Skip to main content

4 Strategies on Consumer Engagement in a New Community

Analysis  |  By Melanie Blackman  
   November 08, 2021

Nisha Morris, vice president of marketing and communications for City of Hope Orange County, shares the organization's successful strategies.

When a healthcare organization has grown roots in its community and already engages its consumers, marketing can still be a difficult task. But what about for those organizations who must enter a new community?

City of Hope (COH) Orange County, a cancer research and treatment center in California, has the answers.

COH opened its first Orange County location in Newport Beach, California, in January 2020. And while Orange County has a "seemingly healthy lifestyle," it doesn't mean that the people in the community are immune to cancer statistics. Currently, the national cancer statistic is that one in three people will get cancer, Nisha Morris, the vice president of marketing and communications for COH Orange County, said in a recent interview.

There are plans currently underway to expand the cancer care footprint with the creation of a new comprehensive cancer campus in Irvine, California, which is slated to open in 2022.

Prior to opening that first location, the cancer treatment organization needed to utilize marketing strategies to connect with the community and learn their needs and have brand awareness. In a recent interview with HealthLeaders, Morris shares the organization's successful strategies on making a name in its new community.

Community engagement

COH Orange County started to engage with the community in Orange County a few years before their first location in the county opened, Morris said.

"Entering into a new market, we knew that we had to come in as a good neighbor and a community member, and to understand the needs of the community. Based on our research and understanding the community needs, we started to communicate in 2018 when we first arrived here," Morris said. "We were successful because we introduced our vision early on and people knew why we had to enter the market."

"What we did was listen to the community and conduct the research early on to understand that customer preference," Morris said. "Early on, it became evident that while OC is a big county with 3.2 million people, here relationships really matter. You have to be out there, you have to be talking to the community, you have to serve on boards, you've got to get involved. You can't just sit in a silo and design an entire cancer center and network of care by yourself, you must engage in the community," Morris said.

COH Orange County engaged the community by inviting community and business leaders, and potential patients, to offer feedback on the cancer center's mock design.

The organization went out "asking for their feedback, asking what mattered to them the most, and how they would envision the cancer center, so that if one day, whether they or their family members would receive a cancer diagnosis, how would they want their cancer center to be what are they looking for. Relationships matter and public relations and relationship building proceeded any marketing that we did," Morris said.

The organization also used data to find out the community members' needs, which included focus groups, marketing research, and analyzing data.

The organization found that 20% of Orange County's population leaves the county for advanced cancer care. "We know that Orange County has an aging population. Within the next 10 years, Orange County's average age of residents will increase by 18%, and we know that cancer increases with age. We knew that this was a population that was aging faster than any other part of the country, and that we needed to make sure that the right services were here for them," Morris said.

"We also know that there's rising breast cancer rates in Orange County compared to the entire country. So having the data behind us, understanding why the consumer was leaving the county for advanced care, understanding what was needed in this community, helped to drive our strategies that we implemented to make sure that the community needs were fulfilled," she added.

"We conducted baseline market research when we first entered the market about consumer preference, and we asked that question again just a couple of months ago. What we found is that we're ranked at the very top for preference and awareness of who City of Hope is, what services we're bringing to the community, and how we differentiate from our competitors. We're the number one cancer source for reporters, and there's a widespread acknowledgement of our core messages," Morris said.

"Our metrics are outstanding, and I do believe that this is a result of our strategic relationship building, layered in with a strong media strategy, and complemented by marketing and social media."

Thought leadership

COH Orange County is intentional in reinforcing its brand messaging through thought leadership. The organization puts executives and clinical leaders through extensive media training, Morris said. "It's about taking our leaders and building their platform, and helping them bring to the surface their voices so that they can share with the community the 'why' of City of Hope and why they're here."

"We work with each leader to understand the passion, the drive, and our differentiators, and how to share that across all audiences," she added. "Every leader starts with a message map, and we build our platforms from this map. My team looks at where we can best position the leader and the audience and respond to their key messages."

For example, the president of COH Orange County, Annette Walker, is an accessible thought leader. "Her platform is leadership and that's taken off. She's a frequent national spokesperson who inspires people to find their passion and become leaders in their fields. She ties City of Hope and our calling to lead us in pursuing this big vision. It's inspirational and reinforces the 'why' for all of us," Morris said.

When doctors join the organization, they also get trained on thought leadership.

"When we bring a new doctor onboard, we create introductory videos to help them talk about more than just their professional lives. It's getting them comfortable with the interviews, and this has been a good tool for starting to build their profile. When you go to a doctor, and especially with cancer being so personal and so scary, you want that expert, but you also want that compassionate care."

Through this thought leadership training, the clinicians and the staff become more relatable to the patients and their families and become a more personal and comfortable source.

"It's great that they have that expertise, but people need that compassionate care and that's what City of Hope is known for," Morris said.

Staying patient-centric

Another way COH Orange County utilizes marketing is through its patients' needs and personal stories.

"Every healthcare marketer needs to put their patient first; they need to listen to their patients and understand their needs," Morris said.

Healthcare marketing is different from other marketing, she said. It's more personal and closer to its consumers.

"It's important to listen, it's important to ask them, too, if they're willing to share their stories. With cancer, people need to hear that there is hope, and having a patient say that 'I've lived through it' is really powerful," she said.

"Patients are at the forefront of everything that we do. Understanding their needs, whether it's a design build, or whether it's sharing their testimony, or speaking at an event, whatever that may be, it's got to come from the patient because their experience and their testimony matters more than anyone else's voices."

Organization coordination

When it comes to the success of hospital and health system marketers entering into a new community, Morris says it's "a big job" and requires "tremendous organization coordination."

"It's so important to build teams that you trust, and be a collaborator yourself," she said.

Teams should have an open mind and be collaborative. "You also need to be comfortable with the unknown. It's about building a foundation, setting the structure, being comfortable with building and executing at the same time, being flexible in what your priorities are, and being willing to move quickly," Morris said.

"It's important to get to know your team. Especially with the pandemic, we need to take care of our teams because they've been through challenging times. You hear this from Annette as well; it needs to start at the leadership level. Annette is all about nurturing teams, building teams, leading teams, and making sure that her executive team takes that and shares that across all employees. It has to start from the top and then be carried throughout the organization," Morris said.

Just as the mission is important, so is acting on the mission. "It's about not only having the vision, but also being able to execute on the vision," she said. "Big ideas are great, but unless you can actually take that and bring it to life and make it happen, it's just all talk otherwise."

"This is probably the most exciting thing that I've ever done," Morris added. "Building something from the ground up and being able to bring City of Hope's mission, and our research, and our science into a new market that has growing needs, is so exciting. It's not easy and it requires certain personalities, but through it, there's great teamwork, and leaders emerge. I've seen my team excel, and we're excited about coming to Orange County."

Related: City of Hope Orange County President on Community Cancer Needs

Related: Women in Healthcare Leadership Spotlight: Annette Walker

“Every healthcare marketer needs to put their patient first; they need to listen to their patients and understand their needs.”

Melanie Blackman is the strategy editor at HealthLeaders, an HCPro brand.

Get the latest on healthcare leadership in your inbox.