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A Healthcare Marketer's Guide For Surviving In A Bad Economy

April 01, 2009

By Daniel Weinbach

Yes, we all agree that healthcare organizations should continue to market aggressively in the current economy. Yes, we all agree that a sustained marketing program will support the continued loyalty of existing audiences and will position your organization for growth as the recession turns into a rebound. Yes, we all agree that marketing is a revenue driver and that cutting marketing budgets is tantamount to damning your steam of new income. And yes, we all understand I'm preaching to the choir.

The fact is most healthcare organizations' leaders hail from operations, finance or even medical backgrounds. Only a handful rose to their positions from careers in marketing. As a result, few healthcare execs hold their marketing budgets sacred during these tumultuous times. Most see marketing as dispensable and will cut their marketing budgets first rather than last. Putting business principles aside, who can blame them? If the choice is between cutting nurses or a shiny new ad campaign, the casualty would (and probably should) be the ad campaign.

So if your organization shares any similarities with our healthcare clients, then your budget has taken a hit. Some of you may have lost more than ad dollars. You may have lost staff. In fact, some of you may be reading this fresh from a layoff yourselves. To you I offer my sincere sympathies. These are difficult times. And now more than ever as marketing professionals, we must demonstrate our very real value to the organizations we serve.

In this vein, I have developed a "survival guide," to not only make it through the challenges of the current economy but to thrive. By using these guidelines, you will prove that marketing is just as essential as operations or finance. Moreover, you will contribute to the continued viability and success of your organization.

I based some of the suggestions that follow on our agency's own successes; some come from good common sense; and some blossomed from the sharp minds of our clients. Keep in mind these tips come from the perspective of organizations that deliver care: hospitals, health systems, and provider groups. However, most of what I offer can be applied to any healthcare entity. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if these approaches would work for businesses in entirely different industries.

Adhere to consistent branding. As your marketing budget dwindles, and as your organization continues to require methods for generating revenue–perhaps with greater urgency than ever–you may find yourself tempted to sacrifice the hard-earned positioning you have defined for your organization. Your well-meaning colleagues, desperate to demonstrate quantifiable results, may be the biggest culprits coaxing you toward this infidelity, but you have to remain strong.

There's nothing wrong with marketing communications tactics that have bottom line results. By all means, such quantifiable metrics should be part of every effort; however, seeking results at the expense of brand integrity is a dangerous move. Once you diminish the meaning of your brand; once you join the fray and focus on the procedure instead of the practitioner; and once you sell price as your central message, you will be hard-pressed to recapture your positioning in the months (or years) to come.

Focus on products and service lines. When times are tough, and they certainly are tough, your healthcare marketing energy needs to be aimed squarely at the projects that can most rapidly and most demonstrably generate bottom line results. This requires good communication and coordination with people in your organization who can provide basic information and answer some fundamental questions. Which areas have capacity to handle new patients? Which procedures are most lucrative? Which offerings can act as gateways to more profitable services?

Right now you might be asking yourself, "Isn't this a contradiction to the point above about adherence to your brand?" Absolutely not. With careful implementation, you can promote specific services and product offerings while simultaneously advancing the branding you have already developed. In fact, done well, service-oriented messaging can be even more effective than straightforward "image" advertising.

Now is the time to insist the messages you create and disseminate perform double duty—to both grow business and build the brand.

Create a marketing tool kit. This is one of those great ideas that I wish was mine, but the suggestion came from the marketing director at a specialty hospital that our agency serves. She suggested we create a marketing tool kit, or collection of creative assets, that can be customized or used "as is" by other people within her organization.

If you're like my clients, your marketing department finds itself at the center of a "catch 22." Representatives from nearly every part of your organization are likely demanding more and more resources to drive revenues higher (reacting to their own bosses' panic). But you likely have less money, and you may have a leaner, even skeletal, staff to get the work done.

Here's where a marketing tool kit can help. It can be as simple as a few templates for creating flyers or as complex as an entire pre-packaged campaign. Ideally, the elements would be hosted on your company's intranet and available for download. This allows you to assign responsibility for certain components of the marketing process to other people in your organization. By creating the framework for their projects, you can ensure relative brand consistency and adherence to graphic standards. In addition, a marketing tool kit provides an economic alternative to the cost of creating customized materials for each request.

Your colleagues will appreciate the speed with which they can move projects along, and you'll appreciate the disposition of workload.

Use online advertising. I have long been a skeptic of the effectiveness of online advertising. Even as I write this article, I remain convinced that certain types of online advertising are among some of the more invisible forms of marketing communications. However, effective online advertising relies upon huge reach and a low cost-per-impression. In other words, you can expose your ad to far more users than other forms of advertising for far less than the cost of other media.

Along with its bargain price, online advertising offers better methods for tracking, and therefore a more verifiable ROI. Also, most online advertising can be modified and adapted almost instantly to improve results or to capitalize on proven successes.

My advocacy for online advertising does not minimize my respect and value for other media types. I am a die-hard believer in an integrated media mix, and online advertising in isolation of other media will fail to accomplish most organizations' long term goals. However, in these times when healthcare organizations need to urgently generate revenue, online advertising–more than any other advertising that I have used on behalf of my clients–can be created fast, implemented fast, and modified with greater speed and efficacy than most other options available.

One caveat: effective online advertising relies upon two essential variables. First (and rather obviously), you need a working website that accurately and positively reflects your organization. Second, make sure your online advertising directs users to an online inquiry form where they have the ability to enter contact information.

Tap referring physicians. While most healthcare organizations have a referring physician strategy among their marketing plans, make sure you reach out to this influential audience now more than ever. Like online advertising, referring physician tactics are relatively economical since the size of your audience is typically a fraction of the size of patient audiences. Also, like online advertising, you can often more easily track the effectiveness of referring physician tactics and quantify results.

You may be thinking, "Physicians don't respond to marketing." Hogwash. Physicians are people too, and like any audience, your marketing success will vary based on the timing, content, and relevance of your message. Unlike other forms of marketing that target a single prospect, physicians portend to generate far greater rewards when they respond to your efforts. Remember, a small number of physicians can yield literally hundreds of referrals, if not immediately over the long term–potentially in perpetuity.

Yes, these are difficult times, and marketing communications professionals within healthcare organizations need to work within the constraints of their reduced resources. However, fewer dollars and a small staff should not spell defeat. Implement the strategies outlined above, and you'll make it though the downturn in stride.