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The Final Frontier in Digital isn’t Digital at All

In “Joe Public III: The End of Hospital Marketing,” we define six New Imperatives representing the six strategies health systems should pursue if they want to find themselves among industry leaders. The first New Imperative we explore is digital, and given the role digital plays in the lives of consumers today, the title for that chapter is “Digital Dominates (Duh!),” because, well, duh, we hope that digital dominates health system marketing in this day and age.

Of course, we all know that wasn’t the case even a few years ago, so it is worth celebrating the advances we’ve made as an industry. And the truth is, for some health systems, they are beginning to see a slowing of the impact of digital strategies from a purely marketing perspective (leveraging digital technologies to advance the consumer experience is a wholly different subject). This is not because the value of digital channels, tactics, and tools has diminished — it’s because for some of us, we’re finally leveraging these digital assets to a degree that gains moving forward will be more incremental, less revolutionary and exponential. For example, in the book, Paul Matsen, CMO at Cleveland Clinic, notes the organization has 130 SEM campaigns running at any given time. Suzanne Sawyer at Penn Medicine says her organization has more than 1,200 trigger-based marketing automation campaigns in place. For these two leaders, they have likely come close to maximizing their use of these digital strategies, vis-à-vis the resources they have available. Further, as more and more systems max out on SEM, content marketing, SEO, etc., we may hit a point that’s close to diminishing returns. As Theresa Boyle, Chief Strategy Officer at MultiCare, says in the book:

What makes leading hospitals successful with SEM is not some secret sauce or special approach, it is just that we’re doing it. Within maybe even a few years, that advantage will be gone.”

Today, these stats and quotes represent the top echelon of healthcare marketing leaders. But for many other health systems, they have yet to approach the problem of hitting some sort of maximum value/point of diminishing returns with digital. Instead, they are still trying to determine how to keep moving forward. For most of the systems in this position, our experience with the industry tells us the stumbling block isn’t with understanding or effectively using digital channels, tools or strategies: the challenge comes from dynamics that are non-digital in nature.

If you’re wanting to move to the next level with digital marketing, consider these three challenges, none of which are digital in nature themselves, but INSTEAD how you and others view and value digital.

  1. Digital marketing is now simply marketing – In “Joe Public II: Embracing the New Paradigm,” we talked about the idea that those who finally fully realize digital marketing will reach a place where they will no longer talk about digital marketing as distinct from marketing overall. For many other industries and some in this field, this has occurred. “Marketing” today infers primarily digital marketing, because those are the channels, tools, and strategies that dominate marketing overall. So in trying to maximize digital, does your marketing leadership view the world this way? Do your department leaders, service line managers, creative directors, etc. (all those without “digital” in their title) view their worlds through a digital lens? Do we approach our marketing plans, initiatives, and campaigns not only from a “digital-first” perspective, but from a “marketing is digital” perspective?
  2. Convincing leadership that digital dominates – As with all things marketing, it’s not enough for your marketing team to embrace a philosophy. If you can’t get your leadership – C-Suite, operational leaders, physicians – to buy into the philosophy, you won’t be able to maximize it. The good news: most of these internal leaders see digital every day, and understand the need to emphasize digital in the marketing mix. The bad news: still, in this day and age, most health system leadership values “visibility” when it comes to marketing. The more billboards, print ads, and TV spots they see, the more they think marketing is working. The truth is nearly 180-degrees in the opposite direction! When all we had was mass advertising as our primary tool, visibility did correlate with effective marketing (as far as effective marketing could take us back then). Today, the most effective strategies are digital, and most of those – SEM, SEO, marketing automation, consumer engagement, etc. – are invisible to hospital leaders because these tools are either invisible to the outside world, or they appropriately target consumers. If your health system leadership is consistently seeing your digital marketing efforts, then you’re probably doing something wrong! You have to step up the “marketing of marketing” internally to help move leadership to fully appreciate the power of digital.
  3. Tying digital to the consumer experience – Most of this conversation has been about digital as a purely marketing approach, where marketing equals promotion. But as alluded to earlier, leveraging technology to drive a superior consumer experience is a whole other ball game. As we’ve described before, of course, experience at health systems is really our “product,” and thus the fourth P in the classic Four P’s of marketing. So if you want to own a holistic approach to marketing, you should be driving consumer experience as well, and digital is the backbone of today’s healthcare consumer experience. From your marketing stack to online scheduling to find-a-physician functionality to the user experience online – all of these are instrumental to a superior consumer experience. Want to fully leverage digital? Make sure the consumer experience at your organization is defined by it. Come to the table with your IT department to build a technology stack that delivers a seamless experience, both from conversion-driven marketing messages to the day-to-day utility of your website for transactional purposes. Staying involved in the shaping of digital products ensures the outcome meets the standards your marketing programs are held to — and avoids clunky user experiences.

In the end, figuring out how to effectively use SEM, build a faster website, or optimize your find-a-physician tool are all relatively easy endeavors (though not necessarily fast or cheap). Overcoming the traditional biases within our leadership, our organization, and even ourselves — is really the final frontier of digital.

April 19, 2018
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