Breaking Through, Engaging, and Driving Results in Healthcare Marketing

by Mia von Sadovsky, SVP / Group Strategic Planning Director
An RPA White Paper
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Armed with our experiences and successes, RPA can move nimbly and confidently in partnering to help your healthcare brand succeed in an ever-changing marketplace. In this white paper, we’ll share some of our key learnings to date across a wide range of healthcare marketing topics. We’ll cover…

  1. What is most important to patients today along their healthcare journeys?
  2. What is most important to healthcare professionals?
  3. What types of creative messaging are working best?
  4. How are healthcare brands positioning themselves to differentiate and connect?
  5. What are the best measurement and targeting solutions and how do you optimize when working with ‘good enough’ solutions and with data privacy always in mind?
  6. What are the most effective ways to leverage social media?
  7. What is the best way to think about the role of search marketing?
  8. What cultural factors are impacting healthcare marketing today and moving forward?
  9. What is the best way to partner with an agency for mutual success?

1

There are two distinct patient journeys and different top drivers for those seeking routine care vs. specialty care, but increasingly there are common drivers within these journeys. 

People assess healthcare organizations differently when thinking about routine care vs. serious care and organizations are often thought about as being good at one versus the other (rather than both). Perceived “medical expertise” and “cutting-edge technology” are top drivers of brand ratings when it comes to serious care, but can also make an organization feel “cold” and “unapproachable”. On the other hand, perceived “accessibility” and “convenience”, along with perceived “warmth” and “attentiveness”, are top drivers of brand ratings when it comes to routine care.

SOURCE: RPA BrandTracking Analysis 2022

Regardless of the type of care being sought — routine or serious — being treated respectfully, and as a unique individual, is a key driver of NPS. Research suggests that, more than ever, people want to feel listened to, respected, and treated as an individual person vs. a “walking diagnosis” or chart number. Spanish speakers specifically, as well as people of color in general, are more likely to leave healthcare encounters feeling unheard, and report having significantly lower trust in providers. A more personalized, individual experience with strong communication is what everyone is looking for. 

Those who feel everyone treats them as unique are 295% more likely to rate an organization’s overall image/reputation as “excellent.” 

SOURCE: NRC 2021

SOURCE: NRC 2021

Significantly, once a healthcare institution is seen as “one of the best” (like a Cedars-Sinai or UCLA or Mayo Clinic) non-expertise-related, accessibility and experience factors (e.g., ease of scheduling, the all-important front office experience, location, parking) become key to decision-making.

Our research consistently shows the most frustrating parts of the patient experience include making an appointment, checking in, and waiting in the waiting room. In fact, scheduling difficulties and negative wait time experiences are top reasons people consider switching away from providers. Expectations in these areas are generally low, but organizations that exceed expectations — and message accordingly — have an opportunity to really stand out.

“I think a Specialist should be able to click with everyone. It's about feeling like this person is compassionate and you're being heard. If a parent complains about a Specialist, it's not about the medical decision making, it's the staff, or the wait time, or they're not feeling heard.”

— Julie, Health Care Provider
SOURCE: RPA Qualitative Research 2022

Outpatient Sentiment Through Various Stages of the Patient Journey
SOURCE: NRC 2021

2

Primary Care Providers (PCPs) are a key target as specialty referrers and they also want a more communicative, coordinated experience.  

Most people go where their referring primary care doctor sends them and it’s rare that a patient would say ‘I want to go to Hospital X’ to their PCP before hearing a recommendation, so PCPs are obviously a key target in the PPO space.

Our experience researching the launch of Cedars-Sinai Guerin Children’s showed us that PCPs and pediatricians want to recommend specialists they know, have worked with and trust, but at a minimum they look for specialists who make their patients feel heard and understood, who are effective at communicating back findings, procedures, and follow-ups. Notably, doctors and staff are often as frustrated as patients by bad “ancillary” experiences. Better coordination and communication is something doctors want as much as patients. If a brand can operationalize a higher level of coordination and communication, this should be a key benefit message in marketing to referring physicians.

“Accessibility is one of the biggest struggles for us, too. I find it's difficult to communicate when an issue is really urgent. The process is kind of broken.” ​ 

— Leigh, Healthcare Provider
SOURCE: RPA Qualitative Research 2022

Community building is essential for smaller specialty healthcare organizations but also for larger medical systems. 

