and upload them to YouTube (making sure to optimize them with keywords).

Holistic health is a growing field, with lots of opportunity. Ms Harris's idea is creative and original. She just needs the right focus and strategy to make it work.


Connect with existing communities

Actively participate in online spaces where people are already discussing chronic pain and holistic health. Engage potential new users in a space they're already familiar with.

Partner with holistic health companies

Reach out to companies that sell products and services related to holistic health. Make them aware of your service, and investigate promotional partnerships.

Run a promotional challenge

Create a promotional challenge that produces multiple results: case studies, word-of-mouth advocates, and a demonstrated appetite for the service.

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