Performance Marketing Expert

Healthy Ambition: Leading Change in Healthcare Marketing

Being a leader in healthcare marketing today is not for the faint of heart. It requires savvy marketing skills and sharply honed industry foresight.

Healthcare marketing leaders have more responsibility than ever before, and success in this industry and role means channeling your inner tech guru, creative director, psychologist, and data scientist (among other roles). Accountability is also of rapidly rising value, with greater pressure to deliver quantifiable results and maximize return on investment. Layer on the transient nature of the healthcare industry, which has experienced major disruption over the past decade or so (and even more since 2020), and the road to healthcare leadership looks quite bumpy. 

Let’s take it one step further: Even prior to the pandemic, a large-scale paradigm shift had taken place, which put more power in the hands of patients. In 2013, Forrester Research coined the phrase “the age of the customer”, which they described as “a 20-year business cycle in which the most successful enterprises will reinvent themselves to systematically understand and serve increasingly powerful customers”. This term can easily be applied to patients as well, who in recent years, have been demanding tech-enabled solutions for convenient and personalized healthcare options. Healthcare marketers must put patients at the forefront of their overall marketing strategy, or risk forfeiting patient loyalty.

These new trends and challenges make maneuvering the modern healthcare marketing landscape tricky, especially when you're responsible for providing ethical and transparent leadership. But don’t think of this task as scary! Instead, look at the opportunity it provides for marketing leaders to become true transformational figures in healthcare. As you think about navigating the increasing complexity of this environment, keep these three strategic moves in mind in order to be the best marketing leader you can be, and lead your healthcare brand to success. 

3 Ways to Be an Impactful Healthcare Marketing Leader

1. Embrace change. Being an agent of change is one of the hats you have to wear as a marketing leader, especially in healthcare. Many organizations don’t accelerate at the necessary pace to keep up with evolving patient demands, and the responsibility falls on marketing to accelerate change. Let’s look at the two main reasons why this occurs: 

  • Marketing departments tend to be centralized and work with business units across the entire healthcare system or organization. 
  • A healthcare system’s marketing department has the closest proximity to patients (next to the actual care providers), which means they’re expected to have the greatest, most insightful understanding of their experiences and needs.

Remember, your strategy hinges on your ability to understand and serve patients’ needs, so naturally, it’s your role as a marketing leader to drive that change within your organization. However, affecting this change requires many things: Encouraging people to think differently, evaluating success in a new way, and bringing in new skills that may not be native to the organization. Regardless of the scope or scale, embracing meaningful change in your organization is critical to your evolution as a successful leader.

2. Personalized digital options are here to stay. If your healthcare organization is lagging behind industry standards, you’ll need to champion an audience-first digital transformation to get up to speed. The healthcare industry is always evolving at a pace that forces industry insiders to think about navigating new channels to reach and serve patients. While the healthcare industry has been historically slow to move on evolving digitally, recent years have shown a giant shift in digital investments: Investors expect digital health dollars to increase to roughly $25b in 2023 alone, a far cry from pre-pandemic digital investment sentiments (which tended to lag far behind other industries). 

For example, Forbes reports that the FDA plans to clear more at-home testing options… and testing platforms. More and more insurance companies are expected to cover telehealth options. And even seemingly unrelated industries (like the use of VR for certain types of therapy) are disrupting the healthcare environment we used to know. These are the types of systemic changes that will surpass basic generational divides: Now that the options for convenient, digital healthcare options are the norm, consumers of all ages are seeking to leverage them to personalize their healthcare journey to align with their wants and needs.

Check out this example of a real-time digital strategy in action with one of our healthcare clients: 

MINI CASE STUDY: Health Care Service Corp.

Chicago-based Health Care Service Corp., which provides healthcare coverage through Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans, leveraged emerging digital channels to connect with customers through its BCBS Connect online community. The platform allows the Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans in Illinois and Texas to publish timely information in the form of videos, infographics, or blog posts, meeting the needs of consumers shopping for health coverage or using their health insurance, in some cases, for the first time. The platform has helped build trust between patients and their insurance providers, while providing utility to the community.

