The Challenge of Going Vertical

From my travels across the country speaking at conferences and talking to clients and others, it seems most every hospital or health system either has or is in the process of launching a health blog. As a fan of content marketing, I think that’s great (though as I wrote about in October, there’s a concern that we’re reaching a saturation point with basic wellness content).

While content marketing is exploding, its primary use for hospitals and health systems is for what I call “horizontal efforts.” “Horizontal” marketing consists of ongoing, evergreen initiatives and efforts that have value regardless of current marketing goals, strategies, or objectives. For example, maintaining an effective website, offering community classes, or participating in social media are all horizontal efforts. Compare those to vertical marketing initiatives and efforts, which are in place to support a specific marketing goal or effort. This might entail a go-to-market campaign that leverages a microsite and ramped-up social media posts to support the growth of a specific service line, for example.

In the world of content marketing, a health blog or brand journalism is considered a “horizontal” marketing effort. And while we’re seeing ubiquitous growth of horizontal content marketing efforts, where the heck are the vertical content marketing efforts? Where are the campaigns designed to boost service line growth or build brands that rely on content marketing, rather than its polar opposite, promotional marketing?

As I state in Joe Public II: Embracing the New Paradigm, real marketing transformation comes from going vertical with content marketing. Yet the truth is, for many reasons outlined in the book, it can be very difficult to adopt this approach. In fact, from our experience working with hospitals and health systems, even when marketing leaders attempt to develop a vertical content marketing effort, the vast majority of these efforts never hit the street. This is true even after the effort has been developed, resources spent, and in some cases, the work is 99 percent done and ready go. Yet even then, the work sits on a shelf, never seeing the light of day.

Understanding the following reasons why vertical content marketing efforts often die a painful death can help you avoid the same pitfalls and find success where others haven’t.

1. Confusion about the value of content marketing

When selling a content marketing effort to your internal audiences, it’s crucial to be crystal clear about what content marketing is and how it can be leveraged. For example, explaining the differences between horizontal and vertical efforts can help your internal stakeholders better understand what strategies and tactics should be used in which circumstances. Remember you’re battling years of assumptions about the (inflated) effectiveness of mass, promotional advertising, so it will take time for operational leaders, physicians, the C-suite, and sometimes even your fellow marketers, to fully understand the value of content marketing. Don’t ever assume just because you’ve been given the green light to pursue a vertical content marketing effort that you won’t need to continually educate your internal audiences on why you’ve chosen that path.

2. The volume alarm

I wrote about this in Joe Public IIbut it bears repeating. You may have done your due diligence in receiving approval to replace the old, ineffective campaign promoting your superstar service line with a vertical content marketing program, but when there’s a threat to the organization’s overall financial growth, watch out. Someone will pull the “volume alarm” and demand that you drop whatever you’re doing to run out and drive in volume now. (As if it were that simple.) Yes, you were given the ok to pursue your cute little content marketing ideas, but now it’s time to get serious and drive in business! Of course the answer to that hue and cry is that content marketing is designed to drive in patient volumes. Not just today, but tomorrow. It’s just a different (and superior) means for doing that than what you’ve done in the past. Be strong in the face of the volume alarm – acknowledge the panic, acknowledge the need for volumes, and reassure that this is exactly what you’re focused on.

3. Biting off more than you can chew

We’ve seen a number of vertical content marketing efforts die on the vine because the health system marketing leader assumed her team had the capacity to handle developing a major vertical content marketing effort. Usually this belief comes from the team’s ability to handle horizontal content marketing efforts, like writing blog posts or participating in social media, without issue. The problem is that a vertical content marketing effort is typically the same scale as a mass promotional advertising campaign. With an advertising campaign, systems have no issue outsourcing the bulk of the work to an outside agency. But when it comes to content marketing, even though there is often more work required to develop a vertical effort, there’s an assumption that it can all be handled in house. Going vertical with content marketing requires a shift in thinking regarding resource allocation. You should think about these types of content marketing efforts the way you’ve thought of major advertising campaigns – if you had to outsource that work before, you’ll likely need to outsource this work now.

These reasons, and a few others, are why there is still a paucity of content marketing campaigns and programs from hospitals and health systems, even given the huge advantages this approach can have over traditional mass promotional advertising. In Joe Public II, I tout the extraordinarily successful “Stories of the Girls” campaign from Advocate Health as the poster child for vertical content marketing efforts. So the question is, where is the next “Stories of the Girls”?

Still aren’t sure how to make the shift to strategic digital and content marketing? Purchase Joe Public II or download a sample chapter today to learn more. Or makes plans to attend the next Joe Public Retreat, at the beautiful Inn at Palmetto Bluff resort in South Carolina.

December 17, 2015
Marketing driving business success — at a health system?
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