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Patients are initiating and having conversations about treatment and healthcare options with their physicians nearly three times as much since 2001, and a recent study published by the Mayo Clinic shows that up to 84 percent of patients wish to determine their choice of treatment in conjunction with their physician.

These new decision makers are informed, too – Google reported that in 2015, one in 20 Google searches were for health related topics, and the PEW Research Center reported that 62 percent of smartphone owners have used their phones to look up health related information. This combination of better informed and engaged patients and the goldmine of online search data has laid the groundwork for innovative digital marketing tactics that stretch marketing dollars, such as programmatic media buying, but surprisingly, these tactics have not yet been widely implemented by the healthcare industry. eMarketer reported that while overall advertising spending is on the rise in the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries, these same industries accounted for the smallest investment of the total dollars in digital advertising at 2.8%. This is compared to other industries like Travel (8.3%), Financial Services (12.3%) and Automotive (12.5%).

Healthcare and hospital marketing is behind the times
According to a recent report published by Validic, “The majority of respondents (59%) are either behind schedule with their digital health strategy or have no digital health strategy currently in place.” Marketers have long been able to access information showing what consumers are searching for online, and have also benefitted from the efficiency this level of detail affords their digital advertising campaign. For example, a consumer who researches hiking or hiking gear online will later be served with an advertisement selling hiking boots, appearing on numerous websites that they visit, regardless of content. Re-targeting is a highly efficient way to directly engage appropriate audiences, especially when compared to the traditional method of sending an ad to an entire population and hoping that someone in that desired demographic is interested.

Some new targeting and marketing efforts can be hyper focused
Urgent care or hospital facilities will identify their targets by setting up what’s called a ‘geo-fence’ around a specific geographic coverage area, a digital umbrella that allows them to aim ads based on what individuals are searching for within its boundaries in real-time. Depending on the size of the facility, this umbrella could be as small as a city block, or as large as a city or DMA (a marketing area covered by a specific group of broadcast stations). Serving ads to individuals based on their search activity is effective because most individuals will turn to the web as their first search for medical information, and it is unlikely an individual would search for a particular health related service if they or someone close to them doesn’t need it.

The point where an individual searches for the same term an organization has set up a geo-fence for is the point where that individual is identified as a target due to their interests. This is also the point where the urgent care or hospital can begin to send ads to that individual’s phone for the services that treat the condition being researched. With patients having increased influence in their care options, the goal is to have the individual inquire about the organization’s treatment option with their doctor, or better yet, go directly to the facility’s website to learn more. While tracking individuals in this way might seem like an invasion of privacy and violation of the HIPAA law, we need to remember that there is anonymity between the IP address and the individual’s identity – simply put, their identity to a marketing department is a persona built from search terms, clicks, likes and interests – no names or connections between individuals and conditions are ever defined.

If this seems intrusive to you, you’re not alone. But if the drug the pharmaceutical company is marketing is effective, the ad could be providing critical information that the patient may not have known about otherwise.

How does this approach relate to converting an interested individual into a customer?
Consider a hospital that specializes in maternity care. The hospital’s marketing team will identify individuals researching childbirth in the health system’s geographic area, and will capture what specific details are being researched and then create targeted ads that answer the most popular topics and questions. The digital advertising platform also allows the advertiser to integrate their efforts into ROI reporting – individuals can be tracked throughout the sales funnel, and avenues of advertising investment can be accurately tracked for success.

By collecting data, the hospital can then automate the distribution of ads to interested individuals through their favorite app or website in the form of video or banner ads, giving the individual information to make a more educated health decision. Providing useful information about a topic that an individual wants to learn more about positions the hospital as a helpful, knowledgeable and trustworthy healthcare partner.

At what levels can hospitals and health systems capitalize on these tactics?
With many community hospitals being non-profit and with tight budgets focused on the services they provide, digital marketing campaigns offer organizations the opportunity to target their advertising spend and focus on accurate ROI calculations. Investing in digital advertising doesn’t mean traditional advertising avenues need to be cut; but a digital campaign can be successfully worked in to compliment a traditional campaign. Digital campaigns have the potential not only to bring additional lift to a traditional campaign, but they can reach a larger more targeted potential customer base and provide actionable analytics on the ROI of particular digital media advertising investments.

Some hospitals have an internal advertising department, however, many organizations choose to outsource the marketing aspect of their communications to a specialist agency with both traditional and digital media planning and strategy experience. An experienced agency can plan a strategic media mix of traditional and digital media that will accomplish actionable results and strengthen future campaigns.

With healthcare marketing behind the technological curve and with the value and impact of patient input on the rise, there is an opportunity for organizations to increase awareness of their capabilities and specialties while also engaging directly with individual targets based on their needs and interests, leapfrogging their competitors through fully embracing data driven digital marketing along the way.

Cory Lorenz is the Vice President of Digital Media for DDCworks. Email him directly at clorenz@ddcworks.com

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