Marketing in healthcare: Improving the consumer experience

Healthcare consumers have never been more empowered than they are today. The COVID-19 pandemic forced healthcare providers to adapt quickly to continue delivering patient care, including by pivoting to digital care. Seemingly overnight, telehealth went from an industry sidenote to the primary means of seeing noncritical patients.1Telehealth: A quarter-trillion-dollar post-COVID-19 reality?,” McKinsey, July 9, 2021. Healthcare consumers also saw global retailers, grocery store chains, and other disrupters demon­strate how convenient it can be to order your health products online for delivery or curbside pickup.

Consumers increasingly expect transparent, predictable, and mobile-friendly experiences, but most healthcare organizations have failed to keep up. Although healthcare providers have more options for how to spend limited marketing budgets, many have chosen to stick with the familiar traditional- and digital-marketing channels—such as billboards and ads on television, on the radio, and in magazines—and with a one-size-fits-all digital presence.

Today, health systems have the same aspirations as companies in any industry: to engender long-term relationships with their consumers.2Winning in loyalty,” McKinsey, August 2, 2022. Consumer goods, retail, and e-commerce leaders set the original bar and continue to push it higher today.3E-commerce: At the center of profitable growth in consumer goods,” McKinsey, July 5, 2022. A 2021 McKinsey survey of more than 3,000 US healthcare consumers found that satisfied patients are 28 percent less likely to switch providers.4

Healthcare providers that are ready to rethink their marketing approach to grow and maintain continuity of care—or work to gain back what’s been lost in recent years—have their work cut out for them. In this article, we describe three priorities for progress: align the C-suite, build capabilities methodically through carefully chosen use cases and quick wins, and measure what works. In our experience, healthcare providers that implemented changes focused on improving the consumer experience—including through marketing efforts—saw their revenue increase by up to 20 percent over five years, while costs to serve decreased by up to 30 percent.

Providers that can bring it all together can achieve lofty marketing ambitions. One regional healthcare provider that stood up an agile marketing team as part of its digital transformation prioritized increasing the share of new patients who schedule appointments digitally instead of over the phone or in person. The provider was able to build a backlog of more than 300 test ideas representing a wide variety of goals and priorities, from improving online scheduling to optimizing content on specific pages. The team prioritized half of those tests to launch in a period of only 12 months, yielding an impressive test success rate of about 50 percent. When successful tests were scaled, the healthcare provider tripled the number of new patients from digital channels, compared with before the transformation.

Align the C-suite

The chief marketing officer (CMO) is a well-established member of healthcare providers’ C-suite. However, the CMO requires active involve­ment from the leaders of other functions to deliver modern marketing efforts. These leaders include, most crucially, the chief technology officer (CTO) or chief digital officer (CDO), chief information officer (CIO), and chief financial officer (CFO).

Only when the C-suite is aligned on the importance of marketing to drive growth and continuity of care (and what it takes to do so) will the CMO have the permission and support required to effect change beyond their immediate influence. This moves the CMO role away from basic brand and communication activities that characterize marketing at most healthcare organizations today. These traditional- and digital-marketing activities depend on mass, undefined channels—such as television, newspapers, broadcast emails, and a generic website—that reach all consumers with the same messaging. This style of marketing also often fails to include a compelling call to action, such as “schedule your health visit today,” that encourages healthcare consumers to reach back out to the organization to make an appointment or speak to a specialist about their needs.

To make the leap to more sophisticated marketing capabilities, CMOs could start by defining priority use cases by both financial and nonfinancial returns on investment—from costs to improved health outcomes. The CMO could then work with the CTO or CDO to validate the technical feasibility, with the CIO to assess operational challenges and risks, and with the CFO to calculate the financial ROI. The true power of this cross-functional collaboration can be seen in organizations that, for example, have worked in concert to design and build a single source of truth for consumer data, which is critical to enabling use cases related to advanced marketing capabilities, such as personalization.

