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In healthcare marketing, digital spend is going up. But is it spent wisely?

The secret’s out about digital marketing in healthcare—that is, if the marketing budgets of leading healthcare systems are any indication.

Ascension Health, the nation’s largest non-profit hospital organization, is doubling down on a digital approach to reaching its patients. Ascension’s chief marketing officer predicts that their digital vs. traditional marketing split will approach 50/50 within the next few years.

New York’s Northwell Health is following suit. The organization has multiplied its digital ad spending almost twentyfold from its 2015 levels.

With all this money flowing toward digital, marketing executives at other systems may wonder: why is digital rising so fast? Is it destined to dominate the future of healthcare marketing? Will there still be a role for traditional advertising in hospitals’ marketing mix?

And most crucial of all—what will it take to make these channels successful?

The rise of digital marketing

To anyone in a marketing position, a handful of statistics makes the appeal of digital pretty obvious.

Consider, for instance, that 5% of all Google searches are for health-related concerns. That’s 280 million searches every day. The sheer scale of this statistic makes the mind reel—and points to clear opportunities for health systems that manage to appear in those search results.

Mobile phones make these search opportunities even more valuable. According to Google’s research, 80% of patient encounters with a health system start with a mobile-phone search. Even more remarkable, 44% of those searchers eventually end up booking an appointment. Small wonder that hospitals contend so fiercely for top spots in mobile search rankings.

Lastly, social media also stokes marketers’ growing appetite for digital spending: 76% of adult internet users log in to Facebook every day. These users actively hunt for content on their Facebook news feeds, and 41% of them say that the content they see influences their healthcare decisions. That kind of exposure is invaluable for health systems.

Why traditional advertising will never go away

Given digital’s formidable figures, it may seem like digital spending could threaten to squeeze traditional advertising out of the marketing mix altogether.

Not the case. Traditional marketing channels have important capabilities that digital channels can’t duplicate.

Different demographics

For one, digital advertising skews young. Older consumers are less-enthusiastic consumers of internet-based content, and they’re very keyed-in to legacy media for information about their world. An exclusively digital spend strategy would miss these consumers, and that would be a wasted opportunity.

The local imprint

Secondly, digital advertising can’t match traditional advertising for community impact. Ads in local niche publications, sponsorship of events in the surrounding area, spots on local TV and radio stations, and billboards looming proudly over city streets—all of these help organizations build a sense of community presence.

This is particularly important for healthcare, because it’s an intrinsically local business, and patients want their hospital to feel like a force for good in their area. Traditional advertising helps organizations weave themselves into the life of a community, which is crucial for building long-term relationships with consumers.

Integrate digital and traditional—but do it with intention

So, it’s not an either/or proposition. Both digital and traditional marketing have a lot to offer health systems that want to connect with their customers.

But neither method should be used haphazardly. Neither digital nor traditional marketing should be pursued in a vacuum—rather, they must always be considered in the broader contexts of consumer loyalty and an organization’s operational constraints.

Examined this way, both traditional and digital channels have their weaknesses along with their strengths. Human understanding is how marketing teams can offset them.

Traditional marketing is expensive. Test it first.

The sheer expense of traditional marketing may  explain its recent relative decline in marketing budgets. Prices for ads in TV, radio, and print vastly outweigh the costs of paid-per-click (PPC) advertising.

To achieve an effective ROI, then, health system marketers should ensure that their traditional messages will resonate with their consumers. Testing, in short, is essential.

This is where NRC Health’s Market Insights can help. With respondents in 310,000 households across more than 300 markets, Market Insights is the single largest healthcare consumer database in the country. Leaders can use it to focus in on specific concerns for their markets, and discern the effectiveness of their marketing messages—before an expensive rollout.

Augusta University Health, an NRC Health partner in Augusta, Georgia, did exactly that. Through Market Insights’ customized surveys, leaders at AU Health discovered specific areas of confusion for their consumers.

Subsequent surveys helped them refine their traditional advertising to correct this confusion. The end results—a series of video and print ads—had a 91% favorability rating among consumers, and boosted AU Health’s top-of-mind awareness from 13% to 34%.

It’s these types of success that keep a traditional advertising strategy afloat, even in a largely digital world.

“Every new creative campaign we do, we have ad testing completed through NRC Health,” says Aubrey Hinkson, AU Health’s AVP of marketing. “There is no more question of whether we have the time or the resources to do it. It’s just part of our process. Those consumer insights drive our creative strategy.”

Digital marketing is labor-intensive. Simplify it.

Though costs for digital ads represent pennies on traditional advertising’s dollar, they consume another vital commodity: the time of staff members.

The demands of digital easily balloon into heavy workloads, and producing healthcare content can be an onerous and time-consuming chore. For the effort to be worthwhile, it’s important that hospitals find ways to streamline content operations where they can.

NRC Health’s Transparency solution automates an important part of the content-production process, by enabling health systems to publish patient reviews directly on their websites.

These reviews are the content that consumers are hungriest for. By keeping these reviews coming in (while automatically filtering out libelous or abusive ones), Transparency feeds the search-optimization machine that keeps health systems on top of Google results.

University of Arkansas Medical Sciences Hospital, for instance, saw great results when they deployed Transparency across their system. They spent zero time or money promoting the initiative to the public—and still saw an immediate 28% increase in their search traffic.

Integrate traditional and digital with us

The cost and the workload of marketing channels are far from the only issues that arise when healthcare marketers consider the future of their field. But marketing executives do have one certainty: that the success of any marketing tactic will depend on how well an organization understands its customers.

In the long run, it’s not the ratio of digital to traditional spending in your marketing budget that means most; it’s the consumer intelligence you have on hand when it comes time to make those expenditures count. Gathering that intelligence—and using it judiciously—is precisely where NRC Health can help health systems thrive.