NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Earlier this year, Sarasota Memorial Hospital live-tweeted a kidney surgery, trading more than 1,900 tweets among followers during the procedure.
Welcome to the new front in medical marketing: hospitals jockeying to position themselves for growth amid a perfect storm of aging baby boomers and a health-care-reform bill that will result in millions more insured patients down the road.
To be sure, the outlays are nowhere near the $4.5 billion in ad dollars dispensed by the direct-to-consumer drug category, but it's picking up where DTC left off as nationally known brands such as the Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, Johns Hopkins, Memorial Sloan-Kettering and Massachusetts General Hospital ramp up spending.
With a combination of co-branding partnerships, reputation advertising, and an increased presence in social media, hospital and medical centers are trying to establish themselves as the go-to place for particular diseases as more patients comparison shop for treatment.
"We used to think of hospitals in terms of geography -- what's closest and how fast can I get there? Now that's not an issue," said Ned Russell, managing director of Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness. "The health-care business is developing its own destination segment."
He noted that "a lot of these national and world-class medical centers have developed their own specialties, and it's become part of their brand value. They need to attract talent and get funding. How do they do that? By increasing their patient base. How do they lure patients? Their advertising. Doesn't seem to matter these days how far away a patient is."
Indeed, 25% of the patients at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., come from 500 miles away or more. To get patients traveling, hospitals are upping the ante. The Cleveland Clinic more than doubled its ad spending from 2008 to 2009, according to Kantar Media, from $3.9 million to $8.5 million. Spending by Sarasota (Fla.) Memorial Health Care System is up 10%, and it's up 15% at Detroit's Henry Ford Health System.
Using their rankings
Many of these hospitals and medical centers have taken their awards and rankings -- particularly the annual influential U.S. News & World Report rankings -- and crafted reputation ads around them to highlight their respective specialties.
New York-based agency DeVito Verdi, for instance, created an emotional print campaign for Mass General that touted its heart and vascular center, with ads that included text such as "A mother's last words shouldn't come before her child's first." The Mayo Clinic has done the same with its transplant services, and Sloan-Kettering in New York has advertised its success in fighting cancer.
"What's happening out there and one of the things fueling all this promotion and advertising is many of them, when they talk to patients and consumers, talk in specialties," said Mike Guarini, president of Ryan TrueHealth, Wilton, Conn., and a longtime pharma ad vet who has worked on both the agency side and the drug-company side with Bristol-Myers Squibb. "I say 'refreshing soda,' you think Coca-Cola. ... I say 'cancer treatment,' you think Sloan-Kettering."
Cleveland Clinic has marketed its renowned heart care and, in fact, has a deal in place with Lowe's to serve as the home-improvement center's preferred provider for heart care. The Mayo Clinic has a similar agreement with Walmart to be the big-box retailer's provider of transplants if a Walmart employee needs one.
"We try to focus on key facts about the Cleveland Clinic," said Paul Matsen, CMO of the clinic, which started a national ad campaign earlier this year from Adworks, Washington, D.C. "So we'll run some targeted stuff about being the national leader in lung transplantations, for instance, but we've also been No. 1 for 15 consecutive years for our heart center. In July, when the new rankings come out, we'll do some new messaging as well."
Part of that messaging will most assuredly come via social media. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center's director of web strategy, Ed Bennett, hospitals have gone from having 250 Twitter accounts in May of 2009 to 552 currently, and from 250 YouTube channels to 341.
"Hospitals realize that word-of-mouth is the most significant driver you can have, so social media is an opportunity to humanize what can be a scary, complex institution," Mr. Bennett said. "I tell hospitals 'Don't get into social media because you think you're going to get more patients. Do it because you're helping be responsible to people reaching out looking for answers.' "
One of the most famous health-care facilities in the country, the 118-year-old Mayo Clinic, now has a social-media manager, Lee Aase. "Social media is the way word-of-mouth happens in the 21st century," he said. "Twitter is just one of the most powerful networking tools that I've ever seen. It enables you to make connections with people that have a common interest."
Role of health-care reform
Social media makes sense for the category considering that potential patients are more empowered than ever to take charge of their treatment by using the web. Twitter "is an informational tool," said Mr. Matsen. "It's not replacing the web or targeted advertising, but it's a great complement. For instance, we've integrated our YouTube page onto our Facebook page and we've gotten almost 300 videos. We've also taken some of our web tools, like 'Find a Doctor' and our health- and e-newsletters and put them on our Facebook page. It's a great information hub."
Mr. Matsen, however, wasn't quite convinced that the uptick in marketing for hospitals and medical centers was completely due to the health-care reform bill, noting that "most of health-care reform will not go into place until 2014, so it's a bit premature to say it's affected our strategy."
But Gerald Kominski, professor of public health and associate director of the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, said, "They are chomping at the bit. [Hospitals and medical centers] that have been identified as having high-quality care at low cost, clearly they want to advertise that fact. The marketing dynamic is there."
Added Saatchi's Mr. Russell: "[Health-care reform] certainly plays a role in this. What they're doing, and rightly so, is taking the initiative to be part of the conversation that they know is happening now and will continue."