Strategic Marketing for Rural Hospitals
By Anne Block, VP of Marketing Communications for CHC
In today’s competitive healthcare market, rural and community hospitals are making do with less. Marketing resources are no exception. It’s not uncommon for smaller hospitals to lack a formal marketing communications function yet still engage in conventional and creative marketing activities. At other hospitals, marketing is one of multiple hats worn by a single person. Case in point: The public relations coordinator who handles marketing for Yoakum Community Hospital—a 23-bed critical access hospital in Yoakum, Texas—also serves as executive assistant and medical staff coordinator, for a total of three formal titles and distinct job functions.
To support its owned and management hospitals, CHC deploys effective marketing strategies even when resources are scarce; and Kathleen Bodden, the aforementioned role juggler at Yoakum Community Hospital, also knows which strategies and tactics are most cost-effective. Their combined experience suggests that strategic marketing provides a greater return on investment than ad hoc marketing in spite and because of the time spent on planning.
Planning for Success—and Surprises
Simply put, what makes marketing strategic is a plan. The plan spells out or takes into account the hospital’s competition, challenges, objectives, target audiences and stakeholders, and it lays out the specific tactics, or marketing activities, that will be used to achieve a measurable result. A strategic marketing plan aligns with the hospital’s business plan—by promoting services the hospital aims to develop or expand, for example. To keep the plan on budget and in alignment, internal or external requests for marketing support require careful consideration, says Bodden, who may turn down a request but build it into the following year’s budget.
A solid plan includes a crisis communications section or is accompanied by a separate plan for the unexpected. It helps hospital representatives respond appropriately, in words and deeds, in the wake of a public-relations need such as a security incident, leadership change or natural disaster.
Brand and Relationship Building
Strategic marketing leverages the hospital’s brand to build loyalty and improve market position. Building and protecting brand equity starts internally by establishing written brand guidelines covering logo use, print and online publications, and messaging. It generally makes sense for rural hospitals to position themselves as community champions in order to build local market share. This involves building relationships or more formal partnerships with local media, businesses and organizations. These partnerships are critical to support community outreach, including co-sponsored events.
Community engagement is one of the most cost-effective marketing strategies for rural and community hospitals. Personal interactions cement a hometown hospital’s position as the place where patients are treated like neighbors.
Small Investment, Big Impact
Strategic marketing maximizes return on investment by leveraging free or inexpensive resources and allocating marketing spend wisely. Content marketing and “local search” are effective tactics for hometown hospitals and are relatively inexpensive. It pays to have a responsive and SEO-friendly (Search Engine Optimization) website, Bodden says, so when someone types in certain keywords, the hospital is at or near the top of the search results.
As an added resource developed by CHC, all CHC and CHC ContinueCARE hospitals can access CHC Marketing Tools, a Google website containing creative templates and customizable articles, blog posts, press releases and social media posts. The website also includes resources such as the Society for Healthcare Strategy and Market Development (SHSMD) health observances by month, for blog and social media ideas, and articles on marketing and SEO best practices.