Connecting patients and patient families with others facing similar issues is incredibly important for engaging and serving patients and their families. Providing an avenue and/or facilitating these connections is a critical part of the service they provide and a great foundation for experiential marketing efforts. Community building is highly valued by patients and families, especially when dealing with more serious medical issues. It delivers two key benefits to the healthcare organization: (1) These communities provide a stickiness for the patients to the providers — i.e. “My “support” is there, in addition to the medical care, “so I want to stay there.” And (2) they help to build trust in that organization by recognizing the impact of illness, big or small, and providing support psychologically and emotionally, not just medically.

Being creative (outside of traditional advertising) on how to support a healthcare client in these efforts is something we have done very successful for a range of healthcare brands and initiatives.

Making the complicated simpler to understand and easier to engage with is a core strategy for many healthcare marketing challenges, as well as a way to improve patient outcomes. 

While this can seem like a fairly obvious insight, one of the neurosurgeons we worked with on the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation articulated very well why our “Imaginary Friends Society” videos for the PBTF were so powerful (beyond being fun, easy to understand, educational and engaging).

  • They helped patients and caregivers feel like they had more control over what was happening to them. Because they understood the treatment and symptom topics better, it helped them ask better questions of their providers and comfort children and caregivers with more concrete information. Feeling more in control, he said, directly impacted anxiety levels, bringing them down, which, in turn, directly impacted outcomes for patients.
  • The educational videos inspired many healthcare providers, themselves, to speak in a more “human” way, offering them simpler and easier options for language around complicated topics. This was most apparent in this pediatric setting but can be extrapolated more broadly. Feeling like your doctor or other medical provider can explain something on a language level you understand and relate to, can be a powerful tool to attract and retain patients for any organization.

3

The two most prevalent styles of large healthcare system category creative fall along different lines but have one key thing in common. 

Creative that can elicit an emotional connection is most likely to move more emotionally loaded brand perceptions. And single-patient stories tend to be more emotionally involving. On the other hand, vignette-based communications can deliver a lot of information about the breadth and specificity of care being offered. Finding the right balance between the two creative approaches requires that you consider what perceptions you are most trying to affect. And don’t forget the quick-read signifiers that can quickly deliver on key drivers around technology and communication, i.e., depicting apps and telehealth visits. 

Vignette vs. Personal Story Approach – Top 2 Box
SOURCE: RPA Creative Development Research 2022

"I like the personalized nature of [personal story execution], the idea of putting a face and a name to it and showing that they care about that specific child — it appeals to me both as a doctor and a parent.” 

— Dr. Caroline, Healthcare Provider
SOURCE: RPA Qualitative Research 2022

In any case, however, it’s key to find the right level of relatability: no one wants to think about being sick (even more the case for pediatrics) until they are. Speaking to and depicting illness and disability in a relatable and sensitive manner that will draw people in vs. turn them off, has been essential to our award-winning healthcare creative. 

We may be seeing changes in the use of U.S. News and World Report rankings as a brand-defining strategy. 

Hospital rankings have historically been used as a strong signifier of quality and are still seen as a helpful shorthand by many, but their value is increasingly questioned and scrutinized by patients (and the media). And, more often than not, people tend to assume that the top 5 or so brands are all fairly similar (a #2 vs. a #3 is not necessarily seen as significant) which is perhaps why USNWR has moved away from ranking the top contenders individually. The jury is still out on how the new framework can be best utilized for messaging, however, rankings in specialties do carry more weight with patients (and as recruiting tools), vs. overall system ratings and our experience has shown that in digital at the lower end of the funnel, these specialty rankings can be very effective traffic drivers.

On the upper end of the funnel, our creative testing research has shown that a straightforward ranking message tends not to create an emotional connection, and may be seen as more “boring" and less differentiated by consumers (since many hospitals do the same thing), so care should be taken to balance rankings with a creative approach that brings more humanity and distinctiveness.

Where does each campaign perform best?
SOURCE: RPA Creative Development Research 2022

4

Healthcare systems’ (and many other healthcare-related offerings’) brand positionings tend to fall into one of five main categories, so standing out/claiming a unique position needs to take the nuances of the direct competitive set into account, as well as business objectives. 

The majority of healthcare systems' positionings hit on:

  • The “whole person”
  • Innovation/research
  • Humanity/kindness
  • Access to specialty/expert care
  • High quality/highly ranked/world-class

However, there are nuances within these broad categories that can be leveraged for differentiation depending on the core competitive set and brand objectives. Understanding these brand objectives and how they tie to business goals and KPIs is essential to success. In Cedars-Sinai case, location awareness was just such a key KPI. Simply answering this one question is a great way to start the conversation: Are you looking to grow business by leaning into brand strengths or by shifting brand perceptions?

