It may seem like an oxymoron—spending on marketing at a time when referrals, service volume, profitability, and cash flow are all low. But marketing spend may be the key to navigating the crisis and preparing for recovery. But note, I said “may.”
To determine if marketing spending—and likely virtual marketing spending—should be part of your plans right now requires answering one important question. Do you have service lines where more consumer service volume would generate more margin for your organization? If the answer to this is yes, then a well-planned marketing spend is part of the sustainability solution for your organization. The important issue is treating your marketing spend as an investment—not an expense. You would be right to insist that your marketing plan and all of its associated costs should have a positive net (after all expenses) margin.
Right now, there is more competition for consumers—and variable demand for consumer services. Primary care practices, whose consumer visits dropped to 30% of normal in March and April, have still not seen full recovery, and are at about 80% of normal volume at best (see Patients Fled Primary Care During COVID-19). On the other hand, organizations providing home-based health care have seen a spike in demand by more than 30% during the pandemic and expect significant revenue increases this year (see Home-Based Medical Care in High Demand During Coronavirus Pandemic). And we are seeing more consumers covered by commercial insurance go out of network and incur out-of-pocket costs for behavioral health services, while many insurers have expanded access to behavioral health through telehealth (see COVID Drives Up Demand For Mental Healthcare, Further Crimping Access).
At the same time, more marketing dollars are being spent to attract consumers with changing needs and preferences. Hospitals and health systems that collectively spent $542 million on direct-to-consumer advertising in 1997 spent $2.89 billion by 2016 (see Healthcare Marketing Expenditures Increase $12.2 Billion Over Past Two Decades). And in 2019, it was estimated that digital advertising for pharmaceuticals and health services would hit $10 billion in 2020. Health care advertising is increasing not only because of increased spend by marketers, but also because of greater interest from consumers. Consumers engage with health content for longer periods of time than with content from other industries. Three out of four consumers are most likely to engage with health advertising when it offers additional information and two out of three would respond to “relevant informative content” (see The State of Programmatic Healthcare Marketing).
But marketing has changed. Virtual marketing, which includes leveraging social media, is playing a bigger role. Nine out of 10 consumers buy products and services from companies they follow on social media. Today, 75% of people spend with a brand they follow on social media (an increase of 12% over 2019). Younger consumers are increasingly drawn to social media platforms with video. Generation Z consumers report planning to use Instagram and YouTube more. And 69% of virtual marketers said that boosting brand awareness was their top goal on social media (see 90% Of People Buy From Brands They Follow On Social Media, Study Says).
For health care organizations with limited budgets, now is a good time to be buying digital advertising (keywords on Google search, social media advertising, etc.). With the pandemic, the big spenders—travel, restaurants, and entertainment venues—have all cut advertising to the bone, driving down the volume, and rates, on digital advertising. Google might actually see a decline in ad revenues for the first time. Facebook and Amazon will continue to grow, but at lower rates than expected (see US Digital Ad Spending Update Q2 2020).
So, how to put together a virtual marketing plan and determine whether it will deliver the return on investment you need right now? That was the focus of the webinar, Is Your Website Designed To Get Referrals, by my OPEN MINDS colleagues—Tim Snyder, executive vice president and Emily Korns, senior associate. They offered four key elements for executives to keep in mind while developing a virtual marketing strategy and tactics.
Align to organizational objectives. Your virtual marketing goals must be closely aligned with your overall organizational objectives. If your organizational objective is to grow your consumer base, your marketing strategy should help you identify where those consumers are, what they want, and how you appeal to them. If your organizational objective is to acquire new health plan contracts, your marketing strategy must be shaped around demonstrating outcomes and showcasing your distinctive capabilities. If your objective is to attract and retain new staff, your marketing strategy should highlight why your organization is a great place to work.
Marketing objectives developed in isolation—such as growing the number of website visitors, or getting more Facebook likes—won’t do you any good. It’s imperative that marketing be geared toward the results you need for business recovery and sustainability. In short, you can’t justify the means without the ends.
