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Pretty Poison: When Graphics Kill Your Healthcare Marketing Message

By Stewart Gandolf, Chief Executive Officer

toxic stampSix fatal design flaws that can muzzle your results-and what to do instead.

The effectiveness of even good-looking marketing materials can be poisoned by any of these classic design flaws. Here's how to spot the most common art and visual mistakes in the making and what to do instead.

It's practically impossible to describe excellent healthcare marketing materials.

It is an elusive mix of creativity that brings together exactly the right combination of words, images, color, space, and a hundred other things to produce a medical service brochure, an upscale magazine ad or a hospital website.

Perhaps "good" is best defined as what works effectively and efficiently for a specific purpose and a specific audience. Great design and superb copy work together seamlessly. The meaning is clear, the message is compelling, and the reader is involved and motivated.

But watch out for the "pretty poison" — design mistakes that might look good, but are fatal to your healthcare marketing message. Even exceptional writing is never read when the art, visuals, and/or graphics are out of whack.

Here are some of the classic killers we've seen in our consulting experience, plus a few words of guidance about what to do instead.

1. Mistaking "pretty" for effective.

Unfortunately, the subjective likes and dislikes of you and/or your staff don't count. The objective is to communicate effectively, not win a design contest. And the real test is if the target audience sees and responds in the way you planned.

Instead: Put your personal taste aside - you are not the audience. You're going for a graphic "look-and-feel" that appeals to the people you w ant to notice your message. It is possible to test marketing effectiveness, and ultimately, it is TRACKING that decides Return-on-Investment.

2. Assume any visual will do; just make the words support the art.

This is when someone picks a "cute" visual first and then writes the headline and text as an attempt at context. We've seen hospital billboards and medical care ads where, for example, the main visual was a kid on a playground sliding board; the (painfully contrived) headline was: "Don't let your primary care healthcare decisions slide." It's down right painful to think of the wasted media dollars and unrecoverable opportunity.

Instead: Think of your audience and your message first. Visuals, headlines and text must work together smoothly. Don't expect the reader to de-code a message using out of place graphics, or thought-tripping heads and text. Blend words and visuals that connect with the reader and communicate a benefit.

3. Poor layout means poor eye flow, and that equals lost patients.

Out-of-control layout — when the type or pictures are too large or too small for example — disguises your message amid visual confusion. The reader doesn't know where to look first, or how to follow what's presented. In the mind of the reader, it's just easier to ignore a "jumbled" presentation.

Instead: Readability is the test. Keep visuals, heads, and text areas in balance and easy for the eye to track on the page or screen. Occasional emphasis or highlights are OK using bold type, sub-heads, and white space. Overall, reading the brochure, healthcare advertisement or blog must have a natural flow to the message.

4. Over-do everything

If the design is overwhelming, it's too much. Using every design trick in the Graphic

Artist's Handbook isn't a plus-it's a net zero. Like throwing-in everything on the spice rack in the hope the soup will taste better.

Instead: Begin with a minimalist approach to graphics and design. The techniques which sell the message are those that give accent and understanding without overpowering.

5. Bland is not beautiful.

The design opposite of "over-do" is graphic understatement. We see this when a medical group, healthcare practice or hospital doesn't want to appear to be doing ads that are "noisy" or "unprofessional." The downside result is a marketing message is too bland to grab any attention at all. Low profile becomes no profile, with no results.

Instead: Good taste and professional messaging in medical marketing can be done effectively without graphically screaming or whispering. Here's where engaging headlines, interesting visuals, tasteful use of color and contrast can carry the point..

6. Your sister-in-law can do it.

No in-law disrespect intended, don't look for a shortcut. If your relative (friend, colleague, neighbor, or bowling partner) isn't a trained, professional, graphic artist experienced in marketing and advertising, they are likely to make these mistakes or others. For best results, use an Art Director level graphic artist WITH a professional copywriter. (Copy is where the results really come from, but that is a subject for another day.)

Instead: There are really only two options; either use an experienced creative team, or save your money. This is where artistic talent meets the canvas. At best, it's not easy to create effective materials with the right blend and balance of compelling text and excellent graphics and visuals. It's even harder to critique your own work.

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