Beyond brand awareness: How healthcare marketing is changing dramatically to focus on the customer

In today's consumer-centric landscape where you must deliver the right message, to the right person, at the right time, we have moved our marketing closer to the point of conversion.

Irrespective of the debate occurring inside the Beltway regarding the financing of healthcare in this country, the healthcare sector is experiencing a dramatic transformation, with consumerism at the heart. Digitally-driven consumers have inspired all healthcare companies—including providers, payers, and retailers—to alter the way we market, communicate, and deliver care.

Consumer demand, the expansion of healthcare options in the marketplace, along with the proliferation of companies that have entered the care-delivery space, has forced this change. Consumers now have instant access to information about their choices, which heightens their expectations about what a seamless, end-to-end, healthcare experience feels like, as well as intensifies the need for true direct-to-consumer marketing.

To boil it down to its simplest, healthcare marketing is all about delivering the right message, to the right person, at the right time, then measuring, adjusting, repeating. Gone are the days when qualitative awareness building alone—broadcast, billboards, sponsorships, and similar channels—were enough to persuade consumers that your option is their best option.

Another way of putting it: healthcare marketing is no longer about qualitative awareness but rather about quantitative, targeted tactics and prescriptive modeling. For large provider systems like Ascension, it means doing grassroots research and consumer behavior and language testing so we can fully understand the populations we serve and anticipate their needs before they walk through our door.

It means looking beyond audience segmentation and understanding the individual: a segment of one. It means looking closely at search trends, consumer behavior, media consumption, health risk factors, and other data to really understand how to reach them. And it means leveraging direct-to-consumer channels that can connect with that individual where they are consuming information and at the moment they are making healthcare choices.

This approach requires much more than just brand awareness, which is how providers have historically marketed their services. This change pushes us to think bigger than billboard and newspaper ads—we have to be visible and available to our patients even before they need us.

We also must be committed to more accessible, more convenient, and more seamless care delivery. We must make it easier for consumers to navigate our sites of care, both physically and online, and particularly with mobile devices.

Most healthcare engagements begin with some type of search, and the vast majority of those searches begin on a small device. That being the case, healthcare marketing needs to be geared toward winning at the point of engagement. Translation: less qualitative awareness, more quantitative marketing, and making the experience mobile-friendly. This might seem like a small task, but it’s a fairly dramatic change in the world of healthcare marketing.

When I speak to different organizations or groups about healthcare marketing, or even internally when I discuss it with leadership at Ascension, I begin by flipping the old marketing model on its head. Healthcare marketing used to be described as an upside down pyramid, with the base on top representing awareness and the tip at the bottom representing a consumer engagement, and lots of other things happening in between.

In today’s consumer-centric landscape where you must deliver the right message, to the right person, at the right time, we have moved our marketing closer to the point of conversion.

I believe the top of the pyramid represents access points, mostly online, through mobile-friendly physician scheduling tools and urgent care appointments. The middle part of the pyramid is now a world-class web design that’s mobile-friendly and connected directly to sites of care, and the base part of the pyramid is sophisticated, analytics driven consumer relationship management.

For this new quantitative, data-driven approach to work, healthcare providers must understand the needs of consumers better. As an organization, we need to readjust our marketing and clinical hats and see our hospitals through the consumer lens, specific to each market. Consumers are no longer peripheral to the equation, they are the equation.

At the end of the day, consumers are taking their experiences in other industries and applying them to healthcare. They want a seamless, end-to-end experience and they want accessibility and convenience. They expected marketing that makes a personal connection and speaks to their care needs.

This is an entirely new approach that we wouldn’t have considered a few years ago, but we’re evolving in response to the dynamic needs of consumers. Our shift from traditional marketing tactics to digital, data-driven strategies is proving successful, and we’re excited to continue developing this new marketing model.

Nick Ragone is SVP and chief marketing and communications officer of Ascension, the nation’s largest nonprofit health system and the world’s largest Catholic health system.

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