UPMC's campaign for living-donor liver transplants resulted in 20,000 inquiries in its 1st year — 2 marketing leaders explain how

Since launching a marketing campaign to raise awareness about living-donor liver transplants in September 2018, Pittsburgh-based UPMC has received more than 21,000 inquiries about the procedure, with dozens more phone calls coming in each day.

The results are especially staggering in light of the fact that, as Dean Walters, UPMC's vice president and chief marketing officer, explained, even the health system's gastroenterologists and hepatologists were unaware the procedure existed.

Building awareness, then, was key. Relying heavily on digital marketing tactics helped the UPMC team do so more effectively, since a digital approach allows for more targeted outreach that can result directly in two-way communication.

"I joke with my staff here, it's not like we're selling washers and dryers," Mr. Walters said. "Here, we're explaining to the consumer, to the physician what this procedure is that they've never heard about and how it is a life-saving procedure. That's why it is so important to engage in a conversation, as opposed to traditional advertising, which just speaks at you."

Here, Mr. Walters and Doug Lucas, vice president of digital marketing communications at UPMC, discuss the campaign and how it fits into the health system's overall digital strategy.

Editor's note: Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Question: Where did the idea for the campaign come from, and how did it come to fruition?

Dean Walters:
I'll give a very high-level overview: There are currently 14,000 individuals waiting for a liver transplant. Of that number, about 2,800 pass away every year waiting for a liver transplant. We believe strongly that the answer to that is living-donor liver transplant. What we found is, even within our own system, when we started to go down this road, GI doctors and hepatologists weren't aware of the procedure, so we've been doing a massive campaign to create awareness.

If you think of it from a funnel perspective, the top of the funnel is to make as many people aware of this as possible. We're talking various audiences: consumers who need a liver transplant, donors who would potentially donate a liver, and then we're also talking physicians. The campaign was really targeted on those three audiences.

To start off, we did broad-based traditional advertising — television, radio, print — but the whole goal was to drive them to a conversation, and that's where digital played a key role. The more that we could drive people to check out a website, to sign up for more information, to eventually, ultimately, make a phone call where we could talk with them and answer any of their questions — because it's a big procedure. I joke with my staff here, it's not like we're selling washers and dryers. Everybody knows what a washer and a dryer is, but here we're explaining to the consumer, to the physician what this procedure is that they've never heard about and how it is a life-saving procedure. That's why it is so important to engage in a conversation, as opposed to traditional advertising, which just speaks at you.

Q: If the biggest part of the funnel is increasing education and awareness, would you say that's where you've seen the biggest impact of the campaign? Or has it had a bigger impact on the number of donors and the number of transplants?

The answer to that is yes. Since the launch of the campaign — and it's only been a little over a year, we launched it last September — we've had 21,000 inquiries and we average anywhere between 60 and 100 calls a day. Of that 21,000, because we were running traditional advertising, you get a lot of questions. It's not, I would say, a qualified lead: Some of it is a child whose parent needed a liver transplant and they were calling to get more information.

One of the things we learned in going through this is that parents were hesitant, if they needed a liver transplant, to approach their child. And what this campaign did was it created that education, so it had children of parents who needed a liver transplant inquiring and learning more information about that. What we've seen is children who are actually saying, "Mom, Dad, I want to do this." So we've been extremely pleased with the results.

Q: What specific aspects of the campaign do you think have driven that success?

There's no one answer to that question; I think it's a combination. We needed not just digital, but all the campaign elements, all the wheels moving in the same direction. The TV ads created a general awareness among a mass audience — we were able to reach so many people. And then the other components: We did partnerships with Facebook to create a Facebook hub, we partnered with WebMD. We went to where individuals were already going for information, like Donate Life, to create a greater awareness, and that's what started that conversation. The Facebook hub alone has 16,000 followers.

