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Cure Mistakes Improve Marketing OutcomesCure these four mistakes to improve marketing outcomes. (And other musings from a fellow healthcare marketer.)

December 22, 2014
Healthcare Marketing, Marketing, Marketing Budget, Operations, RFP, ROI

I love blogs like this. The author (me in this case) stands on a pedestal and shouts what is wrong with the world (in this case we are talking about the healthcare marketing world). Of course, the implication is that since I can diagnose the disease I surely must be an expert on the treatment. And, consequently, you will feel compelled to pick up the phone and hire my agency immediately. Voila!

But the truth is that despite having run a very successful hospital marketing agency for over a decade—and having worked with some of the best healthcare marketers in the world—I don’t have all of the answers. (Let’s just keep that between us, okay?)

What I do have is a desire to spark more candid and frank discussions about what we as healthcare marketers can do to raise our game and improve marketing ROI. So, I guess in a way, I am standing on that pedestal, if for no other reason than to rile us all up and offer a little insight on how we can make ourselves more indispensible than ever before.

So without further ado, allow me to share with you the top four mistakes I see in healthcare marketing today:

Mistake #1—Not Closing The Loop on ROI

Here’s a secret: Hospital marketers aren’t taken as seriously as they should be because we are unable to prove results. I’m not talking about drawing a correlation between marketing activities and awareness, perception or intent to purchase. I’m talking about providing the C-suite with real answers to the questions they really want answered, such as: “If I spend $1,000,000 on marketing how will that directly impact inpatient and outpatient revenue?”

Until we stop talking like marketing professors and engage the executive suite in a language they understand (e.g. volume, revenue, payor mix, physician referrals), we will be a discretionary expense. At BPD, at the outset of major campaign projects my team will spend weeks or even months helping our clients set goals, put tracking in place and gaining agreement with the executive suite on appropriate business metrics. For our clients who have not been through this process with us before, they are usually nervous about how much longer it takes to develop a campaign. However, once they’ve done it once, we’ve never had a client ask us to modify this approach.

Mistake #2—Focusing Inward

Hospitals are littered with internal stakeholders who hold varying amounts of sway over the marketing and, worst case scenario, direct the efforts of marketing to a detrimental degree. One great example is the when we hear, “We need to put Dr. Smith on a billboard!” Really? Why? What business goal will we accomplish? How does this link to our marketing strategy? Typically, the answers we get are, “It doesn’t” and “Not sure.” We work with healthcare brands all over the world so we have a fair amount of empathy for the position of the marketer on the other end of the phone.

Which brings us back to my main point. If your marketing is meant to drive patient revenue, disrupt physician referral patterns, improve payor mix, then you need to focus only on the audiences that can best make that happen. And, typically, those audiences are not in your conference room. They are outside of the hospital.

True story: one of our clients, the VP of a major health system, puts an empty chair at the head of the table before meeting with senior executives and clinicians within her organization. Why? To simply remind them that the person her programs are trying to reach isn’t any of them—it’s someone not even in the room: The Patient.

Mistake #3—Budgeting Too Low

When I finish goal setting with one of my direct reports, more often than not I’ll ask: “Do you have everything you need to be successful?” Why? Because every business person understands that it takes appropriate resources (people, money, time, tools, etc.) to get things done. Given this, it’s shocking how often the following conversation takes place between a hospital marketer and an advertising agency (internal and external):

    Hospital Marketer: We need to do a cardiovascular campaign.

    Advertising Agency: What’s the goal?

    Hospital Marketer: Increase volume.

    Advertising Agency: By how much?

    Hospital Marketer: (Pause) Not really sure…I think our goal is a 5% bump next year.

    Advertising Agency: What’s the budget?

    Hospital Marketer: Not sure, will you tell us what it will take?

    Advertising Agency: Sure, we can work together on that. For now, can you give me a range?

    Hospital Marketer: Could we start at $50,000? Maybe you could give us a few options.

This scenario happens every day in hospitals across America and illustrates that many hospital marketers agree to goals without demanding adequate resources. Why? As I said earlier, no reasonable business leader would expect you to be able to accomplish her goals without the appropriate resources. It seems there is almost a cultural phenomena within hospital marketing departments (and even at some advertising agencies) that open, candid discussions about appropriate budget levels is off limits. If your organization—and its marketing partners—is guilty I recommend changing this as it is fundamental to create sound marketing programs that will truly achieve the organization’s business goal.

Mistake #4—Selecting Marketing Partners Through RFPs

I almost didn’t include this one for fear it would sound self-serving and biased. But in the interest of having a totally open relationship with my readers, I have to say it once and for all, “I HATE RFPs!” RFPs are the single greatest waste of resources in the history of the marketing business. I even stopped doing them a couple of years ago. My thinking (and call me crazy) is that BPD’s loyal clients pay good money for our healthcare expertise. Why would I give it away for free to a prospective client? Really, from my perspective it’s that simple. (Full disclosure: When I made this policy at the agency, I had more than a few skeptics. But as long as our business continues to grow, I guess there won’t be an uprising. Also, we make exceptions. They are very rare. But they do happen.)

But forget about us, why are RFPs a lousy way for a hospital to select a marketing vendor? It completely fails to account for the factors that influence the success or failure an agency relationship: 1) How you as the client are treated on a daily basis; and 2) How the agency is able to collaborate with you and your team on an ongoing basis to develop a marketing programs that will win in the marketplace, get buy-in at all levels of your organization, and work within a prescribed budget.

So what should you do? Find three agencies—through word of mouth, award show annuals, Google searches, whatever sources you feel most comfortable with. Ask them to each come in for a quick meeting about a (real) project. If you enjoy meeting them, you like the work they’ve done in the past and they seem interested, inspired and/or intrigued with your brand and the business challenge, hire them for that project. Repeat this process as necessary until you decide one agency is a better fit for you.

Sounds expensive? Consider the cost in time, money and wasted resources if you hire the wrong marketing partner through an RFP process that is flawed at best.

So those are the top four mistakes. We’ve probably all made them at some point in our career. I know that I have. But I bring them up again because I see hospital marketing departments as underappreciated, overworked and, too often, under-resourced. As a partner to many, my goal is to help work hand-in-hand with our marketing partners to ensure they are recognized as indispensible assets central to the success of the health system.  

If you have any questions about this post, or have an interesting idea for a future blog, please feel free to e-mail me at

Jason Brown

Jason is CEO & Chief Strategy Officer of Brown Parker & DeMarinis (BPD), an internationally-recognized advertising agency that is on a mission to make health systems and hospitals the most beloved brands in the world. A pioneer in hospital marketing, BPD works with clients to unlock the power of their Purpose inside and outside their organizations, resulting in highly engaged employees and physicians and dramatically higher brand preference and service-line volumes.