Dismiss Modal

Editor's Note: This blog was published prior to the transition to WebMD Ignite.

The healthcare industry is progressive in many ways, but marketing strategies tend to lag behind other consumer-centric industries. Why? With closely monitored HIPAA regulations, and the FDA constraining marketing efforts, it’s difficult for healthcare organizations to keep up with other industries’ marketing innovations. Additionally, marketing strategy is not the priority in healthcare —  patient care is (and rightfully so).

That being said, a recent study1 found that 77% of patients perform online research prior to booking an appointment. Even more profound, another study2 by the Pew Internet & American Life project found that 93 million Americans (approximately 80% of Internet users) have searched for a health-related topic online.

It has become clear that consumers and patients are taking advantage of online resources both during initial research and ongoing care – thus, it is increasingly important that organizations take advantage of digital marketing to boost patient engagement and, ultimately, care outcomes.

First, let’s take a step back to discuss how healthcare marketing has evolved:

What is healthcare digital marketing?

Healthcare marketing strategies have evolved from traditional to digital:

In the past, healthcare marketing has focused on traditional tactics such as print, TV, radio, and direct mail. Marketers would launch campaigns and hope for the best, unable to make real-time adjustments once the ads were published.

Hospitals also had an easier time acquiring patients because the population was, in general, less proactive about their health. Plus, healthcare costs were much lower than they are now, so patients did not reject or delay procedures based on cost, as happens presently.

Today’s healthcare consumer is much different than the healthcare consumer of the past. Patients are healthier, live longer, and rely on healthcare organizations less. Today’s patients are also able to do extensive research online, which means they are more particular about the services they receive. They also have access to physician reviews, ratings, and online forums to interact with other patients who may have similar conditions.

Digital marketing allows providers to promote offerings through online platforms to delight today’s increasingly online population. Digital marketing is a must-have investment for providers in the modern and growingly digital age. Not only does digital marketing help health systems stay connected with current and future patients, it helps with patient and physician engagement, retention, and in-network utilization.

The role of digital marketing in healthcare

Healthcare consumers are opting for online services for speed and ease of communication, and convenience. As Becker’s Hospital Review explains, “Hospitals are dealing with consumers who are remarkably smart, demanding transparency and two-way communication from their healthcare providers.”3 To appeal to this new brand of consumer, healthcare marketers need to adopt innovative digital marketing tactics.

6 digital marketing strategies to leverage

As we’ve already seen, healthcare marketing is in the midst of a revolution. These six digital tactics are critical to engaging patients and driving ongoing growth in today’s competitive healthcare landscape.

1. Optimize for search (SEO)

According to a Think With Google Study, search engines drive three times as many visitors to hospital websites than other sources. The study also found that 44 percent of patients who research hospitals on a mobile device end up scheduling an appointment.4 As a result of consumers’ extensive use of search engines to find facilities or inquire about their health, healthcare marketers must keep search engine optimization (SEO) front-of-mind when considering overall digital strategy.

Healthcare marketers can help search engines recognize and rank their organic content – such as blog posts, patient testimonials, and informative images or videos – by tagging a page with relevant keywords, writing informative page descriptions, and creating strategic HTML titles, among other techniques. With the rise of voice-activated search, in particular, marketers should make sure to create content that is likely to align with the unique phrasing and structure of these queries.

In addition, since mobile searches make up more than 50% of web searches overall5, it’s important that your site is also designed for easy mobile navigation. This means optimizing web pages for mobile search and browsing, prioritizing a dynamic design, and maintaining fast load times.

2. Produce video content

Video marketing is taking over as the next major opportunity to engage consumers – especially in healthcare. According to a study by Eyeview Digital6, using video on landing pages can increase conversions by up to 80%. Since healthcare is an innately personal, narrative-rich industry, video can have incredibly powerful applications. Patient stories are brought to life with dynamic storytelling and visuals, allowing new site visitors to develop a sense of trust in the organization even before making an appointment.

Furthermore, video is an ideal medium for providing information about complex health issues or diseases in a simple, easy-to-understand visual format. It can be used to spread important information about community health initiatives, explain post-surgical recovery procedures, and educate the public about general wellness.

While video tends to be a time- and labor-intensive medium in terms of production (and, therefore, relatively expensive), it is well worth the investment – especially due to the degree of saturation in written medical content. It’s tough to create a unique, top-ranking blog post about asthma symptoms, for example, when there are already so many articles and blog posts containing the same exact information on the web. A video, however, can be much more dynamic. Even if the overall message is the same, a well-produced video will likely outrank a blog post in traffic and produce more conversions.

3. Engage via social media

Social media can be used to engage with patients, support physicians, and improve population health outcomes. Healthcare social media marketing strategies may include participating in community discussions, networking, and promoting information about population health.

A healthy social media presence also helps attract patients. A recent study found that 57 percent of consumers’ decisions to receive treatment at a healthcare facility are strongly influenced by that provider’s social media connections, showing that patients trust healthcare organizations that engage online. Physicians can also use social media networks to collaborate, share knowledge, and work together – thus potentially improving care outcomes.

