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Is hospital marketing due for its most drastic overhaul ever?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what’s next for hospital marketers. Not the next brand campaign, SEM ad group, website update, email blast, microsite, or social post. Instead, I’ve been thinking about a much deeper and farther-reaching future for the healthcare provider marketer.

Specifically, I’ve been asking myself whether the practices that every healthcare marketer lives by—those ubiquitous brand campaigns, web content pages, microsites and social posts—are really the best way to influence today’s hugely well-informed and autonomous healthcare consumer.

Or, simply put, do the marketing practices that dominate our industry still even work?

If it seems like an odd question, consider this: Healthcare provider marketing is overwhelmingly directed at prospective patients, a group that can be difficult and in some cases impossible to reach effectively. Imagine a Boston hospital with a new monitoring technology it hopes to market. The target audience might consist exclusively of people with cardiomyopathy who live in New England, a group numbering just a few thousand at best. And in reality, that already tiny prospect pool is probably further limited to newly diagnosed patients, since they’re the only ones still in the throes of decision-making. The pool is now hopelessly small. It’s simply unrealistic to expect that any ad—digital or not—could possibly reach them effectively, let alone economically.

A few years ago I read about a fascinating study in which orthopedic practices were found to allocate 68 percent of their resources to advertising and sponsorships. Yet these marketing efforts were named by fewer than one percent of patients as influencing their decisions about where to seek care.

Which raises the obvious question: If we shouldn’t be marketing to prospects, then to whom?

Turns out, those same orthopedic practices reported spending just 18 percent of their resources on current patients, primary care, sports medicine, and workers’ compensation—areas that influenced 91 percent of new patients. That bears repeating: Nearly all new patients were motivated by activities directed solely toward current patients.

Hmm.

My thoughts always seem to turn on that very question: What if the next evolution in healthcare provider marketing is a wholesale shift away from targeting that tiny prospect pool, instead committing ourselves to forging bonds of trust with our existing patients? To building lifelong relationships by being there not just when they’re sick, but always? It’s a marketer’s dream.

Studies show that when you have trusting relationships with your patients, they’re more likely to seek care, comply with treatment recommendations, and return for follow-ups. Most important, these loyalists are the most likely to recommend your practice to others. Which, as the study demonstrated, is the best marketing tool you could possibly hope for.

Focusing on the patient-provider relationship represents an almost complete reversal of current practice. The healthcare industry would do well to draw some inspiration from its mainstream B2C counterparts, where experience-oriented marketing has become the norm.

Experiential solutions such as companion apps, patient portal add-ons, physician dashboards, and hospital brand experience apps are prime examples of what I think of as an addictive health approach to marketing that connects marketing to hospital operations.

The goal? Nothing less than transforming how hospitals view the role of marketing in their organization.

Moving beyond traditional marketing thinking and into this new transformative landscape where the foremost goal is to create an addictive customer experience, is for me, the inevitable future of our industry. It’s also an unsurpassed way to cultivate loyal and lifelong patients who—in the manner of true believers everywhere—are only too happy to spread the word.

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