Although a digital transformation is necessary, there’s no denying that it’s become increasingly more difficult due to privacy-first shifts and new data consent laws. According to Forrester, patient trust is paramount in the digital age. They also predict that by 2030, patients will be in the driver’s seat when it comes to managing and disseminating their own personal health data to their providers, a direct inverse to the practices we’ve seen historically. 

As a leader, you might be wondering: How do I respond to this shift toward power in the hands of the patient, and not their providers? How do I initiate the kind of digital strategy that would properly address these trends? Does it come from the top as an executive initiative? How about the IT group? The answer: All of the above, and more. In order for the evolution to be successful, your digital efforts must put your patients first, alongside genuine organizational shifts. It’s a journey— a long and often challenging one, but one that successful brands must truly embrace.

3. Get analytical. The third and final key to establishing yourself as a healthcare marketing leader is a firm commitment to analytics. Successful marketers know that you can’t manage what you don’t measure, and with the customer and patient journey more complex than ever, it’s critical to understand what’s impacting their path to your organization. Analytics boils down to the information that you use to better understand your customers, the impact of marketing investments, and trackable progress against your goals.

Subjectivity is on its way out of marketing. Now, the goal is to continuously increase the amount of objectivity in our decisions by using the power of data. With the digital DNA left behind by customers today, there’s no excuse for not knowing how hard your investments are working. Harnessing this information will allow you to better serve your patients and make smarter marketing investments, while simultaneously giving you the tools to catapult into the marketing leadership stratosphere. However, like many things worth doing, it’s difficult.

Another challenge we inherently face in healthcare is scale. The magnitude of gathering information across all customer touchpoints, and then integrating, sharing, and activating that data across the organization only gets more difficult as you grow both your team and your campaign efforts. This can be a barrier because it makes “getting analytical” feel like an insurmountable task— but, the good news is that it doesn’t have to be. Once you’ve determined your goals, think about prioritizing your initiatives and, if necessary, start small. Make the pitch to test a project, or better yet, build testing into your marketing plan. Many industry leaders recommend earmarking 5% of your budget each year for innovation.

So how do you become a true data-driven healthcare marketing leader? Start by determining your goals. Determine what questions you need to answer and what data is necessary to answer them. As a modern-day marketer, one of your challenges will always be marrying the flood of different data sources and pinpointing the key insights needed to optimize your marketing activities. Be careful not to get swallowed up in all of the information to which you have access. Invest in the right team and technology to guide you and use smart (not just big) data, and you’ll be on your way to gaining the edge on your competitors.

Marketing has changed dramatically in recent years, and healthcare leaders need to respond by focusing on future-proofed audience strategies that aren’t just one-size-fits-all. The more you can influence change across the organization, push for digital transformation, and use data as your guide, the closer you’ll be to keeping pace with today’s (and tomorrow’s) patients. If you embrace the rapidly evolving trends and challenges in today’s healthcare marketplace, you’ll be on your way to competitive advantage and emerging as a leader in a new, and more complex, healthcare marketing ecosystem.

Leveraging Leadership

John Kotter, author of Leading Change, created an eight-step process that is a helpful jumping-off point for healthcare marketers looking to lead within their organizations. Here’s my take on a few of the most important steps.

1. Make sure you have the right people involved in the process. Forming a cross-functional task force will bring together important skill sets, whether it’s bringing in team members from the customer service group or those working in information technology roles. Borrowing these skills will only add value.

2. Recognize the importance of quick wins. If you can pick up early successes, it will seem less daunting and easier to make the case for growth, especially in very traditional organizations or those that are very risk-averse.

3. Get senior leadership involved early on. Their buy-in will make tackling bigger changes more feasible and will provide you with the support needed for success.

4. Social media is a strategy that marketing teams can develop a process for, understand what things are working (or not), and tout early successes to show impact. Think about what this looks like for you and where you’re willing to take the necessary risks to embrace change and become a transformational leader.

This article was originally published in the spring 2014 issue of Marketing Health Services, a publication of the American Marketing Association.

Rise blog originally published November 2019. 

Updated April 2023. 

11/06/2019 at 12:00