Know your audience, map the journey. Once you set clear marketing objectives tied into overall organizational strategy, define the target audiences for each objective. Consumers, family members, referral sources, community organizations you can partner with, and payers—each will require a different approach and a different message.
Work to understand every one of these audiences and the typical journey they would take to find the kind of information you offer online. Think about the information they might seek, where they would look for it, and what would help them connect to you as opposed to your competitors.
Provide meaningful content. Effective marketing has always been about breaking through the noise to get people’s attention and you’re competing not only with others who provide the same services that you do but also with all the other distractions and essentials that beckon your consumers when they are online. So a virtual marketing strategy can succeed only if your content is built on a foundation of clarity, simplicity, and transparency. Content needs to showcase thought leadership, educate, inform, and provide the basics. Tell your audience how your quality of services, and costs, compare to competitors. Let them know what consumers and caregivers are saying about you. Let them know what you are doing to ensure their safety and comfort. Provider organizations have to think like retailers selling online.
And Mr. Snyder warned that all this information will probably exist online in some format—accurate or not—whether or not you control and manage it. So the best way to suppress any myths and misinformation is to provide accurate information and to make sure this feeds prominently on to the radar of your audiences.
In a ThinkGoogle survey, 82% of consumers said they believed that “the majority of health care providers have the same capabilities and offer similar quality services.” But 91% of those who said that also indicated that on a scale of 1 to 5, they would put forth a level 4 or 5 effort to find a health care provider organization they perceived to be better than the majority. The implication—your online content has to reveal what sets you apart.
Focus on action. In virtual marketing, the focus always has to be on what is called “conversion” or helping your audience take the next step in the journey. So your audience reads (or watches) your great content but what next? You have to get them before you lose them. Give your online visitors a seamless way to connect more deeply with you—to take a virtual tour, talk to an expert, or best of all—schedule an appointment online. If you have great information to give away (whether that’s a fact sheet, tips for wellness, or questions to ask your clinical professional on your first visit), make sure to collect information about those who download that information. “Don’t give away good content without asking why they are interested in it. Then follow up with information that’s more specific to their needs,” advised Ms. Korns.
I’ll leave you with food for thought from one of my go-to Harvard Business Review articles (see How to Market in a Downturn). “Marketing isn’t optional—it’s a ‘good cost,’ essential to bringing in revenues from these key customers and others. Building and maintaining strong brands—ones that customers recognize and trust—remains one of the best ways to reduce business risk.”
If your organization is an OPEN MINDS Circle Elite member and you want to schedule a free “Quick Consult” with one of our senior advisors on virtual marketing for post-crisis recovery, contact us at email@example.com or 1-855-559-6827. For more, check out these resources in The OPEN MINDS Industry Library:
- You Operate Virtually, You Serve Virtually, But Are You Marketing Virtually?
- Going ‘Virtual’ For Revenue Generation: Assuring Consumers & Referral Sources Can Find You
- Increasing Your Service Volume – Creating A Referral Development Crisis Plan
- Assessing Your Organization To Increase Referrals & Optimize Revenue Sources
- The Challenge Of Referral Generation In The New Paradigm Of Integrated Care
- 85 Referral Management Solutions Available In The Health & Human Service Field Offerings: An OPEN MINDS Analysis
- How To Build Value-Based Payer Partnerships: An OPEN MINDS Executive Seminar On Best Practices In Marketing, Negotiating, & Contracting With Health Plans
- Are You Where Your Consumers Are? Being Social On Social Media
- 5 Keys For Optimizing Your Online Brand
- Remaining A Niche Provider Organization Requires New Marketing Thinking
And for even more, join us on September 10 at 1:00 pm EDT for the executive web forum, Marketing Planning For Sustainability In A Post-Disruption Marketplace, led by OPEN MINDS Senior Associate Paul M. Duck.