Proactive vs Reactive Healthcare Marketing

How to prevent competition, demands and crises from unraveling your hospital’s marketing plan

Healthcare is a volatile industry, affected by government legislation and the changing habits of healthcare consumers. It’s also subject to chatter from internal audiences, especially when it comes to marketing. The key to preventing these issues from throwing your marketing off course is to be proactive — with a solid, strategic healthcare marketing plan based on goals, research and analytics.

In this issue of Protocol, we will discuss the difference between proactive and reactive marketing, and how to deal with the competitive environment, internal pressures and crisis management with a strong hospital brand.

Proactive vs. reactive marketing

What separates proactive from reactive marketing is strategy: understanding your brand message and goals, and what steps you’ll need to take to reach them. Proactive marketers start a new year with a solid plan based on research and analytics, and budgets parsed out for different campaigns, projects and expenses. Decisions are based on a history of analytics and business goals laid out by the CEO and the organization’s brand messaging.

The alternative, reactive marketing, is constantly changing tactics in response to environmental factors. It’s more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants plan. This often results in inconsistent marketing in terms of messaging and timing, wasted dollars (or worse, not knowing if dollars were wasted because there is no measurement set in place) on ineffective media or services that don’t need marketing, and absolutely no data to help tweak next year’s plan.

The marketing plan isn’t permanent. It ebbs and flows along with the hospital business, and that can be a good thing. For example, if one medium is outperforming another, budgets can shift. If strategic direction changes mid-year, that fourth quarter campaign can morph from cancer to cardiac. But there is a fine line between logical changes and reactive changes. There are three main reasons marketing plans get derailed: competitive environment, internal pressures and crisis management. Below we outline these factors and how you can effectively stop them from changing tactics that don’t support your strategy.

Competitive environment

Unless you’re the top player in your market, chances are there is a hospital or health network trying to take your marketshare or outspending you in media dollars. It becomes very easy to fall into the “keeping up with the joneses” mentality. If you constantly see full page, full color competitor print ads in the Sunday paper, you think, “We need to be advertising there.” If you catch a ton of competitor TV spots during your favorite prime programming, you think, “Why aren’t I seeing commercials from my hospital?”

But here’s a few important things to think about when you start feeling this way. First, you don’t know what your competitor’s marketing strategy is, or if it even has one at all. It may be throwing a bunch of things out to see what sticks, but has no measurable results, or it may have no consistent brand messaging. Why would you want to follow its lead? Second, you have a different brand, different audiences and different goals — it doesn’t make sense to copy what’s already being done. Lastly, you don’t know how much money your competitors are spending on marketing. If their budgets are five times the size of yours, you can’t go toe to toe and match their placements.

To combat this feeling, remind yourself that strong brands control their own destiny. Watch and be aware of what your competition is doing, but it’s not necessary to match them. Create a marketing plan based on your organization’s goals and strategy. It’s possible that you will have some overlap with competitors, but instead of trying to beat them, get creative. Look for different ways to reach your audience that will help you stand out.

For example, if your competitors have scattered, inconsistent messaging, come out with a strong, distinct voice and honest, competitive position. If your competitors dominate prime programing on TV, try gaining exposure in sporting events. If your competitors cover the local papers, try to catch patients’ attention in the online or mobile version. Look for ways your organization can pop instead of cluttering the same channels.

Internal pressures

Inevitably, there will be physicians or departments that feel marketing isn’t doing enough to bring in new patients. They often are loud and demand a presence in mass media, suggesting expensive and unmeasurable tactics, such as a billboard or a full page print ad featuring all of the physicians standing with arms crossed. The problem is that physicians don’t always know what’s best when it comes to marketing, and if you don’t have a strategic plan laid out, it’s easier for them to pull money from the pot.

When money hasn’t been committed to something for the year, even if it has been set aside in theory, it can be easy to give in to demands. This can result in wasted media dollars, messaging that is off-brand and inconsistent media coverage.

It’s important to have a clear marketing strategy for the year and communicate it to staff members and physicians. This way, when unreasonable demands surface, you can use the decided strategy and marketing plan as a defense. As long as the c-suite supports the marketing plan, everyone else should fall into line.

Crisis management

Have you heard the saying that the best defense is a good offense? Strong brands control their public perception and are not easily shaken by crises or market changes. When internal and external audiences know what your brand stands for, the organization can more easily rebound from a single event. For example, the Cleveland Clinic wouldn’t be brought down by one setback or have to work as hard to regain a position of leadership because it’s known as one of the top healthcare organizations in the country.

Start focusing on building strong relationships with current internal audiences, such as physicians and staff, and current patients. Communicate your brand values and educate staff members on their role in carrying out the brand in daily activities. While it’s important to bring in new patients, having a solid foundation will be more effective when a crisis strikes. Putting in the effort now to keep internal and external audiences happy with your service will require less sweat when you’re facing a malpractice case or an outbreak of bacterial infection.

Similarly, create a positive presence in your community for prospective patients. Supporting local events or providing access to healthcare will create a halo effect that will make the general public more quickly to forgive when something goes wrong. You can’t avoid crises, but you can be prepared to weather the storm.

Stay the course

Every healthcare organization has fallen victim to reactionary marketing tactics when faced with the above situations at some point in time. Just remember: a proactive, strategy-driven plan will stand up to the pressures of healthcare marketing and see you through to the organization’s most important goals.

If your healthcare organization doesn’t have a marketing plan and budget in place already, read Budget Planning for Healthcare Marketers. That’s step one.

If your hospital or health system does have a marketing plan, it’s important to guard and protect it. The plan and budget were created this way for a reason. You compiled goals, priorities and analytics to build a strategic mix of measurable campaigns, projects and media that align with your brand strategy. Unwavering support from the top-down will help to drown out internal demands, noisy competitors and instill a calm and rational approach to crises.