Hospitals — They Don't Market Like They Used To

Healthcare marketing is challenging by nature. Some universal marketing guidelines do not necessarily hold true for hospitals and health systems. For instance, many people who see a hospital's advertisement for cardiovascular surgery may have no need for those services when they encounter the ad. To complicate things further, most people hope to never have a need for those services.

This is a big difference from traditional retail marketing. Consumers don't necessarily desire a hospital's services — they'd rather be healthy and not visit a hospital. But even if they do use the services, the length of time between a marketing campaign and consumer utilization can be months, if not longer.

"Tracking is a bugaboo for hospital marketing," says Kim Fox, vice president of healthcare public affairs firm Jarrard Phillips Cate & Hancock in Nashville. "I work with a client that recently completely a really good obstetrics campaign. But you know what? They're not going to see results right away. People don't get pregnant just because they saw your ad." As a result, the hospital is measuring its results nine months after the ad campaign concluded, then again at 12 months, and once more at two years post-campaign.

Many hospital marketing caveats are inherent and unlikely to change, but one thing has: the consumer. Hospitals are dealing with consumers who are remarkably smart, demanding transparency and two-way communication from their healthcare providers. They also trust brands less: 32 percent of people are more likely to trust a stranger's opinion on a blog or public forum than a branded advertisement or marketing material, according to recent DKNewMedia/Forrester survey cited by Forbes. Furthermore, many consumers are coping with increased out-of-pocket healthcare costs, which make them more likely to shop around for providers.

These pressures have prompted health systems to deliver new messages that resonate with sophisticated consumers. It's a step away from the old world of hospital marketing — a world Ms. Fox says was really quite limited. "In the past, we liked to talk about ourselves and describe how wonderful [our hospital was], or our cool technology," she says. "Or, we'd say, 'We're really, really nice and so compassionate. We'll be so nice to you.' It was either high-tech or compassion. That's all we ever talked about."

Now, marketing campaigns are more tailored for consumers' expectations and what they want from their healthcare experience. Advertising is also more closely connected to the patient experience through multimedia platforms.

Take Mayo Clinic, for instance. This system has been applauded by communication experts as one of the trailblazers for social media in healthcare, as evidenced by its Center for Social Media, which was the first of its kind. The system established its own YouTube channel in 2006, featuring instructional health videos, interviews with clinical leaders and anecdotes from patients. The videos resemble news segments, with high-quality editing, voiceovers and on-the-scene coverage.

"For years, we used testimonials," says Ms. Fox. "Now we're using them in a different way. I want to follow the experience of the patient, hear their story and know what they went through. The story-telling is becoming more important. Hospitals or health systems that do this well are breaking through the clutter."

Healthcare reform has fixed a spotlight on certain quality metrics, such as readmission rates and Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems scores. Traditionally, these benchmarks haven't held a large presence in marketing, and it's still early for hospitals to tout these figures in advertisements. "I still don't think people are making their healthcare decisions based on HCAHPs scores," says Ms. Fox. "On average, it's just not happening yet."

Not every hospital embraces marketing
Some hospitals, health systems and CEOs have a firm understanding of what marketing can do for their organization, but this isn't guaranteed. Some marketing directors may find their leadership team lingering in the Dark Ages of communication strategy. The most indicative sign that a CEO or organization values its marketing strategy is whether a communication professional is part of the senior leadership team. In other words: Is the marketing director involved in finalizing a strategy, or does the director only find out about the plan after it's been decided?

Ms. Fox says roughly half of hospitals and health systems have a marketing or communication professional in the C-suite. "As healthcare marketing professionals, we need to start demanding [a presence] and positioning ourselves as an industry that deserves a seat at the table next to the COO, CFO and CNO," she says. A marketing director's involvement in strategic discussions can lead to more informed, textured and sophisticated campaigns, opposed to the one-dimensional, one-off ads that may result from a trickle-down of information.

At Boston-based Steward Health Care System, where the chief marketing officer is part of the senior executive team, members of the C-suite are highly interested in system's branding and communication efforts, according to Teresa Prego, vice president of marketing. "They're enthusiastic supporters. They're very involved in approving the campaign and they're interested in our marketing spots. They're also involved in looking at metrics."

Teri Fontenot, president and CEO of Woman's Hospital in Baton Rouge, La., says although marketing professionals are not involved in C-suite roundtable discussions, they are not treated as an afterthought, either. The hospital takes a very measured approach to its marketing strategies, too. "To me, marketing and advertising are two different things. We make advertising decisions based on science, analysis and objective data on patient services and utilization. That helps us make sure that when we do promote a service, we are targeting the right audience," says Ms. Fontenot.

Carrying conversations about women's healthcare
Woman's Hospital faces some unique circumstances for its marketing strategy since, at 225 beds, it is one of the largest women's specialty hospitals in the country. "We have a special relationship with patients because we focus on women and families, and for the most part, executives here are female. We know personally about the environment we feel is conducive to those things that speak to the female patients we're trying to attract," says Ms. Fontenot.

Unlike cardiac surgery, obstetrics and gynecology are medical services consumers can generally plan for, and these specialties make up a significant portion of the hospital's marketing and branding initiatives. "Our patients are looking for a special experience and they're able to plan their hospital visit, so we create that awareness and then reinforce it," says Ms. Fontenot.

