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If You Use Outdoor Advertising, Use It Correctly

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April 14, 2016

By Daniel Weinbach
President & Chief Operating Officer, The Weinbach Group, Inc., Miami FL
As seen in Healthcare Marketing Report

From liposuction, to heart surgery, to the ubiquitous emergency room wait-time billboards, you don't have to look far to find examples of the healthcare industry's love affair with outdoor Medical advertising, especially billboard advertising. But why? Why are billboards for hospitals and other healthcare providers as common as ads for beer and Buicks? Certainly, consumer advertising for the healthcare industry has increased in the past decade – largely driven by the pharmaceutical industry's highly effective use of patient-facing messages. And, no other medium appears to have benefitted more than outdoor.

At our healthcare advertising agency, we frequently field inquiries from clients about buying billboards. "How much would it cost for a billboard on the expressway?" "How come we don't have more billboards like the other hospital?" "You know what would grow surgery volume? A great big billboard!" Of course, in most of these instances, the request isn't coming from our like-minded colleagues in the marketing department. Instead, the request for increased use of outdoor advertising often originates directly from the CEO. And if we dig a bit deeper, the initial idea usually came from a physician.

In our opinion, these healthcare professionals are turning to billboard advertising because other healthcare providers are using billboards. It's a perfect example of "keeping up with the Dr. Joneses." Worse, the cycle perpetuates itself. Hospital A posts a billboard, which inspires hospital B to post a billboard, which inspires Hospital C to post a billboard.

We're not saying that outdoor advertising doesn't have utility for healthcare organizations. It's highly visible and highly localized, so in theory, billboard advertising should be a ripe choice for a healthcare marketing firm to recommend. After all, most health care is local. The problem is that the vast majority of healthcare advertisers don't use outdoor advertising as effectively as they could. So we've put together the following five cardinal rules for incorporating outdoor advertising into a healthcare organization's marketing plan. Many of these guidelines don't just apply to healthcare advertisers; however, they're particularly relevant to our industry.

Understand the purpose of outdoor advertising
From bus sides to billboards, outdoor advertising is an awareness-building medium, not a response-oriented medium. Isn't it ironic that the same CEOs who obsess over ROI are often the ones advocating for an advertising tactic that can't easily be measured? However, that's very much the case with outdoor advertising. In fact, don't expect your outdoor advertising to drive web hits, phone calls, or consults. No, outdoor advertising won't solve your patient volume problems. The best you can hope for – as a measure of success – is improvement regarding awareness and attitudes, which can only be measured accurately using opinion research.

So if outdoor advertising won't get the phone to ring, what can it do?

It can familiarize people with your identity ("We're here! We exist!") It can make people aware of the availability of certain service lines and make them aware of new service lines. It can reinforce or help foster positive perceptions about your brand. It can advance brand positioning ("We're the smiley hospital! We're the smarty-pants company!")

Ensure an adequate geographic presence
We all understand the political necessity of posting a billboard on the same route your CEO drives every day. However, to incorporate an effective outdoor advertising campaign, you'll need a lot more bulletins than the one your CEO requests. The footprint of your outdoor campaign should match the footprint of your market.

If your clinic only serves one neighborhood, then aren't you lucky? You only need to invest in outdoor advertising that reaches that neighborhood. However, for the health system with a market-wide presence, you'll need to choose outdoor advertising options that reach the entirety of your audience.

Fortunately, the category of outdoor includes far more media types than just billboards, and many of these alternatives offer greater geographic saturation. Take, for example, bus sides. Bus sides are essentially mobile billboards, and they're not for people who ride the bus! They can be a cost-effective medium for reaching people across an entire region. In addition you can target your audience with relative precision by using specific bus routes. (When utilizing bus exteriors be certain to purchase bulletins that stretch from the wheel well all the way to the top of the bus!)

No doctors!
While there's real validity to the notion that physicians' reputations play a crucial role in patients' healthcare purchasing decisions, physician photos do not. In fact, the overuse of healthcare imagery remains one of the most poisonous elements in healthcare advertising today. And for some reason (maybe ego), many doctors continue to believe that the inclusion of their likeness in advertising will have a magnetic effect on consumers' eyeballs. The opposite is more likely. As healthcare marketing maven Chris Bevelo says, "Joe Public doesn't care about your hospital," and they don't care about your doctors.

Moreover, photos of doctors lack any inherent features that command attention, unless they happen to be naked in your ads. So avoid the generic surgeon photo, and read on…

Use images, not words
The best healthcare advertising, including outdoor advertising, works when it elicits feeling and emotion. And images are more effective at eliciting emotion than words. They communicate to us at a visceral level, not a cognitive one.

Even more important – in the context of outdoor advertising – images communicate faster than words. Our brains process imagery instantaneously.

In a study conducted at Louisiana State University's business school in its department of Health Administration, researchers examined the effect of billboard healthcare advertising and found that text announcements proved largely ineffective as a promotional device.

However, in your quest to minimize the typographic contents of your billboards, be certain to include your brand, and make it big. You may be familiar with your corporate mark, but many in your audience may not recognize your logo. As a rule of thumb, your logo should be at least 25 percent of the total height of a billboard.

Rotate your ads frequently
In the same Louisiana State University study mentioned above, the participants reported "some degree of 'wear-out'" after three weeks of seeing the same billboard. This finding suggests the need to rotate your bulletins frequently. Of course, it may be impractical to change your messages every three weeks – from a cost perspective and in terms of working with media companies. Nevertheless, recognize that your ads will become more and more "invisible" to regular commuters the longer they're posted in the same location.

No doubt, your internal stakeholders will continue to ask for billboard advertising. And they will continue to ask for pictures of doctors as the primary visual element. At least now you can waive this article at them, and say, "Okay, outdoor advertising makes sense. But let's use healthcare industry best practices in our implementation."

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Daniel Weinbach is the president and CEO of The Weinbach Group, a Miami ad agency that was founded in 1987 and specializes in marketing for healthcare organizations. He joined the agency in 1994, and since then has helped the company effectively serve the needs of a wide range of healthcare companies, earning more than three dozen Healthcare Advertising Awards along the way. For more information, visit