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Dangers of Digital

It’s probably safe to say that no one has been more outspoken on the topic of hospitals and health systems embracing digital marketing than yours truly. In my three Joe Public books, in countless conference presentations, and in meetings with client marketing teams from around the country, I have been cheering and cajoling marketers to move to a position of thinking “digital first” with their marketing efforts.

And I still stand by that philosophy. Hospital and health system marketers need to do more – far more – to leverage digital marketing channels, tools, and resources. But as we advance into the “new paradigm,” we also need to tread cautiously. No marketing strategy is without its downside, and digital is no different. 

Here are three dangers of digital that marketers need to understand, along with a suggestion for each on how to mitigate the problem.

1. Inflated advertising traffic

recent story in BusinessWeek highlighted the ongoing concern of marketers from all industries: The audiences they are pulling in with their digital advertising are not what they seem to be, and in many cases, aren’t even human audiences. In “How Much of Your Audience Is Fake?,” the authors point out how many websites – where your digital ads are running – pay for traffic, which thereby increases the number of viewers to the ads they offer on the site, which increases the costs of those ads. The problem is, many of the “impressions” they pay for aren’t real people at all but rather electronic “bots” – software that acts as a person in order to generate an impression on a site. That means the number of impressions your ads are receiving are potentially inflated as well. The article tells the story of Heineken, which in 2013 shifted much of its advertising to digital. After conducting research, they found, according to the article, “Only 20 percent of the campaign’s ‘ad impressions’—ads that appear on a computer or smartphone screen—were even seen by actual people.”

This problem will continue to plague advertisers as long as the technology exists to scam the system. According to the article, a 2014 study done by the Association of National Advertisers showed fake traffic will cost advertisers $6.3 billion this year. That makes it incumbent upon healthcare marketers to understand where their internet advertising is placed and how to account for inflated results (particularly when using programmatic buying, which allows technology to automatically place ads and is a growing trend in online advertising). 

One way to mitigate this problem: We have long stated that hospitals and health systems should not employ digital advertising simply to build awareness. For one, as we just learned, “impressions” are a fungible thing, and different impressions can bring different value just as they can with traditional advertising. But more importantly, with digital advertising, you have an opportunity to engage audiences in a way you can’t with traditional advertising. You should be measuring the value of your online advertising not by impressions, but by click-through rates, and even more importantly, conversions. How many people clicked through your digital ads and took that online health risk assessment, or completed that form for more information, or registered for a class, or took whatever call to action you intentionally built into your campaign? As long as you keep your eye on the ball of digital advertising conversions, and use media buying methods that allow you to pay not by impressions but click-throughs, you will mitigate the impact of fake or inflated impression numbers. 

2. The flagging power of organic Facebook content

As hospitals and health systems adopted Facebook over the years, they learned the power of connecting directly with their community by sharing relevant content and engaging with users who liked and commented along the way. For many reasons, however, reach from organic posts from sponsored pages continue to plunge on Facebook. Some of this, as Facebook claims, is due to the exponential growth in sponsored Facebook pages – if Facebook treated them all the same, your feed would be nothing but posts from organizations, companies, and more, not your friends. But there’s also no doubt Facebook has continually adjusted its algorithms to reduce the presence of organic posts from marketers because, well, it wants to make more money. If marketers gained successful results from organic posts – which are free – what’s the incentive to buy Facebook advertising? As a result, to continue to leverage Facebook successfully to reach targeted audiences, hospitals and health systems (along with other organizations) are being forced to either reduce their expectations when it comes to using Facebook organically, and/or ramp up their advertising spend.

One way to mitigate this problem: On one hand, don’t abandon your organic posts on Facebook. They provide a great look into your organization, still allow you to connect organically with your audiences (albeit at a much lower rate), and many people will visit your Facebook page on their own just to learn more about you. On the other hand, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Facebook advertising (like pay-per-click search advertising) offers an incredible opportunity to target audiences in very specific ways in places where they are spending significant time. In addition, because of strict controls put into place by Facebook, the social media giant doesn’t suffer from the “fake audience” issue outlined above (and its Facebook mobile app, which most users use instead of the site itself, also isn’t subject to ad-blocking applications, a whole other mess related to digital advertising). One health system, which has gained a national reputation for its advanced approach to digital marketing, recently told us that 25 percent of their entire advertising spend (not just digital, but all advertising) is allocated to Facebook. 

3. The saturation of wellness content

I wrote a blog post, back in 2010, about the power – and the potential pitfall – of wellness-based marketing and communications. Here’s an excerpt: 

“The good news is that we’re seeing more hospitals and health systems attempt to build their brand on a position of health and wellness. The bad news is that if you’re not one of those organizations, you may be left behind…at some point, it could become ubiquitous as a position in a given market, like ‘we care,’ or ‘high-tech, high-touch,’ or ‘we’re award winning’ have become.”

I believe we’re starting to reach that saturation point. Every hospital we work with or talk to either has a brand journalism initiative underway or is planning one. But the problem becomes, just how many “Awesome heart health recipe!” blog posts can consumers actually absorb? As I wrote back in 2010, those who get out there first in a big way will build a leadership position that will be hard to catch. A perfect example of this is Cleveland Clinic and their Health Hub (now called “Health Essentials”), which is held as the gold standard of health system blogs. Paul Matsen, chief marketing officer of Cleveland Clinic, states that while earned media is still the overall driver of awareness for Cleveland Clinic, owned media is the top driver of new awareness. So for Cleveland Clinic (or Mayo Clinic, or other first adopters), brand journalism is working, because their brands have been established in this area and are sought after from media sources around the country, which exponentially spreads their content. But for everyone else, we’ve hit a point of diminishing returns, and for every new health and wellness blog launched by a hospital, the effectiveness of this strategy will erode. 

One way to mitigate this problem: All of this does not mean you should abandon your brand journalism efforts. When leveraging your own brand, point of view, and built-in proximity advantage, you can still “own” the conversation in your own market and reap benefits. But to take content marketing to the next level, you need to move beyond “horizontal” strategies (those ongoing efforts to use health and wellness content like a blog, health library, or community classes), and go “vertical” with content marketing. That means applying the same principles to your highest-priority marketing initiatives, such as a service line campaign or launch of a new facility. Replacing promotional advertising campaigns with compelling content marketing programs will drive better short-term, and long-term, marketing results. 

October 22, 2015
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