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Virtual Marketing

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A novel model promises to improve quality, boost efficiency, and cut costs.

Want to double your marketing staff and cut your costs in half? Consider turning your marketing department into a "virtual agency." Hospitals that are starting to experiment with this new marketing model, which relies on a mix of in-house staff and external resources, are finding the method has a number of benefits.

At the 145-staffed-bed Children's Hospital & Medical Center in Omaha, NE, the marketing department's in-house staff handles various marketing functions, including online marketing and media relations. Outside consultants (mostly small outfits that specialize in a single area, such as media buying or graphic design) round out the team. "We have all the elements of a full-service agency, but they're not located in one shop," says Martin W. Beerman, vice president of marketing and community relations at Children's.

Choosing the right person for each job ensures quality results, he says. "You're really plucking the best of what these consultants do," he says. "We feel that between our in-house folks and the vendors we partner with, we have the … best and the brightest."

But perhaps the most striking advantage is cost savings: Beerman estimates the hospital saves at least 50% over a more traditional setup. "I don't want to talk ill of agencies, but larger agencies have a lot of overhead to pay for. The folks we've assembled don't," he says. "It's much more economical."

The 193-staffed-bed Rush-Copley Medical Center in Aurora, IL, also uses the virtual-agency approach. Mary Zokan, director of marketing, cites a number of benefits. "We're in a very competitive market and it's a way to save resources—and resources are scarce," she says.

But one of the biggest reasons she likes the model is that it allows her to maintain control of the organization's brand. "I'm charged with the image and reputation of this organization. I want to have that input over the process," she says.

KinneyKusek is part of Rush-Copley's virtual agency. Keith Kusek, one of two principals at the Plainfield, IL-based marketing communications agency, says he's seeing more organizations taking this approach and even noting in RFPs that they may parcel out pieces of a project to specialists in different disciplines.

So what are the ingredients for a successful virtual agency? Consider . . .

Size: The virtual approach won't work for every hospital. Although more large organizations are starting to experiment with the model, it's probably best suited to midsize organizations that want to help keep costs down, Kusek says. It can work for smaller organizations with limited resources, but only if they have a marketing director with the skills to handle a diverse, spread-out team.

Leadership: The marketing leader must have the ability to manage multiple teams. "It helps to have someone with an agency background," Zokan says. "You have to have the skill set where you're comfortable in managing different responsibilities of the virtual-agency team."

Beerman agrees that any hospital that takes on the virtual model must have leaders who understand marketing—and not just in the marketing department, but at the top levels of the organization.

Staff: "On the internal side, you have to have a pretty strong team that can coordinate with these folks," Beerman says. "Your internal resources really need to understand how all these elements work together. There's a fair amount of coordination there; you need to know that going in."

Partners: Finding the right outside talent is another crucial ingredient. Look for people who can put their egos aside and who genuinely want to collaborate—not just with you, but also with others on the virtual team. "I think we've done a really good job of identifying the talent that we need and matching our need as well as the fit with the folks that we work with," says Beerman.

Communication: With the virtual agency approach, you must develop a close working relationship with your outside partners and be clear about what you want from them. Zokan, who has worked with the same team of vendors for several years, says that improves efficiency and response time. "We can put campaigns together very quickly," she says. No matter how collaborative the team, one person needs to take charge. "At the end of the day, it's still about the expectation of the client: results and delivery," Kusek says.

Gienna Shaw

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