4 ways hospitals can improve marketing

This week, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and Highmark landed in hot water with state officials for airing alleged "attack" ads on TV and in print. On the other hand, some marketing leaders make the opposite mistake--taking too cautious an approach when creating campaigns to inform and attract patients.

Effective marketing can help hospitals stand out, boosting their image and patient volume, so here are four ways hospital marketers can find the sweet spot between healthy competition and ads that cross the line:

1. Beware of false advertising

With a fine line between puffery and false advertising, hospitals should carefully review advertisements to make sure they won't cause patients or their families to expect more than what the hospital is or can offer. False advertising leads to costly PR problems, so sometimes it is best to err on the side of caution and lean toward using subjective opinions rather than factual statements in promotional materials. Choose statements such as "our nurses score highest in satisfaction surveys" instead of "we have the best nurses anywhere."

The same goes for the physician involvement in hospital marketing efforts. So before hospital marketers identify a physician as a "pioneer" or "thought leader," they must verify those claims with independent data, such as "Top Doctor" surveys, FierceHealthcare previously reported.

2. Make best use of social media

When it comes to healthcare marketing, hospitals shouldn't just use social media tools, they must use them wisely. This is a lesson many hospitals still haven't learned, according to a study last month conducted by University of Virginia and MIT Sloan School of Management professors that found hospitals don't make best use of social media. In fact, most hospitals use the platform to engage employees instead of patients.

In addition to positing generic observations or employee-related issues and achievements, hospitals can use social networks to facilitate disease reporting, educate hard-to-reach populations and help patients find support from others with the same medical condition. Moreover, posting on Facebook in times of crisis can boost a hospital's public image.

Hospital marketers looking to revamp their social media efforts should take a (Facebook) page from--bad pun intended--the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., Cleveland Clinic and the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, which took the top three spots among the 50 most socially engaged hospitals, as ranked by MHADegree.org.

3. Shift from volume to value

As the healthcare industry shifts from volume to value, so, too, should hospital marketing efforts. Successful marking in a value-based healthcare environment, calls for a clear business strategy and measurable outcomes for return on investment, as corporate overhead, including marketing budgets, will shrink, according to Tadd M. Pullin, senior vice president of Marketing and Strategy Development at The Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Neb.

"We have to be comfortable challenging our current paradigms about media, meeting our audiences where they are and where they're going to be in the future. Marketers who achieve differentiated results will be willing to adjust course, experiment and leverage what's working to achieve the organization's business objectives," Pullin wrote in a Hospital Impact post this spring.

That means, as we mentioned earlier, using social media platforms and mobile Internet strategies. More importantly, hospital marketing teams in a value-based healthcare world need "emotionally intelligent extroverted, relationship building personalities" who will study and attract new target patient populations as well as retain existing members, he explained.

4. Know your audience

Before launching a promotional campaign, first understand your audience. Misidentifying--or, worse, ignoring--the target audience can lead to a public relations nightmare. When getting to know your target audience, one important question to ask is whether they can handle a little controversy.

Unfortunately, Gastonia, N.C.-based CaroMont Health forgot to ask that question before it unveiled its "Cheat Death" slogan back in April. The tagline, designed to promote community health, promoted community backlash. After a few days of mounting bad press, the hospital system killed the controversial slogan. Still, the organization stood by its well-intentioned message that wellness is a matter of life and death.

Knowing your target audience also means knowing how and where to reach them. When Hurley Medical Center in Flint, Mich., wanted to grow its patient base, it decided to target men---a previously ignored patient market. After scouring research from the Men's Health Network in Washington, D.C., the hospital knew how to tailor its services to the male patient audience, Andrea J. Simon, Ph.D., former marketing, branding and culture change VP at Hurley, wrote in a Hospital Impact blog post.

Armed with target audience knowledge, Hurley held a series of men's breakfasts, workshops and church events where men could get screenings, meet with physicians, and learn how to get and stay healthy. Hurley also organized a Men's Health Fest that involved sporting events, contests and an appearance by local football star and Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram.

What hospital marketing tips would you add to this list? How is your hospital attracting new patients and keeping existing ones happy? Share your thoughts in the comments below. - Alicia (@FierceHealth)


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