5

A unified measurement solution is ideal to tie media performance with business results, but there are ways to operate around less than ideal systems. 

Timely goal setting and identifying key KPIs allows marketing to more clearly show its financial contribution to the bottom line. However, leaning on media measurement alone leads to half a picture without the ability to properly optimize media investment for maximum result. Ideally, we utilize tools such as MTA or brand lift studies that specifically tie media investment to outcomes such as patient acquisition, revenue, brand health metrics, etc.

Alternatively, we create a holistic view of business performance data which could include web analytics, qualified actions, call-center data, patient acquisitions/appointments, revenue by service line, etc. so we can correlate with media activity and performance and make optimizations where applicable. We also work collaboratively with our clients to create and implement an orderly, uniform tagging framework to ensure digital data is being captured correctly.

All media channel activations need to be rooted in audience work and a clear understanding of how channels contribute to objectives. 

Given the relative sea of sameness in much of healthcare advertising, strong visual, story-telling mediums are often important, especially for launches and new-to-market messaging. We look to CTV, social video, high-impact video and YouTube to get these messages out.

At the other end of the spectrum, search is foundational, based on its ability to target by condition, directly lead to web traffic and actions, and facilitate patient acquisition.

With word-of-mouth being so critical in this category, social strategies need to be carefully crafted and utilized, both paid and organic complementing each other.

And finally, programmatic should be used to test new audiences, and if scalability allows, we recommend exploring guaranteed and preferred deals to focus on select partners, further eliminating waste.

6

Social Media for Healthcare Marketing

On-going social listening is essential for crafting messaging — for social media and beyond. 

Healthcare is increasingly politically charged, especially since the pandemic. We use social listening and sentiment analysis to understand the types of language in informational blog posts that trigger partisan piling-on and misinformation across social channels. We apply these insights to writing for social to make very intentional language choices that convey critical health information without inadvertently using words or phrases that have been co-opted or re-interpreted by partisan movements online. 

Paid Social works best focusing at the individual level. 

Healthcare as a topic is increasingly polarized. Putting paid support behind topics that are even potentially polarizing can easily get caught in negative feedback loops of high negative engagement which accelerates delivery to similar-minded individuals, further amplifying blow back. It’s safer and more effective to focus on healthcare at the individual level vs. the community or systemic level. Instead, leverage other tactics and channels to address community and systemic issues, such as partnerships, in-person events, etc. where there is more room to communicate.  

The best performing social content comes out of personal experiences — whether it’s from the POV or the patient or caregiver.  

Personal stories make for the most compelling content; and people are more willing to share their stories on social in response to someone else’s story being shared first than if we are to ask for their stories or experiences without that human connection around a similar experience. (Not surprising since we’re naturally more likely to open up when someone else is open with us than if we feel that we’re in a one-sided interview.) And when it comes to visuals people respond most to faces and recognizable individuals in content.  

Employee engagement online is also a great reflection of how people feel working for a provider. Coworkers are quick to appreciate one another when featured. This positive feedback loop of engaged, effective employees provides great content for potential patients as well, especially since people love behind-the-scenes content — scenes that are not accessible to the public but provide insight into the detailed jobs of medical professionals. Volunteer content functions similarly and gets lots of engagement. While healthcare brands also share a lot of educational posts, few are actually remembered. Consider how individual’s experiences — whether patient, staff, or volunteer — can be used to better educate on timely topics. 

Surprise! Physicians can be super competitive online — take advantage. 

Physicians or physician leaders are typically competitive for the attention they receive online through brand and academic accounts. Whether its posting about their initiatives or retweeting their content, physicians expect their prestige and status to be reflected appropriately in online channels. They are great online influencers — they have super engaged and trusting audiences and already make a lot of niche content that’s especially effective on X/Twitter (where researchers and academic professionals amplify their work and foster connections, tapping into the existing #MedTwitter community) and on LinkedIn (where medical professionals and colleagues celebrate hospital developments, awards, and new additions to leadership). 

7

Paid search is too important an acquisition tool to “set it and forget it”. 

From casting a wide net to increase market share, to lower funnel targeting to focus on efficiency, the right paid search mix allows for scaling with efficiency. Depending on where the user is in the consumer journey and what service line they are in market-for, paid search creative should be a different permutation of brand, national vs. local ranking, call to action, unique benefit, etc.  

From analyzing performance trends and interest signals, we know healthcare consumers’ search behaviors are constantly evolving. Insights around how, when, and what they are searching for is what’s guiding our strategy forward. A well-planned full funnel search approach can help gain patient acquisition among those in the research and consideration phase. By combining custom insights with AI-powered tactics such as value based smart bidding, search campaigns will meet customers where they are and stay on top of fast changing consumer behavior. 