Woman's dove into social media in 2009, and its presence has grown tremendously in about a year and a half, according to Amiee Goforth, public relations manager at the hospital. After the 300,000th baby was delivered at the hospital in January 2013 — the hospital called it its 300,000th "birth day" — the Woman's communications team asked people to share their labor and delivery experiences at Woman's on Facebook. The site garnered stories from patients who were born at Woman's, whose children were born there, and so on. The chain spread up to three generations. "It was the perfect opportunity for our patients and their families to be involved in a milestone through social media," says Ms. Goforth.

Social media marketing also has the potential to take on a life of its own. Woman's has experienced this firsthand. Before the hospital moved to a new campus in August 2012, it created a billboard that displayed a countdown of the time remaining until the move. "Some of the women [whose children were ultimately delivered] at the new campus took pictures in front of that billboard and shared it on Facebook as their pregnancy announcement," says Ms. Goforth. "These women were marketing for us on their own social media accounts."  

An Olympic-sized commercial campaign  
Steward's marketing strategy is unique, especially compared to other hospitals in its market, since the system is less than three years old. Representing a network of community hospitals, Steward's marketing team was tasked with the dual challenge of building a brand and creating campaigns that spoke to consumers, who have several high-profile hospitals to choose from. So far, Steward has adopted a building-block approach to its marketing campaigns, with each one building upon the last.

First, the system launched its Believe Campaign in 2011. It took a non-traditional approach and first talked to patients about what bothered them most about healthcare. "We interviewed patients and took all the things they didn't like, the things that were frustrating to them, and we flipped [those statements] around to make powerful ads for TV and radio," says Ms. Prego. These flipped-around messages include 'Believe your health matters to someone other than you,' and 'Believe that compassion comes with a medical degree.'

The system went high-profile with the campaign by running one of its Believe Campaign commercials in a local TV spot during the 2011 Super Bowl. Overall, the ads were a hit and largely resonated with Steward employees, according to Ms. Prego. In its next step, the system launched its I Am Steward Campaign in 2012. Playing on its name, the system emphasized Steward's commitments to caring for its patients and employees. But making the second batch of commercials was a marketing project in itself.

Steward worked with an external casting agency to feature its own employees in the ads, using an audition process much like that on "American Idol," which generated internal excitement. "About 500 employees responded to the casting call, and we had a ton of fun," says Ms. Prego. About 40 of those 500 employees were selected for the commercials. After the spots were filmed on location at Steward hospitals, but before they premiered, Steward held a "red carpet" screening for employees starring in the commercials. Senior executives attended the event, as well.

"There was a definite boost in morale," says Ms. Prego. "Employees loved it. When the commercials aired during the [Summer 2012] Olympics, the employees' response was tremendous. They loved these spots and that they knew employees in the commercials." And what did physicians think of the ads? "In terms of physician perception, I think that had a favorable impression for recruitment and overall impression of quality and believability," says Ms. Prego.

Measuring success, dealing with copy cats
So far, Ms. Prego says Steward's campaigns have created brand awareness, which is a noteworthy accomplishment for a community hospital system in a market packed with large academic medical centers. "We're only a two-year-old company," says Ms. Prego. "That's a different goal than [an organization that's] been around for 50 years. We tested after the campaign, and our naming awareness increased by 32 percent." That means when people were asked, 'Can you tell me a health system you're aware of in the Boston area,' 32 percent more people named Steward after the campaign.

Steward stopped running its TV spots from the 2012 Summer Olympics in December. But each time Steward reactivates the commercials, web traffic spikes and the number of patient appointments made increases, even though the spots do not call for viewers to make appointments.

"There are a lot of hospitals in the Boston area and a fair number of academic medical centers, so there's lots of clutter in terms of healthcare ads," says Ms. Prego. "There's a good amount of radio, a fair amount of digital and a significant amount of print." She says Steward drove marketing efforts on TV because, in 2011, there wasn't an overwhelming healthcare presence there. That has since changed, and other systems in the area have retooled their advertisement strategy to follow, says Ms. Prego.

"We've seen just about all of our competitors follow suit with similar taglines like, 'World class care in the community.' At least three competitors have created that message in what they're promoting," says Ms. Prego.

The problem of copy-cat advertising is something hospitals in metropolitan markets are likely to encounter. It's easy to dismiss mimcry as bad practice, but marketing directors can face intense pressure from physicians, C-suite leaders or others to react to competitors' campaigns. If a competing system launches a new TV ad, it may not be long before senior executives ask why their system isn't doing the same. That internal pressure can hijack a marketing strategy that was once original and brand-specific to become a copy cat.

"If we could stop reactive advertising, oh my goodness, the world would be a better place," says Ms. Fox. "Stick to your own strategies. When you start going off on tangents, you'll never get where you need to go." When marketing directors feel they're at risk of producing reactive campaigns, Ms. Fox recommends they approach their leadership team. "Say, 'Look, we all agreed this is our marketing strategy. Doing this ad on our new XYZ does not fit in that strategy. Are we sure we want to go there?"

More Articles on Hospital Marketing:

6 Strategies to Engage Physicians in Hospital Marketing
Incorporating Patient Experience Into Healthcare Marketing
Study: More Than 50 Percent of Private Practices' Time and Money is Dedicated to Marketing

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