Many organizations outside of healthcare—and increasingly within healthcare—have adopted agile marketing to drive high-velocity testing across digital- and traditional-marketing channels.5Agile marketing: A step-by-step guide,” McKinsey, November 9, 2016. Speed to market requires quick handoffs, cross-functional collaboration, and enterprise-wide transparency. For example, a healthcare provider could focus on improving its new-patient appointment cancellation rate by A/B testing appointment reminders to determine what works best in terms of number of touchpoints, messaging, and cadence.

The test brief—a standard feature of agile marketing typically reviewed by leads from marketing, finance, and technology—can help align the CMO, CFO, and CTO and enable them to compile a more persuasive case for the CEO and other company leaders. A test brief is a document with codified creative, technical, and measurement details for an agile marketing test. It provides the organization with the details it needs to quantify the number of days (or sometimes hours) necessary to launch a test, as well as to estimate the effort required to design, create, build, and deploy it.

Build sophisticated capabilities by choosing use cases wisely

Today, most healthcare providers have critical capability gaps that stand in the way of mounting an end-to-end, personalized consumer journey:

  • A disjointed consumer experience and lack of personalization. Multichannel consumer touchpoints can lead to fragmented, impersonal experiences because of the lack of integration between consumer data and omnichannel engagement platforms.
  • Siloed systems. Silos result in a limited ability to track current and potential consumers across channels and devices, as well as no organization-wide access to consumer data tracking tools.
  • A lack of consumer-centric data. A lack of data leads to channels without access to a real-time, 360-degree view of consumer care needs and to clinical data that is not augmented with nonclinical data.

The theme of these challenges is fragmented information. Marketers increasingly require hands-on, real-time access to technology. Next-level healthcare marketing is built on a robust, integrated technology stack—and reaching full maturity in marketing-technology capabilities is not a short-term undertaking. No marketing function operates with an unlimited budget, meaning the marketing team will need to prioritize use cases that can build the department’s muscle and momentum.

In our experience, patient scheduling tends to be a priority growth lever for healthcare providers and systems. This makes sense considering that being able to easily schedule an appointment is a critical step in the consumer healthcare journey. Use cases that improve scheduling would thus rise to the top of the priority list and the budgeting conversation. For other providers, use cases could include better patient communication management to facilitate follow-up care.

Reliable collaboration between the marketing and technology teams is paramount to achieving seamless healthcare consumer journeys.

Given that these marketing touchpoints span the entire healthcare consumer experience, from learning about a provider to scheduling a visit and receiving care and follow-up care, reliable collab­oration between the marketing and technology teams is paramount to achieving seamless healthcare consumer journeys (exhibit). And to deliver it, an integrated technology stack (across both digital and traditional channels) is essential.

End-to-end consumer healthcare journeys are delivered through an integrated technology stack.

Measure what works

Marketers use the term “attribution” to describe the process of measuring the effects of marketing efforts and the rate at which they convert consumers to achieve desired consumer outcomes. Consumer outcomes are not the only measure of ROI; the ulti­mate goal is an improved patient experience and potentially improved health outcomes. But attri­bution can serve as a crucial indicator. A simple example would be analyzing the click-through rates of marketing emails to determine what messaging is most effective. Attribution analysis is a critical component of measuring the financial ROI of spending on digital marketing in healthcare—and most providers and systems today are early in the process of building out their marketing-attribution capabilities. As a result, the CFO and CMO are often misaligned on what works, which can greatly affect marketing’s budget allocation.

Successful attribution is founded on the cross-departmental collaboration modeled and facilitated by the C-suite. Specifically, attribution requires marketing and IT to partner closely to, for example, provide marketing the ability to connect how individual digital channels (such as paid media or the provider’s website) are driving new patient appointments booked via phone calls or online.

Industry regulations require that healthcare data be anonymized, but that does not preclude it from being measured. (For more on three of the most ubiquitous marketing-attribution methods that meet the industry’s criteria for healthcare consumer data, see sidebar, “Common marketing-attribution methods and their application to healthcare.”)

It’s not surprising that healthcare providers increas­ingly see marketing as a growth driver. Modern tech­nology, approaches, and collaborative structures can help CMOs pivot the perception and performance of the marketing function away from being a cost center and toward measurable bottom-line gains while improving the healthcare consumer experience.

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