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A Healthcare Marketer's Guide For Surviving In A Bad Economy

Daniel Weinbach, for HealthLeaders Media, April 1, 2009

Yes, we all agree that healthcare organizations should continue to market aggressively in the current economy. Yes, we all agree that a sustained marketing program will support the continued loyalty of existing audiences and will position your organization for growth as the recession turns into a rebound. Yes, we all agree that marketing is a revenue driver and that cutting marketing budgets is tantamount to damning your steam of new income. And yes, we all understand I'm preaching to the choir.

The fact is most healthcare organizations' leaders hail from operations, finance or even medical backgrounds. Only a handful rose to their positions from careers in marketing. As a result, few healthcare execs hold their marketing budgets sacred during these tumultuous times. Most see marketing as dispensable and will cut their marketing budgets first rather than last. Putting business principles aside, who can blame them? If the choice is between cutting nurses or a shiny new ad campaign, the casualty would (and probably should) be the ad campaign.

So if your organization shares any similarities with our healthcare clients, then your budget has taken a hit. Some of you may have lost more than ad dollars. You may have lost staff. In fact, some of you may be reading this fresh from a layoff yourselves. To you I offer my sincere sympathies. These are difficult times. And now more than ever as marketing professionals, we must demonstrate our very real value to the organizations we serve.

In this vein, I have developed a "survival guide," to not only make it through the challenges of the current economy but to thrive. By using these guidelines, you will prove that marketing is just as essential as operations or finance. Moreover, you will contribute to the continued viability and success of your organization.

I based some of the suggestions that follow on our agency's own successes; some come from good common sense; and some blossomed from the sharp minds of our clients. Keep in mind these tips come from the perspective of organizations that deliver care: hospitals, health systems, and provider groups. However, most of what I offer can be applied to any healthcare entity. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if these approaches would work for businesses in entirely different industries.

Adhere to consistent branding. As your marketing budget dwindles, and as your organization continues to require methods for generating revenue–perhaps with greater urgency than ever–you may find yourself tempted to sacrifice the hard-earned positioning you have defined for your organization. Your well-meaning colleagues, desperate to demonstrate quantifiable results, may be the biggest culprits coaxing you toward this infidelity, but you have to remain strong.

There's nothing wrong with marketing communications tactics that have bottom line results. By all means, such quantifiable metrics should be part of every effort; however, seeking results at the expense of brand integrity is a dangerous move. Once you diminish the meaning of your brand; once you join the fray and focus on the procedure instead of the practitioner; and once you sell price as your central message, you will be hard-pressed to recapture your positioning in the months (or years) to come.

Focus on products and service lines. When times are tough, and they certainly are tough, your healthcare marketing energy needs to be aimed squarely at the projects that can most rapidly and most demonstrably generate bottom line results. This requires good communication and coordination with people in your organization who can provide basic information and answer some fundamental questions. Which areas have capacity to handle new patients? Which procedures are most lucrative? Which offerings can act as gateways to more profitable services?

Right now you might be asking yourself, "Isn't this a contradiction to the point above about adherence to your brand?" Absolutely not. With careful implementation, you can promote specific services and product offerings while simultaneously advancing the branding you have already developed. In fact, done well, service-oriented messaging can be even more effective than straightforward "image" advertising.

Now is the time to insist the messages you create and disseminate perform double duty—to both grow business and build the brand.

Create a marketing tool kit. This is one of those great ideas that I wish was mine, but the suggestion came from the marketing director at a specialty hospital that our agency serves. She suggested we create a marketing tool kit, or collection of creative assets, that can be customized or used "as is" by other people within her organization.