How 2 Formerly Competing Hospitals Married Their Marketing Campaigns

What happens to a hospital's marketing campaign when it affiliates with its crosstown rival?

Two leaders from Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, D.C., and Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Md. — both now part The Johns Hopkins Health System in Baltimore — shared their experiences with this challenge Tuesday at the Society for Healthcare Strategy and Market Development conference in Chicago.

The presentation featured Sheliah Roy, director of marketing and communications for 318-bed Sibley Memorial Hospital, and Ronna Borenstein-Levy, senior director of marketing communications and public affairs for 230-bed Suburban Hospital. The two hospitals, located about five miles apart, were competitors for about 70 years until Suburban joined Johns Hopkins in June 2009, and Sibley joined in November 2010.

The affiliation brought on new challenges for the hospitals' respective marketing campaigns. "We were standalone, relatively small hospitals, and now we're part of a big system and, one might say, part of one of the most important hospitals in the country," said Ms. Roy.

The teams pooled their marketing funds together to find a campaign that would support both of their entities and affiliated physicians, as well as Johns Hopkins Community Physicians, which includes 14 primary and specialty care practices throughout the D.C. area.

The hospitals' market situation, campaign goals
Sibley and Suburban opted for a retail strategy in their marketing campaign (marketing physicians to consumers) as it would help influence patients' physician selection. "We chose this over a branding strategy, although branding was important as well," said Ms. Roy. "As a brand, we had never marketed together, so it was important to connect Sibley and Suburban to the Johns Hopkins brand. At the same time, we needed to demonstrate results."

Before the hospitals launched their collaborative campaign, consumer studies had shown a high awareness of Johns Hopkins — but only as a Baltimore-based facility. There was less recognition of the Johns Hopkins Medicine brand, and thereby Johns Hopkins Community Physicians. "People didn't know Hopkins now has a presence in the D.C. region," said Ms. Borenstein-Levy.

The hospitals were also facing a market saturated with other hospitals and ad campaigns. Ms. Borenstein-Levy said it was difficult to listen to the radio for 30 minutes without hearing several different commercials for different hospitals in the area.

Sibley and Suburban wanted their joint campaign to cut through the clutter of competing ads. "The last thing we wanted was to open the Washington Post and see an ad from Suburban and an ad from Sibley advertising our joint replacement centers," said Ms. Borenstein-Levy. "It would be a waste of money, [cause] confusion to the consumer, and it would look downright silly."

The hospitals wanted to treat their physicians — both employed and independent — equally. They realized how important independent physicians are in patient referrals. For the purposes of the marketing campaign, each of the hospitals' affiliated physicians fell under the Johns Hopkins Medicine umbrella.  

Bumps in the road
Designing a campaign is difficult work as is, but it only grows more complex with numerous marketing professionals and executives from different hospitals and two formerly competing hospital brands.

Even seemingly simple tasks like call center scripting proved to be messy. The hospitals decided to use the call center at Suburban to direct patients' phone calls and physician referrals. This left some Sibley physicians anxious, worrying that the call center's location would inherently sway more referrals to Suburban providers. Ms. Roy said she and Ms. Borenstein-Levy knew this would not be the case: Referrals would be objective and fair to both Suburban and Sibley. "We just had to demonstrate it," said Ms. Roy.

The campaign had to answer other questions, like which hospital name would come first when employees answered calls in the call center? Ms. Borenstein-Levy said one person proposed answering phones as, "Sibley Memorial Suburban Hospital Johns Hopkins Community Physicians physician referral line." That didn't stick, fortunately, and the organizations ultimately went with the physician referral line. ("Thank you for calling the physician referral line.")

Another issue was how the referral line would direct patients to physicians. Which physicians would be included, and how would they be rotated? "The right thing to do was what the caller wanted," said Ms. Borenstein-Levy.

If the caller wanted a D.C. physician, the call center provided the name of a Sibley physician. If the caller wanted a physician closer to Bethesda, the call center provided the name of a Suburban physician. "If they said they didn't care, which happens a lot, we'd make sure we gave them one physician from each hospital," said Ms. Borenstein-Levy.

Other lingering questions were whether each organization should have its own landing page, whether websites should list one phone number or two, and so on. The organizations decided on landing pages that discussed their service lines in general but also included tabs and links to Suburban, Sibley and Johns Hopkins Community Physicians so patients could navigate each depending on their preference, location or physician affiliation.

Ultimately, Ms. Roy said a short timeframe to complete the campaign helped propel these decisions. The hospitals made the decision to do the campaign in late November, and it launched in the second week of February. Ms. Roy emphasized the importance of phone calls — not email — during these discussions, as up to eight people were weighing in. Email chains could potentially go on for days compared to a single decisive phone call.  

Seeing results
Ms. Roy and Ms. Borenstein-Levy have seen some promising results from the campaign so far. From Feb. 11 to June 30, calls to the referral line increased by 225 percent. There have also been more than 1,500 physician referrals made through the call center since the campaign began.

More than half of the people who called Suburban's call center came across the campaign online, while 13 percent heard the advertisements on the radio, 10 percent saw ads in newspapers and 1 percent encountered the ads on metro bus tails.

"If you want somebody to be referred, make it easy for them," says Ms. Roy. "If you've made it hard, you've lost it." She said the hospitals will continue a regional collaboration to support service lines and branding, with a continued focus on referring patients to physicians aligned with Johns Hopkins.

More Articles on Hospital Marketing:

9 Digital Patient Engagement & Hospital Marketing Strategies to Improve Patient Acquisition and Retention
Hospitals — They Don't Market Like They Used To
5 Retail Principles for a More Effective Hospital Market Share Strategy

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