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Lessons from 25 Years in Healthcare Marketing


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How do you differentiate your brand through healthcare marketing?

Since starting Vanguard Communications in 1994, I’ve learned a thing or two about healthcare marketing, public relations and the decision-making process of patients looking for healthcare providers. Now I’m condensing my 25 years of knowledge and sharing it with the world here.

1. People look for healthcare information first and healthcare providers second.

With experience in digital communications, healthcare marketing and website management for clients in more than 23 specialties, we’ve collected years of online data from Google searches. Regardless of the medical specialty, the data says that internet searchers look for health conditions and treatments on average eight times more often than they search for the doctors who provide those treatments.

2. People usually make buying decisions with their hearts and then seek to justify them with their heads.

We all love to believe we’re 100 percent rational decision makers. But psychological and marketing research has shown repeatedly that consumers’ purchase choices generally originate more from the emotionally and intuitively driven right brain.

3. Given a choice of the most familiar or the most effective, people will generally select the most familiar.

Does Starbucks brew the tastiest coffee? Does McDonald’s sell the best hamburgers? Does Microsoft make the best software? Humans are creatures of habit. Name brands become that way simply through repeated exposure, not through producing the best products as objectively measured.

4. In healthcare, patients pay five times more attention to who’s listening to them than where that doctor went to medical school.

Actually, the number may be higher. Our research of nearly 35,000 reviews on social media found that 96 percent of patients’ complaints about healthcare are related to customer service. Less than 4 percent were about quality of care, and 53 percent were about poor communication by providers and staff.

5. To attract more new patients than your competitors, it’s not enough to be good at what you do, you must also be memorable.

We have a saying in marketing: The best story wins. The same is true in customer/patient attraction. Like buyers, patients tend to boil a plethora of choices down to a simple differentiator: Which medical provider possesses a highly distinctive trait coated with brain glue that repeatedly reminds why s/he is selecting that practice?

6. A good reputation is like wealth: it usually takes years to acquire but can disappear in a flash.

Don’t believe it? Lance Armstrong, Hugh Grant, O.J. Simpson, John Lennon, Martha Stewart, Michael Jackson, Richard Nixon – need more names?

7. Economics, technology, and patients’ knowledge and preferences evolve endlessly.

In the late 20th century, medical specialists got most of their patients from referrals by other physicians – and hepatitis C was incurable, too. Now respected research shows 4 in 5 Americans go online to research health information, and as many as 2 in 3 rely on online reviews and social media to help guide health decisions. Medical practices that resist evolution are at risk of committing slow suicide.

8. Cost isn’t what matters to consumers. Value is.

Rolex watches, Mercedes automobiles, first-class air travel, Apple iPhones – why do buyers pay more for them? Because they believe that behind the higher price tags lies higher quality and more bang for the buck in the end.

9. Healthcare consumers make decisions not based on what they hear and see but by how they interpret it.

If this weren’t the case, there’d be no debate among parents about childhood vaccinations. But those opposed to vaccinations ignore any contradicting research that shows the overwhelming value of vaccines. Medical practices need to help their patients interpret all the (questionable) information out there wisely.

10. Customers don’t buy the products and services of a company or organization. They buy the values the products and services stand for.

They exercise in Nike shoes because they align with Nike’s image of working hard to be your best. They fly Southwest Airlines because they see streaks of quirky, nonconformity in themselves. They shop at Target rather than Walmart because they identify with Target stores’ more fashionable feel, even though both are discount department stores.

11. A strong brand is 20 times more powerful than mission, vision and value statements.

Quick, recite the mission statement of Tesla? How many of its estimated 300,000 customers to date have bought Teslas in order “to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy?” Probably few to none. The Toyota Prius, Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf are all no doubt also accelerating a transition to sustainable energy, perhaps just as well. But Tesla owners are invested in their cars’ brand, proudly driving them as symbols of hi-tech elegance and performance.

12. Only weak organizations need fear competitors. Strong ones are grateful for them.

Would a Super Bowl trophy mean as much if the winner beat a small college team? Would tens of thousands of baseball fans turn out for a victory parade if their team beat a minor league competitor to win the World Series? The reason great champions work hard is to show they can beat the best competitors. That’s why they’re constantly studying others in their field, in order to find a competitive edge.

13. Great organizations adapt to change. The greatest lead it.

Healthcare professionals learn to succeed through conformity, and so treat patients with therapies that have been rigorously tested in clinical trials and studies. As a result, the practice of healthcare is largely standardized from provider to provider. In the broader scientific and business worlds, however, entrepreneurs learn to succeed through nonconformity. The most famous names in the history of medicine – from Hippocrates to Kübler-Ross – achieved legendary status by pushing against norms of their time, while also adhering to well established scientific protocols. As famous writer Rita Mae Brown said, “The reward for conformity is that everyone likes you except yourself.”

Ready to take your practice to the next level?

Vanguard Communications’ MedMarketLink and MedAmorphosis practice improvement programs guarantee 15-30% practice growth in the first year, or we’ll work for free.

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