2018’s big, sneaky changes to healthcare digital marketing

When we publish content or buy ads from Google or Facebook, what are we actually trying to do?

I’d wager that most healthcare marketers are trying to drive traffic to their website. Website traffic is a good thing. It’s quantifiable, it’s reportable, and it can lead to real business outcomes like increased patient volume.

But website traffic is getting harder to come by every day. For proof, take a look at how much traffic your website gets from Facebook these days. If your website is like most, it experienced a dramatic drop-off that started in 2017, when referrals from Facebook fell by almost 13% over the course of the year.

Facebook is just one example of a broader shift. I’ve been looking at a lot of data on the topic and I believe we’re in the midst of a digital marketing sea change. One that will compel healthcare marketers to reassess their assumptions about how to approach digital marketing.

The three forces aligning to eat your website traffic

1. Facebook wants to keep you on Facebook

In early 2018, Facebook announced that unpaid marketing posts would get less real estate in the newsfeed. Understandably, brands freaked out. In polls done at the time, some brands expected their website traffic to drop by almost 50%. Ouch.

On top of that, Facebook has introduced new ad formats like Canvas and Carousel. Both formats provide interactive experiences that are, in many cases, richer and more appealing than what a healthcare provider’s website delivers. Other recent feature additions like live streaming and embedded video make it obvious why people spend so much time on the platform.

All of these features make Facebook an engagement machine. And they all but eliminate the need for a user to click through to your website. That’s the first force that’s eating your web traffic.

2. Google wants to keep you on Google

Google, which has been the doorway to the internet for almost 20 years now, continues to release features that ensure a greater share of users who open that door end up in a room that Google owns.

Take Google’s flagship advertising program, AdWords, for example. Adwords offers lots of features that make click throughs unnecessary. Call extensions allow mobile users to call an advertiser right from within an ad. Message extensions do the same for text messages.

For a great in-depth look at all the ways Google keeps users within their ecosystem, check out Dr. Pete Meyers post on Moz. For a quicker run-down, think about how Google My Business is positioned to dominate the quickly growing field of location marketing, or how Google Knowledge Graph lifted content from websites like Wikipedia to bring answers to common questions right into the SERP. That’s the second force.

3. Voice assistants will make websites obsolete

Mark (our president) has Apple’s Homepod in his office. For kicks, he and I struck up a conversation with it the other day. It went like this:

Mark: “Hey Siri, what’s the best hospital near me?”
Siri: “I found two options. The first is X hospital, which is 2 miles from you and is rated 2 and a half stars. Would you like directions?”
Mark: “No thanks.”
Siri: “The next option is X hospital. It’s 3.4 miles from you and is rated 2 stars. Would you like more information?”
Mark: “No thanks”

And that’s where the conversation ended. Siri had no more information to offer, so ‘she’ said nothing further.

The thing about that conversation that’s most interesting to me is that there are at least 5 hospitals within 15 minutes of where we were sitting. If we had performed a similar search on a device with a screen (e.g. a laptop, tablet or mobile phone) we would have seen a wider range of options. And we would have the option to click through to a local hospital’s website.

But Siri, in her algorithmic wisdom, eliminated that option. Instead, she served us information that likely came from a combination of Apple Maps, Google’s Knowledge Graph, and Yelp reviews.

Conversations like this are quickly becoming common as more and more U.S. households adopt a voice assistant. Some reports suggest that voice assistants could reach 55% of U.S. Households by 2022. And if current approaches to device design continue, almost none of them will have screens.

A new digital marketing model

As all these shifts make web traffic harder to win, marketers will need to break down the already old mental model of how digital marketing works. I’ve always thought of it as a “hub-and-spokes” model, with the website at the hub and search, social, and other ads as the spokes. 

A new model that makes sense to me is a Venn Diagram that organizes the kinds of content healthcare providers should be publishing and on what platform they should be publishing it. Each provider will differ, but at a high level, It looks something like this:

What’s interesting about this model is just how large the center is, where search, social and what I’ll call “owned web” overlap. We’re at a point where most of a healthcare provider’s content must have a presence on each platform. It’s not crazy to think that we’re approaching a time where the center overlaps even further, perhaps even to the point where all your key content formats should have a presence on all media. 

A new model, an old lesson.

As healthcare marketers find it harder and harder to drive traffic to their websites, we need a new way of conceptualizing what, in fact, digital marketing should accomplish. In short, we need a new model. And I’d like to suggest one.

To me, the new model for digital marketing in healthcare is simply give patients the resources to choose their own path across whatever platform(s) they like. They may want to book a consultation right from a google ad, or they may want to chat with a physician on Facebook. They want to do what they want to do from wherever they want to do it.

If this idea doesn’t sound new and groundbreaking, that’s because it’s not. In fact, this idea is just a reminder of a lesson marketers have learned and re-learned for decades. We learned it when cable TV took viewers away from networks. We learned it again when the internet took viewers away from TV. We learned it yet again when mobile devices took viewers away from computers.

The lesson is this: we can’t expect patients to follow our lead. We have to follow theirs. It’s as simple, and also as complicated, as that.