Take advantage of seasonality but also take advantage of the spotlight when it falls on you. 

In our research brand tracking research, we saw the same seasonal pattern each year: Opinion and consideration swing up for all brands in the Fall and Winter months, leading into back-to-school and vaccine and flu season, and dip down each Spring and Summer, as healthcare becomes less top-of-mind. But brand health measures for all brands also swing up when there is big healthcare news — spikes in COVID-19, RSV, or MPox — although the attention may be short-lived. These are all opportunities for brands to communicate with people, and help people get to know them (better), relatively efficiently.   

8

A deep understanding of general culture is imperative to creating positionings and touchpoints that resonate with targets. 

So many of today’s major cultural trends have a direct impact on how people feel about, talk about, choose and access healthcare. And because research consistently shows the outsize importance of word of mouth in this category, understanding the cultural conversation is step one in taking full of advantage of the tailwinds it can provide your brand.

For example, the pandemic brought to light disparities in access and equity, and revealed a profound distrust of science, perhaps creating an opportunity for purpose-led brands. Additionally, broad, out-of-category trends in personalization, individualism and identity, inequality, etc. are finding fertile ground in healthcare. We’re seeing growing consumer interest and behavior in personally taking care of health, both physical and mental since the pandemic. As Gartner puts it, “Every brand, regardless of industry, must consider its messaging and value proposition through the lens of a consumer striving to be more healthy and increasingly recognizing the relationship between their behaviors and their physical and mental health.” To get healthy, folks are more and more comfortable embracing a broader range of activities including holistic medicine, unplugging from technology, meditating, diet, and home health tests. A “you do you” approach to self-care and healthcare, if you will. As mentioned earlier, people don’t want to be seen as “walking diagnoses” they want to be seen as whole people, including looking for more holistic interventions.

Pandemic lockdowns stripped back the idea that there’s a perfect way to look after yourself. Instead, we’ve seen a shift in focus towards “doing you” — performing self-care in ways that work for people’s individual needs. The result? Expressions of wellness that are loud and messy.

— Canvas 8 

Ultimately, cultural trends are only important if you can tie leveraging them to actual improvements in business outcomes. As an example: we’ve seen in our category tracking that when patients feel that they are being treated “as a unique person,” there is a large positive effect on organization ratings and loyalty. Leveraging the cultural desire for personalization, individualization, and whole-person thinking can make strong business sense. 

Continually monitoring emerging cultural trends is essential to staying ahead in the fast-evolving healthcare space. 

Four emerging trends that we are currently watching closely are:

  1. People are increasingly approaching healthcare with a “consumerist" mindset, so communicating transparently with them about costs of care and unique offerings and benefits is becoming more and more important.
  2. People are increasingly likely to search for medical information online before visiting a healthcare provider — not just on hospital and healthcare-focused websites, but also on platforms like YouTube, Reddit and TikTok. Healthcare organizations can better engage with people during the research stage by creating informative, platform-appropriate content for social channels.
  3. In the wake of provider and staffing shortages, healthcare organizations will allocate greater shares of marketing budgets to recruitment-oriented marketing. Creating a brand platform that can be adapted effectively across multiple audiences will be more important than ever.
  4. AI will continue to forge change. It will enable healthcare organizations to offer personalized screenings and treatment plans, for example, and to better detect patient risks. Finding the best ways of communicating with patients about the exciting and potentially brand-differentiating capabilities of AI — while still recognizing concerns about data privacy and the imperative of retaining humanity — will be an important challenge for healthcare organizations in the years ahead.

9

And finally, healthcare is an exceptionally complicated category and healthcare brand organizations are made up of lots of very intelligent people who have a lot to contribute. 

Agency folks like to keep what we do for a living in perspective — “Hey, we’re not curing cancer, folks.” But when we partner with a healthcare brand… well, you know... What we do together with our clients to serve the needs of our targets’ health will be under a different level of scrutiny and must reach the very highest standards to pass muster with internal marketing and business development teams, not to mention medical specialists, legal teams, privacy advocates, donors, the medical and general press, etc.

At RPA we are experienced at navigating complex input and approval processes. We work with our clients on how best to involve key stakeholders, while setting clear boundaries for their roles. We also understand how to work successfully within the constraints of HIPAA Compliance and Data Privacy as well as general medical regulations, legal disclaimers and claims language. The best work is marketing that moves the needle with patients but also that all the stakeholders can feel confident in and proud of.

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