COVID-19: Healthcare Marketing Adjustments to Make in Response to Coronavirus

Our team at Healthcare Success is currently advising clients about how they should adjust their marketing efforts in response to the COVID-19 national emergency, and I thought I would share some of our thinking with readers like you as well.

Stewart Gandolf, CEO, Healthcare Success photo

Stewart Gandolf, CEO, Healthcare Success

These are fast-changing and confusing times. Remember, SXSW was canceled on March 6.  By March 9, multiple California universities had suspended classes. On March 16, 2020, President Trump urged Americans to Avoid gathering in groups of more than ten people“. By March 21, New York hospitals had reached a “tipping point.”

If you support Healthcare Marketing, your medical triage teams are bracing for a rush of COVID-19 patients. Marketing professionals need to think first about the communications implications of COVID/Coronavirus, like how to support the hospital’s leadership role in the community, how to use the hospital’s resources to inform the public (including digital marketing & social media, websites, and advertising campaigns), and how to prepare for any crises that might arise.

Healthcare practice leaders must decide first whether or not it makes sense to stay open during the COVID-19 crisis. That decision will vary based upon the specialty, practice philosophy, and circumstances. Clearly, those medical specialties that serve patients with pressing, serious health needs will need to stay open, while other elective-based medical practices may decide to close partially or fully during the crisis. The US Surgeon General, American College of Surgeons, Medicare, and ADA all have asked healthcare providers to delay elective medical and dental procedures to save medical supplies for more urgent uses and to help reduce virus exposure.

“How Should We Adapt or Shift Our Healthcare Marketing Efforts and Marketing Budgets During the COVID-19 Emergency?”

Every hospital and medical practice is unique, but here are some marketing communications guidelines to help you think through the various issues. Before we proceed, let’s clarify that when we speak of marketing, we are not thinking of just advertising.

Remember that there are six ways to market hospitals or medical practices, fundamentally:

1. Branding, 2. Digital Marketing, 3. Traditional Advertising, 4. Doctor Referral Marketing/Building, 5. Internal Marketing/Patient Experience, and 6. Public Relations (including press and community communications).

I would argue that hospitals and larger medical practices cannot “not market.” Some marketing issues, like branding, doctor referrals, and patient experience, need to be ongoing. Remember, hospitals continually influence their brands by their patient experience and the services they provide to the community.

What’s more, hospitals will want to make sure their public relations teams are communicating openly and proactively to their respective communities through the local and regional press during these unsettling times.

You may then ask, “What about our digital marketing and traditional advertising/marketing budgets?”

Let’s consider medical digital marketing strategies first.

  1. Websites: Most healthcare practices and hospitals should post a COVID-19 notice on their website, advising the public about how they are responding to the pandemic situation. Here is an example of a home page notice and COVID-19 response that we posted on behalf of one of our clients.
  2. Search Engine Optimization (SEO/Organic Marketing): SEO’s a long-term investment that should generally continue on an ongoing basis. We are advising some of our clients to pause a portion of their traditional advertising and invest those marketing dollars into enterprise healthcare SEO and website improvements.
  3. Reputation Management: Hopefully, you already have a reputation marketing management and social media monitoring program in place. These efforts will be vital to maintain and enhance your reputation, now, during COVID/Coronavirus disease, and in the coming months.
  4. Paid Search Marketing: (e.g., Google pay-per-click): Hospitals and practices that are open for business and running well-optimized paid search campaigns should usually continue these efforts. Remember, while demand today might be lower, you will only pay for clicks from people who are currently searching for the services you provide.
  5. Organic “Free” Social Media: Many of your patients and prospective patients will be home over the coming weeks, with more time to search for answers about their healthcare problems. Please ensure your organic social media and content (online content and print content) are both helpful and effectively relevant to today’s new reality.
  6. Paid display advertising and paid social media: Your broader strategy will dictate whether you should continue with or pause digital advertising. If you are looking to build your brand or inform the public, digital advertising (including Google Display Network, YouTube – see Healthcare Marketing and COVID webinar featuring Healthcare Success on YouTube, Spotify, Pandora, programmatic buys, CTV/OTT) can still make a lot of sense. However, if you are looking for direct response (immediate ROI), your marketing dollars might be better invested into some of the other categories we’re describing here.
  7. Like digital advertising, traditional advertising (TV, radio, print) may be appropriate in these uncertain times if your objective is to enhance your brand or educate the public. However, tactical direct response advertising designed to generate new patient inquiries for elective surgeries should probably wait.

