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Department Focus: Marketing--Lessons from the Field

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Look outside the healthcare market to find tactics to attract new customers and keep existing ones.

There's some truth to the familiar refrain that healthcare is different than any other product or service. The argument boils down to this: Healthcare marketers are promoting a service that's complicated, expensive, and frightening. Nobody wants to get sick. Most people don't even want to think about getting sick. And, in fact, some never will.

And when it comes to advertising, hospitals are held to a higher standard than other industries. They're supposed to be altruistic, not concerned with the bottom line or with growth. Consumers don't like it when hospital marketers try too hard. In fact, many prospective patients don't even like to be called consumers.

But does that mean that healthcare organizations have nothing to learn from other industries?

Not at all, says David Brond, associate vice president of external relations for the University of Delaware in Newark. Healthcare organizations should pay attention to how marketers in other industries get the attention of potential customers and stay close to their existing customers, says Brond, a former healthcare marketing executive.

Specifically, study how other industries encourage existing customers to increase their share of purchases, he says. Review direct mail and other relationship-building methods that credit card companies send to existing card holders, colleges and universities send to alumni, and service companies send to homeowners (see sidebar).

Think like a pharma company
As much as you might hate to admit it, the pharmaceutical industry knows marketing.

"Ideally, all sectors of the healthcare industry would adopt the best practices of [customer relationship management] to provide the best value to the customer," says Roberta Clarke, associate professor at Boston University's Health Sector Management Program. "This involves capturing and analyzing customer data as well as integrating the technology to collect, manage, and inventory the data into the operations of the organization. When CRM coordinates all parts of the organization to work together to this purpose, the results can be outstanding."

Healthcare organizations are limited by privacy concerns, she admits. But "pharma has managed to track numbers of customers while most health services don't even try."

Think like a hotel
If there's one industry that healthcare organizations can relate to, it's hospitality. Many hospitals have already taken steps to becoming more hospitable, from adding concierge parking to improving room service menus. But there's a lot more to learn from hotels than parking and food.

"Our patients don't understand why they can stay at the Marriott and have an accurate bill under their door the morning they leave the hotel, yet the hospital sends an inaccurate bill months after they are discharged," says Lynne Cunningham, principal of Cunningham Associates, a healthcare consulting firm in Sacramento, CA. "Patients don't understand why we have asked for the same information upon registration—every time—even if they are being seen on a regular basis."

"Healthcare marketers are in the category of ‘destination marketing,'" says Rob Rosenberg, president of the Springboard Brand & Creative Strategy in Arlington Heights, IL. And while hospitals are not exactly an exotic paradise, many lessons can be borrowed from this model, including customer education, promotion, cross-listing, and cross-selling. "You won't see a dog-eared People magazine in the lobby of a Hyatt Hotel," Rosenberg says. But you will see slick brochures for other Hyatt properties, services, amenities, and loyalty programs.

"Your ER isn't a vacation paradise," he says. "But it doesn't mean that you can't educate a captive audience on other services that are important to them at that very moment."

—Gienna Shaw

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