Revamping the marketing of your healthcare organization in the digital age is no small feat.
The growth in digital platforms and the widespread use of social media by the public to grade and comment on healthcare organizations present a challenge for practice and health system leaders. Ignoring a negative review or comment leaves the impression that the post is factual; however, any response by the practice may further publicize the post and could even inflame the issue before a wider audience.
For example: A 2017 MGMA Stat poll found that about 51% of respondents stated their organizations respond to negative online reviews, compared to 33% that ignore the reviews and 16% that take another approach.
Gone are the days when a practice’s entire marketing strategy consisted of making sure your information was listed accurately in your local Yellow Pages. Today’s practice executive is tasked to create a marketing strategy that appeals to multiple generations — what may work for geriatric patients may not appeal to millennials. Additionally, as the millennial generation’s oldest members approach 40 and their needs as healthcare consumers evolve as they age and have children of their own, they are quickly becoming the largest patient population.
Bill Sonn, principal at The Sonn Group and senior healthcare consultant at Gelb Consulting based in Houston, outlines how practices can present themselves to a newer generation of patients while also building on traditional marketing and patient communication methods.
“The younger you are, the more immortal you feel — you never think you’re going to get sick,” Sonn says. “Consequently, healthcare is not top of mind [for them] and the healthcare demand they generate is usually urgent or acute care.”
When these younger patients have a health-related problem and need to see a provider, they will seek the easiest pathway, and it may not be based on forging a long-term relationship with a specific doctor or provider. Local bulletin board websites such as Nextdoor often are the touchstone for reaching out for recommendations from neighbors they trust before opting for the aggregated feedback found on websites such as Yelp, Healthgrades and other review platforms.
Personas — an extension of patient demographic information — help provide context for why certain people use certain methods to research and select a provider, as well as how they prefer to engage with that provider once a relationship has been established. This is where customer data becomes vital for a practice.
“I know so many [providers] who collect customer data and do nothing with it,” Sonn says. “You can really get to know who your patients are and what your strengths are by studying your patient data.” Patient circumstances identified in demographics and psychographic data can lead you to craft communication strategies for a young mother that might vary greatly from that young mother’s spouse, Sonn says.
While social media companies’ handling of customer data has resulted in a great deal of negative press for some of them, Sonn says that commercially available information from those sites are not only a legitimate means for augmenting what you already know about your customers through clinical records or claims data — they can also provide unique perspectives on potential patient populations.
Capturing information such as how someone contacted your practice for the first time can yield insight into what form of media that person uses on a regular basis, which can guide differentiation of your patient communications. “That’s one of the great glories of digital marketing,” Sonn notes. “You can profile whole groups of people, or you can target market individuals.”
Once you have engaged a potential patient, the effort shifts to an exercise in brand management. “I always say brand is part expectation and part experience,” Sonn says. “If the experience doesn’t meet the expectation, you’ve got customer dissatisfaction.”
From health systems to small, independent practices, managing expectations is vital for patient satisfaction. “I think that each service line should probably have its own set of expectations,” Sonn says, and practice executives may need to tailor their strategic thinking to set expectations for their directors and managers to reach that level of specificity.
Executive steps for marketing
The C-suite of a healthcare organization of any size needs to accurately identify current patients and then understand that population. “It’s looking at transactional data and adding commercially available claims and demographic data,” Sonn recommends.
Acquiring that data then leads to analyzing what’s working in your marketing strategy: “Replicate your own successes,” Sonn says. “Learning how patients are acquired, where they live and how they interact with your phone system, portal or website will serve as a baseline for doing likewise for other potential patients.”
Next, practice executives must set discrete expectations for the managers of the practice and its service lines. While it may sometimes be difficult to ascertain where some patients go after they leave a practice, there are many reliable indicators of success (and if your numbers are decreasing – distress), including:
- Payer mix
- Staff morale and employee satisfaction
While exploring new territory in digital marketing can provide new opportunities, Sonn also suggests maintaining traditional advertising methods that still work. Traditional means of advertising “are going away, but I wouldn’t ignore them,” Sonn cautions. “Hospital marketing departments still are going largely to traditional advertising,” but that definition should be broadened to include online advertising.
And one aspect of marketing that never changes is setting your organization apart. “Differentiation … what makes you different,” should be a core component of your message, Sonn says. “And it can be any level of service you want.”