9 Tips to Guide Your Healthcare Marketing Going Forward

Here are some additional, critical Medical Marketing tips to consider:

  1. The human and economic toll of this COVID-19 is already profound, and it will likely get worse in the near-term. When this healthcare crisis eventually passes, things will never be the same within the healthcare sector. Now, then, is the time to provide much-needed healthcare leadership by communicating clearly to help the public understand what is going on. Remember that your healthcare brand is much more than your logo or what you say in your advertising. Instead, you define your brand every day by the actions you take and the value you bring. Take this opportunity to reinforce your mission – most of which probably involves caring for your community. Show the public how your brand’s medical mission corresponds with your efforts to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus disease and treat patients stricken with COVID-19. Do the right things now, and consequently, you will build your medical organization’s branding for the long-term.
  2. Your growing thought leadership will also provide you with a unique opportunity to grow your rankings on Google. Take this time to double down on longer-term search engine optimization, both with technical improvements and great healthcare services content.
  3. When things slow down a little, you can also take some time to invest in strategic, tactical or creative marketing initiatives you haven’t been able to focus on until now.
  4. If you need to make adjustments to your media plan, be sure to talk to your marketing agency. They can negotiate with the various TV stations, radio stations, newspapers, and magazines to see if they can get concessions or postponements on some of your pre-existing contracts. Your marketing agency or marketing department should also devise a plan to move quickly to seize discounted media and other marketing budget opportunities once the crisis passes.
  5. Make sure your healthcare marketing agency is actively optimizing your digital marketing campaigns for the new reality. Ask if they are making adjustments based upon real-time results, the evolving landscape, and your broader objectives.
  6. Chances are you have postponed some community events. If so, take this opportunity to test digital alternatives, such as webinars, videoconferences, and podcasts.
  7. Consider if this is an opportune time to test integrating telemedicine into your business (if you haven’t already). Beyond protecting your patients and staff from unnecessary virus exposure, you will likely find patients also appreciate the convenience of having telemedicine options.
  8. Make sure your creative messaging (i.e., your medical content) is appropriate for our new reality. Above all, build trust and stay empathetic to what people are going through. You want to make sure something that was once a clever pun doesn’t now sound offensive or out of touch.
  9. Remember, although you might need to adjust some of your marketing efforts, it doesn’t mean you should stop marketing altogether. Many people suddenly have a lot of time on their hands, and they are looking for guidance for their healthcare problems.

Right now, it is essential to both serve and inform the public. It is also an opportunity to ethically and effectively position your hospital, healthcare network or medical practice for the future.

COVID and Healthcare Marketing — related articles: Webinar & Podcast: COVID-19 Healthcare Marketing Questions  |  5 Ways You Can Use Social Media and Digital Marketing to Help the Public During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Stewart Gandolf
Chief Executive Officer at Healthcare Success
Stewart Gandolf, MBA, is Chief Executive Officer of Healthcare Success, one of the nation's leading healthcare and digital marketing agencies. Over the past 20 years, Stewart has marketed and consulted for over 1,000 healthcare clients, ranging from practices and hospitals to multi-billion dollar corporations. A frequent speaker, Stewart has shared his expertise at over 200 venues nationwide. As an author and expert resource, Stewart has also written for many leading industry publications, including the 21,000 subscriber Healthcare Success Insight blog. Stewart also co-authored, "Cash-Pay Healthcare: Start, Grow & Perfect Your Cash-Pay Healthcare Business." Stewart began his career with leading advertising agencies, including J. Walter Thompson, where he marketed Fortune 500 clients such as Wells Fargo and Bally's Total Fitness.

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