Prairie Dog

What if advertising is the wrong answer?

In all my years of health care marketing my biggest pet peeve is the tendency to jump immediately to tactics. We see it all the time in our work with health systems around the country.

See if these marketing requests (or directives) sound familiar:

  • STALLED MYCHART REGISTRATIONS. The folks in charge of MyChart place a call to marketing saying that registration is simply not going up as it should. In fact, it has stalled at around 30 percent. We need a consumer and patient campaign to give enrollment a boost.
  • DECLINING OP IMAGING BUSINESS. The free-standing OP diagnostic imaging centers are stealing our business. Could you put together a brochure to communicate our value?
  • MAJOR COMPETITOR MOVING IN NEXT DOOR. A nationally known, locally dominant cancer program just announced plans to build in our part of the market. We need you to develop a consumer campaign to get ahead of them.

You probably noticed all three have one thing in common. The requested solution for each of these problems was advertising or communications materials.

I think that tells us a bit about how we’re understood by many in our organizations.

Health care marketing has never been regarded as the most strategic part of the organization by our colleagues in certain areas of the health system. And when we jump straight to tactics, primarily advertising and communications, we are not helping our case.

A lot of tactics. Too little marketing.

A couple of years back at one of our national conferences, the speaker, who was presenting on how they had developed their health system brand strategy opened with this, “You are not marketers, you are storytellers.”

There was no market research mentioned. No review of strategic choices. Only a campaign and a new tagline. When asked, during the Q&A, about research – the answer was “we know this market like the back of our hands, we didn’t feel the need.”

This was a speaker at a national marketing conference. Saying, oh, let’s just jump to tactics.

Marketing is not storytelling. Marketing is not advertising. Marketing is not content. Marketing is not digital. Marketing, however, is possibly the most widely misunderstood business topic in the managerial world today.

We are obsessed with tactics. We too often run right past diagnosis and strategy.

We need to get back to marketing. To paraphrase Peter Drucker, marketing is the way we connect our organization to the audience. Connecting must be grounded in market orientation and carried out through the marketing process.

If we are market-oriented, we are naturally compelled to follow the marketing process:


It is essential to follow the process in sequence without skipping a step. Each step informs the next. DIAGNOSIS makes sure we understand our audience, our organization and the problem we must solve. It informs our STRATEGY which determines where to plan and how to win. And when we get to TACTICS, we consider the entire marketing mix necessary to execute our Strategy, all “4Ps” – product, place, price, and marketing communications – not only marketing communications. Finally our MEASUREMENT tells us if we effectively solved the problem and helps us learn for improvement.

Let’s go back to our three requests for a second.

  • STALLED MYCHART REGISTRATIONS. Instead of jumping straight to the registration campaign, the marketing process was put in play. During diagnosis, we found the reason for the stall was not acquisition. They were averaging 50 calls or web inquiries per week from patients with failed registration attempts. There was no one following up. Fixing this issue became our marketing problem to solve. Advertising would have only compounded the problem.
  • DECLINING OP IMAGING BUSINESS. Diagnosis made it clear that pricing adjustments, not a brochure about their exceptional value, was the right solution for the imaging defections to the OP imaging competitors. The health system’s fees were considerably higher than its free-standing competitors.
  • MAJOR COMPETITOR MOVING IN NEXT DOOR. After diagnosis, there was no consumer advertising campaign to combat the invading cancer power. Instead, we focused on retaining all oncology referrals from our client’s massive, employed physician group — there were significant leakages due to medical staff issues and partner contracts. This meant finding a new medical director — a barrier to referrals, changing a few partnerships that had contributed to leakage, improving the intake process, and targeting our marketing communications and sales efforts to our employed docs and their patients. The result — an incremental increase of 792 patients in the first 12 months. And a CEO who suddenly viewed marketing in a whole new light.

Forces will always try to push you directly to tactics. RESIST. Be a champion for the marketing process. Make sure you’re solving the right problem with the right solution. DIAGNOSIS, STRATEGY, TACTICS AND MEASUREMENT is the way to greater respect and value in your health system.

Jerry Hobbs

Jerry Hobbs is a marketing strategist and the president of Prairie Dog, a national health care marketing group headquartered in Kansas City.