It's hard to pinpoint any one tactic. But when we started this, our baseline research showed that nobody knew what a LDLT was and we knew doctors — GI doctors, hepatologists who are treating patients with liver disease — were not having a conversation with their patients to say, "There's another option; it's called an LDLT." That's where we needed to have a large mouthpiece or microphone telling as many people as we possibly could, with the goal of, when they go to seek more information, they see it, whether it's a web banner ad or a partnership with WebMD. That all helped to continue that education process. The No. 1 goal of this campaign was to educate, because there's this life-saving procedure out there that just is not being utilized.

Q: Taking a step back and looking at it more broadly, how does this campaign fit into UPMC's overall digital marketing strategy? What are the goals and priorities there?

DW: If you think about the digital side of things, it goes back to the point I was just making: that it allows you to have communication, two-way conversation, if you will. Traditional advertising just speaks at the consumer, and in traditional advertising, you produce a 30- or a 60-second television spot, and it's hard to include every message point affecting every person out in the community. Digital allows you to customize that message and go after your target audience with more relevant information that is of importance to them.

That's where digital is just so important. One, it allows us to engage in a conversation with them. And two, it helps us define exactly who we're talking to, so that we're customizing that messaging so it's more relevant to them.

Doug Lucas: The way I explain it is, it's a very personalized marketing approach. It can get to a much deeper, one-to-one experience than we can on the traditional side. The traditional side has really been about creative: how your message can differentiate from the rest of the clutter out there that you're competing against. We do that by putting a lot of money into creative and media buying.

On the digital side, what we're trying to do is look at it more from a perspective of using data and data management and automation platforms to identify and respond in real time to consumer requests for information. It's less about creative and more about content and relevancy. We know that you're interested in a given subject, so now we have to build enough content out there around the given subject to keep that engagement process going and to take you through a full customer journey, from the wide part of the funnel down to the very narrow part of the funnel.

Q: Is there anything else you'd like to add about this specific campaign or UPMC's overall strategy?

In the digital space, as you take people through data management insights, orchestration and activation, there are a number of different tools and tactics that you can use along the way. And a couple of those things, I think we're really starting to learn here now.

If you look at healthcare, the challenge is, if you're shopping for brown shoes and you go to Amazon, you have an intent to purchase, but what has been difficult in healthcare is that much of your healthcare is not elected — you don't know that you're going to need it until you have that episodic event. So, much of the process of what we try to do is build engagement with people so that we are a trusted source for healthcare information, which hopefully translates into selection when it comes time to choose their providers.

One of the things that we've done, for example, is build a partnership with WebMD. We know WebMD is a very trusted third-party source that many consumers go to for information when they have healthcare issues. LDLT is a little bit of a different challenge for us because while, in many cases, healthcare is an episodic event, in this case, people know that they are on a waiting list and are waiting for that phone call about a liver becoming available to them from a deceased donor. So we had an education opportunity here, and that opportunity allowed us to go out and search for communities of people who fit the profile of needing liver transplants.

WebMD was a great place to start there. We had an arrangement with them to create an exclusive content hub on their site that helped drive people to our site and our information. So, going back to that awareness funnel, it became a very interesting media buy, if you will, to partner with that kind of trusted third-party source to help create the awareness segment of this whole campaign. And that worked out very successfully for us.

Q: You were saying that the key is always to build engagement. Is that where that engagement comes from: meeting people where they are?

DL: It goes back to the focus on creating relevance. Once these folks had identified themselves as having interest, then we had to create enough content to keep that engagement journey going. We built email offices where we reached out to them with multiple emails or text messages, or we allowed them to define the ways in which they wanted to be communicated with and then we responded in those way. When you're focusing on an education element, the expectation isn't that a person's going to see the first message or the first commercial for us and immediately say, "OK, this is where I need to be." There's a process or journey that you need to take them through.

Another really common-sense thing we did is ensure our partners on the clinical side had really strong support from our clinical operations side, so that when we did get people through the doors and they did want more of a clinical interaction or maybe even an evaluation, we were able to make that a very smooth handoff and process and a seamless experience for the customer.

More articles on digital marketing:
South Dakota spends $500K on anti-meth digital campaign
Every board should include a marketing leader — here's why
How video brand storytelling can help reel in patients: 3 insights

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