It’s important that health systems don’t silo themselves into a solely organic social media strategy: Paid social media advertising is also incredibly valuable – and it can be a better way to target and reach the exact audience your organization is looking for. Paid social campaigns must, like any other campaign, be formulated based on research and historical data. When successful, they are an excellent tool for re-engaging existing and potential patients who may have already visited your website or are searching for the type of services your organization offers.

4. Create highly personalized campaigns

Health is a personal subject. Therefore, it makes sense that healthcare marketing should be highly personalized. A generic, cookie-cutter approach won’t work – after all, the reasons for which any given person might be seeking medical care can range from a desire to achieve general wellness to a life-threatening emergency or disease. Likewise, the messaging around healthcare can be deeply emotional, and marketers must be just as careful not to target the wrong patients as they are to reach the right ones.  

Understanding your target audience is the first step to producing advertising and content that will resonate. A healthcare CRM (HCRM) platform is perhaps the most important tool for marketers to have on hand: Using the comprehensive patient data stored in the platform, healthcare marketers can create ultra-detailed target personas around which to build their campaigns. Target personas are constructed using key demographic information (such as age, gender, and residence), existing healthcare data (such as diagnosis and prognosis detail), and propensity models.

Take the following example:

Say a hospital’s marketing team comes across a new target – a 67-year-old male who has previously been a patient at their health system. Because this health system has an HCRM platform in place, predictive models can leverage information about his previous interactions with the facility.

When creating a campaign to drive-high value service line growth for orthopedics, the marketing team uses the HCRM to create a list of consumers and patients with a high propensity to be a candidate for hip replacement surgery—for which this patient happens to also qualify. With communication preferences (email, in this case) stored in the HCRM, the marketing team can further segment their communication.

The marketing team sets up a new educational email detailing the benefits of hip replacement surgery and symptoms that it may alleviate, scheduling deployment to this target patient along with several hundred others identified by the HCRM. Our male patient, after receiving this email, makes a consultation with a provider at the facility. After determining with his doctor he’s a good candidate, he ultimately schedules hip replacement surgery.

In this example, the marketing team takes advantage of the HCRM to create targeted outreach that reaches the patient on the channel he prefers. As a result, the health system reactivates a patient that might otherwise have turned elsewhere – or avoided treatment altogether.

5. Prioritize analytics

One of the great things about digital marketing is the ability to constantly track performance and make real-time adjustments if a campaign isn’t going as planned. Marketing analytics should dictate the decision-making process for every campaign – both during planning and execution.

At a minimum, healthcare marketers should have access to and regularly check on brand awareness data, blog traffic, social engagement, click-through rates, and conversion metrics. This can amount to a lot of data, so it’s equally important to have a robust tool or system in place with which to sort through and make use of it. An HCRM or other centralized analytics platform is a good place to start.

On the other side of the equation, healthcare organizations must be sure that digital tracking and data collection adheres to policies set forth by HIPAA as well as data privacy regulations mandated by Google Analytics. There are strict limitations around what (and how) healthcare marketers can track, and PII (Personally Identifiable Information) must be respected at all times in order to avoid violations.  

To collect useful, actionable insights through Google Analytics without infringing on patient privacy, marketers can make use of GA’s Custom Dimensions to capture more generic user traits – such as whether or not someone is an existing patient (“patient”) or a new visitor (“non-patient”). Smart usage of Custom Dimensions allows marketers to deploy the right content on the right channels to the consumers most likely to be receptive – even if personal demographic details are left out of the picture.

6. Update your email strategy  

Email marketing is still alive and well, despite what some may say. It’s a relatively low-cost, effective, and immediate form of communication with plenty of opportunity for narrow-focus personalization. When executed correctly, the ROI of an email marketing campaign can be significant – but there are a few considerations healthcare marketers must keep in mind when building out an email strategy.

First and foremost, optimizing for mobile delivery is key. According to a 2018 report by IBM Watson Marketing7, 47.6% of healthcare industry emails are opened via a mobile device, while only 25.9% are opened at a desktop computer. In order for your emails to be impactful and, even more importantly, legible in the mobile interface, responsive design is critical.

In terms of email content, several studies have shown that educational content performs best within the healthcare industry as a whole.8 Emails with wellness tips, suggestions for symptom relief, or information about common conditions tend to drive conversions better than generalized hospital newsletters. Educational emails should also provide an obvious, straightforward CTA that prompts readers to easily schedule an appointment or call for more information.

Finally, email marketing tactics must prioritize privacy and take care to navigate personal details in a way that does not infringe upon sensitive patient information. Hospitals and healthcare organizations do not want to instill unnecessary fear or drive potential patients to competitors – such as urgent care centers or retail healthcare clinics – by making them feel that a particular symptom signifies a medical emergency. All of this can be avoided by thoughtfully crafting email content and employing a gated asset (such as a link to a PDF download) when providing more detailed information about a specific disease or diagnosis.

Final thoughts

Digital marketing has helped the healthcare industry evolve. By using search engines as a tool, creating targeted outreach with great multi-media content, engaging patients on social media, and taking advantage of campaign data analytics, patient engagement and loyalty are rapidly improved. As a result, healthcare marketers are more confidently able to prove their value to the C-Suite – while also driving better patient care as a whole.

Digital has already fundamentally changed the way healthcare marketers operate – as the digital landscape evolves, the healthcare marketing industry will surely follow.