Marketing to Niche Patients

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Gretchen EcklandIt’s a challenge faced by hospitals and imaging centers alike: Upon implementing a new piece of imaging technology and under pressure to maximize utilization as quickly as possible, raising awareness among the patients most likely to take advantage of that technology becomes critical. This also represents a messaging challenge: How do you most effectively reach a small subset of patients, and how do you suggest that your technology is optimal for them without unintentionally driving them away? Gretchen Eckland, a principal at Schaumberg, Illinois-based marketing company Culture22 says, “There used to be a bigger difference between how other industries marketed and how health care marketed. That gap has really closed. Patients are looking at health care more as they look at other services and products. Consumers have much more information now than they used to, and with more options, it’s not just about whether you have the service—it’s about how that service is delivered. When people have the luxury to decide where they want to go, they want to go somewhere they feel good about going.” This trend puts more pressure than ever before on hospital and imaging-center marketing departments, Eckland observes. “If it looks like a mom-and-pop ad that’s not very sophisticated, people will assume that’s the experience they’ll have at the facility,” she says. “Ten years ago, it was different; now, it’s about the image, and people make decisions based on that.” This includes Web-based marketing; she notes that online activities are great for marketing to selected patient groups, saying, “You can really target them specifically and aren’t under pressure to be broad.” Of course, the same challenges that apply to marketing efforts in general also apply to a facility’s Web presence. “If your website or Web-based advertising doesn’t look very sophisticated, that’s a qualifier for people,” she says. Images of Imaging In a statement likely to appeal to those who have dedicated their professional lives to imaging, Eckland observes that no single factor is more critical to the success of a marketing campaign than its images. “A picture is worth a thousand words,” she says. “We’re seeing a much more consumer-based feel in health-care marketing, and that includes a lot more use of great photography.” Effective deployment of images is complicated, however, in marketing to niche patient groups, such as bariatric or geriatric populations. “You want to use imagery that reflects the patient,” Eckland says. “You don’t want to sugarcoat it or seem like you’re being condescending—such as retail stores that claim to market to plus-size women, but use mannequins that are barely a size 12, or cosmetic companies using a 20–year-old model to sell wrinkle cream. You want to be authentic and real, but you don’t have to be negative.” This is not as counterintuitive as it might sound, Eckland says. As an example, she describes an ad that Culture22 developed for the Oasis boreless MRI system from Hitachi Medical Systems America, Inc (Twinsburg, Ohio), which has applications for bariatric patients who might experience claustrophobia in a conventionally designed MRI. “We did an ad for a bunch of different markets, and the bariatric patient we featured was more like an opera singer—a plus-size woman in a fitted red dress, presented in a proud, beautiful way,” she says. “The key is not being apologetic about the patients’ characteristics, but rather, showing them in their best light.” For pediatric patients, another group for which Culture22 helped develop Oasis marketing materials, appealing to parents is key. Here, too, the right imagery sends a message, Eckland observes. “We have an ad we call the little monster,” she says. “It features a little boy who definitely has a mischievous look on his face. He’s the little monster—he doesn’t want to sit still and will be bouncing around, so getting him into a boreless MRI will be easier. In any niche market, there are inherent truths the market will respond to; when you see the image, you say, ‘OK, they’re talking to me.’” Truths in Advertising The recognition factor—the degree to which patients see themselves and their concerns reflected in marketing materials—also applies to the messaging that accompanies the images, Eckland says. “Being able to identify those little nuggets of truth in a niche market (and being able to address them) is important,” she says. “That’s the key: showing how your facility recognizes those truths and knows how to meet the needs that arise from them.” She uses marketing to geriatric patients as an example. “There’s an important truth to that market. You get people who can be scared of an imaging procedure, or have difficulty with it because the positions may be painful over a long period of time,” she says. “It’s identifying the unique challenges for that patient type and showing how your facility can take care of them—by allowing them to hold their spouse or child’s hand during the imaging procedure, for instance. You’re letting people know that you can make them comfortable.” In the case of pediatric imaging, one core truth is that “Parents are sometimes more scared than the kid,” Eckland observes. Again, assuring the group at which the messaging is targeted—in this case, primarily mothers—that the facility will be able to meet their unique needs is critical to optimizing marketing efforts. “It’s great to let your audience know that you’ve got games to keep kids occupied while they wait, and that they won’t have to leave their kids in the MRI suite alone,” she says. “Be direct with your language and imagery. Let parents know that they and their children will be accommodated there.” Eckland concludes that in an increasingly consumer-driven health-care marketplace, patients are expecting more sophistication in marketing than ever before—and, in turn, are more responsive than ever before to images and messages that reflect the emotions related to their imaging experience. “The amount of resources and thought people put into their marketing sends a message about how they do what they do,” she says. “If you’re not the least expensive facility, you want to offer a good experience to patients. Acknowledging their challenges is key. The right marketing will let them know that they’re welcome there—that they won’t feel like outsiders.” Cat Vasko is editor of and associate editor of Radiology Business Journal.