The Difference Between Lightning and Lightning Bugs

Silas Deane, for HealthLeaders Media , April 16, 2008

CEO’s count the number of patients beds filled, pharmacists calculate the correct dose of prescriptions, and nurses verify patient satisfaction and other vital statistics—but, as much as I hate to admit it, the marketing of medical services is the soft science of the healthcare business.

While most people fundamentally agree that marketing is a necessity when it comes to competing for dollars, the often unmeasurable aspects of marketing rarely fare well on the CFO’s balance sheet. I would like to blame the CFO or CEO for not seeing past the numbers, but I can’t because the marketing professionals have presented the information to them.

Don’t get me wrong, as a healthcare marketer myself, I am partly responsible for this dilemma. I have seen and presented many great marketing reports and numbers that validate how many people were exposed to a hospital brand, eyeballs that came to the website, increases in patient satisfaction or procedures, or how many media impressions were developed in a public relations campaign. But even with all those facts, no matter how you slice and dice it, the bottom line is always that a marketing program is intuitive. These are hard facts that actually make marketing soft. You just “know” if it's working or not. You just “know” if the money you spend on building your name is driving more patients and customers to you, or if your sales team is getting more leads—your success is completely dependent on others’ ability to close the sale or deliver the care and, as a result, impact the balance sheet.

However, most people--especially any good CEO, CFO, or venture capital group—know that a good, targeted marketing plan can make the difference between a good company and a great one; or as Mark Twain said, "The difference between lightning and the lightning bug."

When working with countless for-profit healthcare companies and non-profit organizations, my team nearly always finds a marketing department that has a plan full of great intentions, novel ideas, good brainstorming, and imaginative concepts. These are intelligent teams filled with enthusiastic, creative people.

Unfortunately, we almost always find that the marketing plan in place is either ineffectively targeting the key buying audience or outdated. In addition, the marketing staffs often sidetrack their priorities to complete more immediate tasks. The marketing department is also usually the most under-funded, and most likely managed by people who have other internal-oriented duties within the organization, such as planning employee events and managing activities that do nothing to bring in more patients or clients.

As someone who thinks there is no greater satisfaction than converting a CFO or CEO into a marketing evangelist, I firmly believe that the soft science of marketing doesn't necessarily equate to bad science. As a matter of fact, market positioning and market awareness is a key determining factor in the success or failure of a company. It isn't just about a product or service anymore; it's about market perceptions. Creative and effective marketing can make the difference.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind as you go forward with your marketing programs:

Target your audience. Make sure your marketing team has a plan to know and target your potential customers and make it your marketing team's goal to find out everything they can about them—where they get their purchasing decision information, what they read, how they think and why/when they buy. This is the most critical element to an effective marketing program.

Invest in marketing and use PR. When I got my MBA, I was taught that companies should plan to spend 8-12% of their revenues–not profits–on marketing. For most companies that percentage is way too high. For a company trying to gain market share in any highly competitive marketplace, it's probably too low. A good marketing team and program can get by on less, but they really have to think outside the box and be aggressive. Use public relations as much as possible. PR levels the playing field and has a higher credibility factor.

Mix your marketing outreach tactics. There are an unlimited number of tools in the marketing tool belt, so don't just rely on advertising, direct mail, or phone calls. Advertising, no doubt, casts the biggest net and that is why so many do it. It is the carpet-bomb approach to marketing. While target marketing can be more difficult, the reward is much higher. Mix it up. Introduce direct mail, public relations, online programs, search engine positioning, effective trade show networking, speaking engagements, and other marketing tactics into your campaign. But always keep it strategic, focused, on-message, and highly targeted.

Consider outsourcing key marketing programs. It's not as expensive as most think, or at least it doesn't have to be. There are a lot of strategic marketing firms out there that specialize in the healthcare industry that have public relations experts, direct mail strategists, or Internet marketing gurus on staff. Such companies thrive when they work on behalf of their clients and don't get distracted by internal company issues. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, "Your success is our success."

Separate your “sales and marketing” approach. All too often you see a company sales executive struggle to build a sustainable marketing program or develop a company positioning strategy; usually under the title of vice president of sales and marketing. The two skill sets, however, couldn't be more different.

Marketing is a support function. It is about bringing leads, sustaining momentum and building a brand. The marketing team usually looks much further out in its search for leads, through trade show positioning and media relations, and is usually more concerned with customer satisfaction after the sale.

Sales is about being the best you can be at developing and closing leads, working the up-front relationship and keeping the pipeline full. When the two skill sets work together in a strategic way, they can be extremely effective--but don’t confuse the two.

Execute. Building your marketing program is a sustained goal, not a destination. It's easy to become too focused on developing the right plan that is going to spark the market and ultimately lose sight of whether you can actually implement the plan.

The difference between lightning bugs and lightning is the perfect analogy to marketing since the goal of marketing is to illuminate a company, services or an entity. Both shed light and both are fun to watch—but given the choice I will take the energy from the lightning any day!

Silas Deane is the president of Logic Media Group, a full-service healthcare marketing, advertising, PR, and online strategy firm based in Nashville, TN.


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