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The Number One Reason That Hospital Advertising Fails

By Stewart Gandolf, Chief Executive Officer

"Failed" stampRight up front we need to say that there aren't any absolute "guarantees" about results in hospital advertising, or healthcare marketing for that matter.

At best, you can use proven strategies and tactics, draw on professional experience and take other practical safeguards to minimize risk. But guarantees? Steer clear of anyone who offers you that bridge to Brooklyn.

For one thing, marketing, advertising and sales (i.e., attracting and retaining new patients) is a complex process. There are about a million moving parts and just about as many reasons why a medical marketing initiative can fail to produce the desired results.

We often see examples of well-intended and expensive hospital advertising that didn't live up to expectations. (Sadly we hear this story after the fact, when a prospective client is calling for our help.)

Perhaps the top reason that hospital advertising fails is when "general" advertising is deployed, and not using "direct response" advertising. Too often, decision makers fail to appreciate the difference between these advertising approaches. And what's more, it's a mistake that also occurs in medical marketing, doctor and physician marketing and advertising, and with both private practitioners and institutions.

"If it doesn't sell, it isn't advertising."

With surprising frequency, the sad story goes something like this.

In the high level planning stage, the goal is to produce new patients or new business revenue by a defined measure or amount. So far, so good. A specific and measurable goal is a good start.

But where things begin to go off track is when the road diverges. One pathway—which is assumed to be the proper choice—is to undertake "general" advertising. After all, it's prevalent, popular and all the big corporations and major advertisers do it all the time.

General advertising is also known as image advertising, brand messaging, name awareness advertising and other labels. Typically, the emphasis is on being creative or clever, and it is propelled by a large media budget for maximum audience, reach and repetition. "If we just get our name out there, people will come," someone tells us. That's what they thought.

The general advertising pathway is tempting. Its mission is mainly to promote an image, and pure image ads have an ego appeal for, and often flatter, the advertiser. Although it has its place in advertising, this is usually not the best approach to effectively win new patients and/or new sales.

Contrast that concept with the path that is typically more suitable for hospitals: direct response advertising. Essentially, direct response is a "best practices" advertising approach that is both far more scientific and effective at generating patients than the general model.

The objective of direct response is to open specific revenue channels and generate new business. Done right, brand awareness can be a secondary benefit. The advertising message targets the prospective buyer, provides a solution to their need or problem and motivates them to act now.

"If it doesn't sell, it isn't creative."

Image advertising can be seductively unique, creative and, by industry standards, award winning. And while awards may generate new business for the ad agency, the main objective is to win new business that benefits the hospital. Return-on-Investment (ROI) for the hospital or advertiser—not ad industry awards—is the measure of success.

A general advertising message can feel good, be visually appealing and/or evoke an emotional moment (good things by the way). But if it does not produce tangible results, a "feel-good" moment isn't something that can be tracked or measured.

By definition, direct response advertising intends to cause a response directly back to the advertiser...to call for an appointment for example. And when someone responds, it is a measure of effectiveness. And, over time, ROI can be calculated down to the dime.

If your objective is results-based healthcare marketing-with measurable, provable outcome-don't make the classic mistake of opting for image or general advertising to do the job. High image techniques and professional qualities from general advertising can be incorporated with proven principles of direct response. But direct response and ROI needs to be in the driver's seat.

The tug-of-war between "general" versus "direct response" advertising has been around, in one form or another, for years. Ad industry patriarch David Ogilvy began teaching about these differences decades ago.

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