Digital Marketing Challenges in Healthcare

Matt Bakaitis, Senior Director, Cleveland Clinic

Matt Bakaitis, Senior Director, Cleveland Clinic

Digital marketing in healthcare is tricky. Patient privacy issues, complex services that are ultimately personal in nature and an evolving marketplace present unique challenges when deploying digital marketing tools that are routine in other industries.

At Cleveland Clinic, we have the guiding principle “Patients First”. When planning marketing efforts, the principle is powerful. Helping digital visitors, whether patients or not, becomes a primary function of marketing through those channels. Name recognition, volume metrics and other typical marketing objectives are best served when helping a visitor is the priority.

Relationships are not transactions

The best example of the “Patient First” approach guiding marketing tactics is Cleveland Clinic’s investment in content that educates or informs as opposed to those explicitly calling for volume-generating activities (scheduling appointments, etc). Our site visitors often feel vulnerable and anxious about health concerns, coming to us for information.

It’s true: Providing visitors with healthcare content that assists them serves a general good. Instead of having a site that’s purely transactional and suggests a commodification of services, we begin building a relationship that’s crucial for successful patient-physician relationships. We offer something that can help the patient at the moment they most need it: comforting information.

As that relationship develops, whether through shared content or as a successfully scheduled appointment, the digital channels support that growth. We recognize that the end result is ultimately a human connection between patients and physicians, as an appointment or as a visitor reads expert information. Therefore, we must respect that relationships are an investment that grows out of earned respect and trust.

Describe content as it is consumed, not how it is created

Where things get exciting is when a broad content library can be used to begin generating pages with dynamic, up-to-date content. The magic to make this happen is a common enterprise taxonomy that lets writers, videographers and other content experts describe their work in a way that builds links between similar materials in the master library.

A useful, human-friendly taxonomy is hard to develop, even when there are existing examples out there to use.

"Helping digital visitors, whether patients or not, becomes a primary function of marketing through Patients First channels"

A system that’s useful in a medical library filled with books may be a good foundation for online content, but the nature of taxonomy needs to recognize the consumer as much as organizational structure. Thus, while it’s important to collect all of the articles related to our Sydell and Arnold Miller Family Heart &Vascular Institute together under a single taxonomical umbrella, it may be more important to group that by the terms patients will use, such as “valve surgery” or “heart attack”.

Numbers don’t lie, nor do they tell the truth

It turns out that building good taxonomies is hard. The initial impulse is to start with organizational structures as a foundation because they often have some alignment with patient needs. But, again, there are gaps because patients and physicians (or your customers and professionals) use different language for the same things.

Web measures, like the ubiquitous Google Analytics, tell a story about what content and which calls-to-action work or do not. However, they struggle to tell a story about what is missing. For example, we can’t initially tell if a well-written article that we know patients ask about in the office fails because we’re using different terms than patients, if there’s simply somebody winning the SEO war for the topic, or something else entirely.

Thus, relying on real people (again, our guiding principle: “Patients First”!) to give us feedback and guide our work is critical. We build visitor personas for digital media from research and focus groups, use the personas to shape plans and goals, watch metrics for lift against baseline numbers, and then restart the cycle. It’s incredibly easy to fall into the trap where metrics alone become the guide, which can lead to maladaptive behaviors such as garish calls-to-action, investment in content that serves a limited audience, and other similar things.

Bottom line: Trust is hard to earn, easy to lose

The tragedy is that all of this can be undermined by a few simple but subtle things.

Consider that Cleveland Clinic carefully considers how to start relationships with our visitors, creates and describes content visitors should find interesting, use metrics and face-to-face interactions to shape future plans. This is not a small or inexpensive endeavor.

Yet, for all that investment by both us and the visitors who engage with us, it can instantly be undermined if we “leak” information about our visitor to badly behaving third parties. These bad actors can take a number of forms: social networks, advertising partners, external analytics tools, and more.

A potential patient who finds our article about a condition they suffer may be horrified then to find themselves being marketed related “miracle cures” on other sites or pages. All of the work we did to build content and take the first steps towards a healthcare relationship can be destroyed with one suspicious-but-related ad on another site. The culprit could be one simple sharing link or tracking pixel.

Avoiding this means taking an outside-in approach to all-things-digital. We have to balance the benefit the third-party tools have against the interests of the visitor. In a digital world where finding an alternative information source has near-zero cost, even a small slip can mean losing the entire relationship.

Thus, successful digital marketing in healthcare is a careful calculation. It needs to balance our need to schedule appointments with our sincere interest to provide empathic and meaningful care to each patient. Relationship building is often easier to initiate, but also easier to lose in the digital world. As such, “Patients First” remains our touchstone in this environment. Asking “how do patients benefit?” orients our focus and work in a direction that intuitively and measurably benefits everybody.


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