A New Vision of Healthcare Marketing as Online Community Building

By The SHSMD Team posted 06-28-2016 02:17 PM


In the story from Greek Mythology, Narcissus saw his reflection in a pool of water and fell in love with it. His love of his image would eventually become his downfall. Unable to leave the beauty of his reflection, he drowned. The story of Narcissus’ attraction to his own image reminds me of the fixation that some health systems, hospitals and physicians have with seeing themselves featured on billboards, TV commercials, and print ads. If you’ve worked in healthcare marketing for more than a few months, you’ve undoubtedly faced requests from some service line leader who wants to see a photo of himself or his team prominently featured in an ad. It is an old, familiar story.

As a matter of practice, the marketing generated by healthcare organizations has been, and continues to be, extremely narcissistic. Our ads, brochures, websites and billboards all scream: “Look at us” and “We’re Number One.” There is little regard given to how this resonates (or doesn’t resonate) with the potential patient. Within our marketing we talk about ourselves – our world-class physicians, leading edge technology, advanced services and amazing medicine. We are pushers of inwardly focused content and, for the most part, have lost sight of what really matters: the patients and families whom we serve.

Even with the advent of social media platforms, we have continued the practice of pushing content about our organizations. Despite the fact that social and digital platforms are ideal for listening, engaging and having conversations, we have treated these channels as new opportunities for content distribution – and content distribution alone. The true promise of social media and digital platforms continues to lay dormant.

Our organizations, at least as they are presented through marketing communications, remind me of that friend who only talks about himself. He never asks about you and how things are going in your life. Every time you get together it is all about him. Do you find those kinds of people to be interesting? Yet this is how most hospitals and health systems come across through their marketing.

To be fair, one thing I have learned directly from patients is that they place a high value on reliable, high quality health information. Aren’t we satisfying an important need by constantly spewing our content in their direction? Not entirely. The manner in which the information is shared is important. Context matters. It is the difference between marketing “at” the individual versus marketing “with” the individual. So here’s some context: Consumers today live in a world where effective marketing doesn’t happen to them; rather, if done right, they are participants in the marketing. They engage in the experience. They follow, like, Tweet, share, pin, snap, comment and post. In this environment, narcissism is the enemy of engagement. Trying to capture consumers’ attention by simply spewing content in their direction is nearly impossible and an extremely expensive proposition.

Your content is far more likely to be engaged if it is presented in a platform or manner that invites conversations, questions and sharing. We need to make the consumer an active participant in the marketing. From my perspective, that is best accomplished when the marketer adopts a “community building” mindset. As healthcare marketers and communicators, we need to transition from pushers of content to facilitators of important conversations and creators of safe environments where consumers can have important conversations about health, access quality health information, meet our clinicians and engage with others who are facing similar health challenges. Much of that can be done within online patient support communities.

Online Health Communities Come In All Shapes and Sizes
Select any health topic and you will find a variety of online platforms where people gather for information, support, validation and camaraderie. These communities can take the form of an online patient support forum, blog, private Facebook group, Twitter chat, LinkedIn Group or even a website. Examples are everywhere. There are disease specific communities for cancer patients (MD Anderson’s CancerWise Blog; Cancer Compass; Cancer Survivors Network; ACOR online communities) and diabetes patients (Diabetic Connect). For the rare disease community there is PatientsLikeMe, Inspire.com, RareConnect, and NORD’s Rare Disease Communities.

More Than Digital Platforms
The value of community building extends far beyond the limits of online patient platforms. We would be far better off as marketers if we let the principles of community building influence everything we do – from how we manage our social media platforms to the ways in which we design our websites. It has been my experience that a community building mindset leads to the development of marketing environments where relationships can be forged and the thoughtful sharing of information can take place. It is within these environments that your messaging can flourish and healthcare consumers can deepen their engagement with your organization’s brand. By engaging potential patients within these community platforms you create the possibility for real communication to take place and information to be exchanged; importantly, you create value for the healthcare consumer by offering a full marketing experience.

By Dan Dunlop | June 28, 2016
SHSMD Digital Engagement Task Force Member
Chapel Hill, NC