5 Tips for Hospitals Marketing to Patients Through New Technology

Mobile devices and social media are becoming a predominant means of communication in healthcare settings as organizations look for more ways to reach patients in an increasingly competitive market. A report by Float Mobile Learning found that 80 percent of U.S. physicians use smartphones and medical apps, and data by Manhattan Research indicated that the number of U.S. adults using their mobile phones for health information or tools has more than doubled from 12 percent to 26 percent in the past year.

If this rate of adoption continues, hospitals and health systems will need to conduct multi-channel marketing in the mobile health arena to retain or increase patient volume. A.J. Melaragno, vice president of hospital markets for Sharecare, a social platform for healthcare information, provides five tips for hospitals marketing through new technology.

1. Get executives on board. Mr. Melaragno, who is also former vice president of marketing for Evanston, Ill.-based NorthShore University HealthSystem, says one of the greatest challenges in using new marketing vehicles such as mobile apps and social media is gaining the support of the organization's leaders. "It's making sure that the leadership in a hospital or healthcare system understands that it's more than having a Twitter page or YouTube page or Facebook. It's part of your business now. And you need to have a presence on it because a conversation [about your organization] is happening whether you are involved or not," he says.

He says failing to create a presence in social media and mobile health deprives the organization of a way to defend any false information about the facility that may be on these channels and an opportunity to connect with potential patients. "It's not just publishing onto your website anymore. It's about publishing your brand and message to whatever vehicles that patients want to read about you on," Mr. Melaragno says. "It's a matter of convincing executives that it's okay [to] have a social media person dedicated to tweeting all day and [posting on] Facebook and generating buzz in the community around who we are," he says. "Show them that conversation is happening."

In addition, hospitals and health systems can gain administrative support for new marketing tactics by demonstrating their cost savings. "I don't think traditional media is ever going to go away," Mr. Melaragno says. "But if you stake the same amount of dollars you're putting into the traditional model and compare it to the impact in new, interactive media, you probably need an eighth of the budget."

2. Integrate new technology with traditional tools.
Accepting new technology for marketing purposes does not mean hospitals and health systems should abandon traditional tools such as newspaper ads, brochures and other print materials. Instead, they should leverage each medium's particular strengths to create a comprehensive marketing strategy. For example, Mr. Melaragno says traditional media is ideal for large-scale, macro marketing, while new media is particularly useful for engaging patients in their care. "The biggest thing that hospital marketing departments are facing is how to not only use social media and mobile apps, but how to integrate it into the rest of their traditional marketing and advertising," Mr. Melaragno says.

This integration can be seen in new staffing models in hospitals' marketing departments and a more hybrid approach to reaching the community. Mr. Melaragno says while in the past hospitals and health systems may have had many individuals responsible for different vehicles, such as one person dedicated to the Internet, another dedicated to photography and yet another for print materials, now healthcare organizations tend to hire fewer people who can coordinate all marketing channels.

3. Be consistent. Assigning all marketing methods to fewer people may help the organization follow one of the key tenets in integrating new and traditional marketing: consistency. A hospital or health system's message and brand should be consistent across all forms of marketing, from the website to direct mail to a physician's office. "The challenge is for hospitals to continue to push the envelope but at the same time integrate the message," Mr. Melaragno says. While social media and other online platforms may allow for more flexibility in creating an image, the brand should not differ to the extent that patients cannot visually recognize the organization.

Organizations can help ensure consistency through a multi-channel content management system, Mr. Melaragno says. A content management system, such as EPiServer, which NorthShore uses, enables hospitals to input a message in a centralized location. The system can then output the message to multiple modalities, such as a website, Facebook page and direct mail campaign.

4. Create an actionable event. To be successful in marketing through social media and mobile apps, hospitals and health systems will need to create what Mr. Melaragno calls an "actionable event:" an opportunity for patients to engage with the organization, such as by making an appointment or asking a question to a specific physician. "It's no longer [about] let's be an encyclopedia for healthcare, but a conduit for business and providing an actionable event for patients," he says. For example, Sharecare allows patients to ask questions to local physicians, who patients can then learn about, create a relationship with and schedule an appointment with.

Healthcare organizations have numerous opportunities to create an actionable event, according to Mr. Melaragno. "Healthcare has not reached the pinnacle of what's next," he says. "There are really few healthcare systems out there that truly have an integrated electronic medical record that allows an organization or patient to be electronic from the first contact to the time they go home after the procedure." He says hospitals can provide registration forms online and information on billing. Hospitals and health systems can even improve transparency by showing patients what stage their bill is in — if insurance has paid and how much and what the patient has paid. "Having that transparency into the healthcare process is a huge opportunity," he says. In addition, hospitals can tailor online ads so that if a patient is searching back pain on Google, he or she can click on an ad for the hospital and access information about local treatment. "I think that what hospitals are learning is not only are competitors a click away, but they can save significant amounts of money by streamlining the process of getting patients into the door."

5. Develop policies for online content.
It is essential that hospitals and health systems develop policies for the content they present through new technology and how they respond to content from others. "Any time you're in public, you're going to get negative responses," Mr. Melaragno says. "Someone's going to have a bad experience in the hospital; you're going to have a crisis in the hospital. You have to be prepared how to handle that."

He suggests having a policy of dealing with any problem in a straightforward and honest manner. For example, if a data breach occurs, healthcare organizations should ensure that the message on social media sites is identical to that printed in the news and other traditional forms. "The first instinct is to remove [the negative comment.] The minute you do that, you lose all credibility because now [you're] an organization that only has positive statements on its website, which we all know is not truthful," he says. "Nobody's under the impression everything's going to be perfect. It's just a matter of how you address it."

Learn more about Sharecare.

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