10 Secrets of Top Hospital Marketers

Certain hospital "brands" stand out among competitors, in part because of the excellent quality and expertise provided, but also because of these hospitals' ability to promote their achievements, differentiate their brand and engage with consumers.

Top hospital marketing programs have multiple goals and engage various stakeholders through a variety of methods. Steve Rivkin, founder, Rivkin & Associates, a healthcare branding and communications consultancy, and co-author of Repositioning: Marketing in an Era of Competition, Change and Crisis (McGraw-Hill, 2010), has worked with a number of hospitals on their marketing efforts. Here, he shares 10 unique characteristics of top hospital marketers.

1. They see marketing as a function with multiple purposes. Top hospitals view marketing as having multidimensional goals, such as supporting mission and values, increasing awareness, improving image and reputation and – last but certainly not least – generating new revenue, says Mr. Rivkin.

In order to meet these multiple goals, hospitals should commit adequate levels of funding to the marketing effort. According to a recent study by the American Hospital Association's Society for Healthcare Strategy & Market Development, the average spending on all marketing activities was around 0.7 percent of net patient revenues. However, an institution's size and competitive situation can influence the level of spending. "My firm has reviewed marketing budgets at more than 100 hospitals, and we've found the range can be as high as 2.3 percent or a low as 0.4 percent," says Mr. Rivkin.

2. They invest in training and education. Hospitals should invest seriously in ongoing professional education for their marketing and/or communications teams. Because many hospital marketers have public affairs and journalism backgrounds, the business side of marketing — such as determining strategy based on effectiveness and measuring return on investment — may be foreign to them, says Mr. Rivkin.

3. They recognize no marketing can fix operational deficiencies — and do something about it. Market research is often used to position an organization, but it also reveals important strengths and deficiencies. If this information is passed on to appropriate operational leaders, the overall organization can be improved. The best hospital markers "use consumer feedback, focus groups and other marketing research to reveal gaps in patient satisfaction — gaps that can often be addressed by staff training or changes in procedures," says Mr. Rivkin. "By fixing real problems, these research-driven efforts can lead to revenue growth."

4. They know the importance of patient experience. Savvy hospitals also focus on providing an excellent patient experience through customer service training, reducing wait times and upgrading amenities, says Mr. Rivkin. A 1999 study by Kaiser Permanente Northern California of 2,000 women revealed that the impact of insensitive behavior is so strong that it negatively influences satisfaction and increases the likelihood of negative word of mouth.  Additionally, a Dec. 2010 study by researchers at the USC Center for Health Policy & Economics published in the New England Journal of Medicine found "patients themselves said that the non-clinical experience is twice as important as the clinical reputation in making hospital choices."

While improving patient experience isn't typically led by the marketing department, marketers play an important role in informing leaders on problems with patient experience and educating them on the need for change.  

5. They know marketing is more than just maintaining a website. Top hospital marketers have strategic public and media relations plans, proactively seek out media coverage and continually offer their physicians and employees as experts for media and other appearances. Mr. Rivkin says hospitals have historically fallen short in this area, focusing too heavily instead on improving their websites or on specific advertising opportunities. "Hospitals probably do more good in this country than any other institution," he says. "But, America's hospitals are often shy. They often don't toot their own horn the way other industries do."

6. They send messages to the right targets, which in healthcare is often women. Hospital marketers often need to appeal to women, says Mr. Rivkin. For example, a 1996 study by researchers at the UC-San Diego School of Medicine found men were 2.7 times more likely to be influenced by a woman to seek medical care than the other way around. So, a hospital hoping to encourage men to get screened for prostrate cancer may benefit from targeting their wives or other female family members.

7. They track the ROI of all marketing efforts. Top marketing departments pay more attention to measuring results and expecting marketing to contribute to the bottom line. Top hospital marketers are very strategic, putting dollars toward the most effective marketing programs and shying away from those that can't be tracked. "[Tracking return on investment] is a new value to imprint on marketing people," says Mr. Rivkin.

8. They tap into the expertise of non-hospital marketers. Hospitals should not shy away from asking smart hospital board members for advices or best practices, as many hospital trustees have expansive business experience, says Mr. Rivkin. Even if the person isn't a marketer, his or her understanding of concepts such as return on investment and accountability may help make your hospital's marketing efforts more sophisticated.

9. Marketing and IT "talk" to one another. Determining ROI often involves gathering and analyzing large amounts of data — a task that is made easier when the marketing and information technology departments work together. "Your IT folks collect data on patients. If they understand what marketing does, they can help float information [to marketers]," says Mr. Rivkin. Specifically, Mr. Rivkin suggests senior managers from each department sit down together at regular meetings.

10. They have a seat at the leadership table. In the future, Mr. Rivkin believes more hospital senior leadership teams will give their marketing and public affairs people a seat at the table when important strategic decisions are being discussed.  "Marketing and communications people are unique because they see broadly across the entire organizations," he says. Marketers are able to understand the entire organization while relaying the possible impact of certain hospital decisions on various constituents, such as employees, physicians, consumers and the community. 

Steve Rivkin founded the consultancy that bears his name in 1989. He has worked on more than 90 hospital and healthcare system assignments, ranging from marketing audits to crisis counsel. He is a nationally-respected expert on marketing and communications, and is the co-author of six books on marketing strategy, differentiation, innovation and communication.


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