Sophisticated. That’s the first word that comes to mind when describing the healthcare industry. Providing an array of health services ranging from general health promotion, prevention (e.g., vaccines, cancer screenings), rehabilitation, to obstetrics, therapeutic interventions, and even emergency care, healthcare poses a unique challenge to marketers unlike any other industry.

However sophisticated, these services are vital to the well-being of our communities, and hospitals and health systems need marketing strategy and execution to help maintain an engaged, healthy population within these communities.

To design marketing strategies and deliver content programming that separates your hospital or health system from the growing crowd of providers and engages consumers in a way that guides them through their health journey, you likely need the help of a marketing agency. But every agency is different, with varying specialties, tools, and ultimately, results.

To achieve the positive results desired for your hospital, it’s necessary to understand the differences between a traditional advertising agency (that services healthcare clients) and a healthcare marketing agency.

Four Key Differences Between a Traditional Advertising Agency and a Healthcare Marketing agency.

  1. One is derived from competitor analysis; the other is derived from human understanding.

Healthcare marketing as a term and practice arose from the realization that conventional marketing techniques can be insufficient when it comes to the nuanced, personalized nature of health services and products often tailored to the specific needs of consumers. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for these strategies, such as brand awareness, lead generation, and sales techniques. They’re simply built from different ingredients.

Traditional advertising prioritizes competitor analysis, whereas healthcare marketing must come from consumer, or patient, understanding. Knowing your stakeholders is one way to promote commercial products, but it is the only way to promote health products or services such as a medical procedure that only applies to a small segment of your population. Analyzing purchasing behaviors is quite different than health behaviors, and healthcare marketers are much more attuned to the health journeys of patients and the complexity of the services needed or that could be needed in their future.

2. One is more concerned with creative execution; the other is focused on nurturing patient competency and well-being.

There’s two ways to grab someone’s attention. Content so outrageous, or different, than your competitors. Or content that gives consumers exactly what they’re looking for. In healthcare, the latter is more important—it’s the only way to increase competency and ultimately positive health outcomes. The new challenge facing hospitals and health systems across the country is knowing the communities they serve, even so far as designing community outreach programs. Traditional marketing strategies simply aren’t robust enough to tackle this challenge by themselves.

An advertising agency strives to make you stand out in the crowd. A healthcare marketing agency creates messaging that resonates with your crowd—your community. In healthcare, this grabs attention more than flashy, kitschy billboards that can too easily miss the mark. Patients desire the highest quality of care possible for their health and their loved ones and would much rather know your hospital is capable of that than the fact you’re the new hospital in town.

3. One has a deep creative bench; one is equipped for the more nuanced arena of content and messaging.

A successful, traditional advertising agency likely has a slew of outstanding designers and creative thinkers on staff to help position and differentiate a particular product in the marketplace. But not every hospital in America needs a high-end agency to position their brand. In addition to designers and creatives, healthcare marketing agencies may have anthropologists, ethnographers, researchers, and healthcare strategists on their teams ready to face the challenge that is human understanding. As healthcare continues to shift to a patient-centric model, the protocols of ethnography are perfectly designed to empathically engage with patients, realize true burdens of disease, and gather the otherwise hidden context and insights needed to set a foundation for developing impactful, educational patient programming.

4. One is evaluated by its contribution to the bottom line or ROI; the other is measured by timely medical interventions, community (patient) perceptions, health outcomes, and more.

Marketing, or more specifically, advertising is about influencing a consumer’s decision to purchase a commercial product or service. In healthcare, it’s not nearly as clear-cut. For one, the decision-maker behind the “purchase” or choice to undergo a procedure or treatment might not be the patient but could be another stakeholder like a doctor or caregiver. Healthcare marketers must take that into consideration, in addition to the fact that success likely won’t be determined by health services purchased, but instead number of patients admitted, or an increase in clinical trial participants, or less COVID-19 hospitalizations, to name a few.

Which One is Right for You?

Well-being is defined by the individual and the health system that supports them in the community they live in. When you think about where to invest your marketing dollars, the common denominator in healthcare is humans. If you’re looking for a high-level creative strategy to build awareness and position your brand in the community—pretty much any advertising agency will do. But if you want to really listen to the community you serve, it takes an entirely different approach that starts with understanding.

Understanding can then be leveraged into marketing programming and patient-relevant content that encourages them to interact with their health journey. If you’re looking to impact your community, while also creating positive impact financially for the hospital, then you’re better served investing in a firm that prioritizes understanding and has experience in healthcare marketing.

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