What keeps health care marketers up at night?

What keeps health care marketers up at night?

We recently fielded a survey of health care marketers to ask three open-ended questions.

  1. What is the most stubborn challenge you face right now?
  2. When you think about the future of health care and your role, what’s one thing that concerns you?
  3. What do you want to be doing better? (Or making better progress.)

As a firm that delivers branding, marketing, digital and consulting services to health care brands, we need to know what our clients and colleagues care most about.

The results of the survey were surprising … and expected.

The survey is still open. So we’ll be reporting more on the results in future posts and resources. (By the way, here’s a link to take the 3-minute survey now.)


The Four Areas: Greatest Challenges Facing Health Care Marketers


Challenge #1: Time to Plan

Marketers don’t feel they have time to plan and think ahead. They’re constantly running from meeting to meeting, putting out fires and managing an overflowing inbox.

Respondents shared:

“Small team and many demands across our enterprise requiring tactical responses on a daily basis, with minimal time for strategic planning, market research, campaign development or an innovative approach.”

“Time. There are so many different marketing mediums and responsibilities. Trying to balance time to serve everyone.”

“Am I challenging the questionable things enough, am I accepting and appreciating the good things enough, and am I wise enough to know the difference?

One respondent quite succinctly stated: “Not enough time.”


Challenge #2: The Need for Internal Culture Change

Perhaps because marketers represent the hearts and minds of patients and people their organizations serve, they have their finger on the pulse of what people want, need and expect from health care brands. Unfortunately, many marketers feel that their colleagues and internal stakeholders don’t share this same vision.

Respondents shared:

“Culture change required to embrace consumerism on clinical operations side.”

“Our health system’s ability to move fast enough to meet consumer expectations in the digital landscape.”

“External brand promise and internal alignment.”

Marketers also expressed challenges with building consensus for marketing strategy within the organization.

Respondents shared:

“Keeping up with the evolving manner of how decisions are made internally.”

“Consensus for marketing direction from my Board members, C-Suite colleagues and physician group.”

Challenge #3: Standing Out in a Competitive Environment

Health care organizations face increased competition. These days, rival organizations are chasing after the same health care dollar. An added challenge is that marketers are being asked to do more with less, whether that resource is time, staffing or budget.

Respondents shared:

“Rising above the flood of messaging that bombards your target audience.”

“Staying ahead of everyone else.”

“Doing more with less.”

“Budget cuts to marketing and getting in front of the right people.”


Challenge #4: Digital Marketing Innovation

Digital marketing accounts for the vast majority of health care marketing’s annual spend. At some point, we’ll stop talking about digital as a separate marketing initiative. But for purposes of sharing the survey responses, we identified digital marketing as the fourth area of concern for health care marketers.

Respondents shared:

“Engaging patients and clients in high volume through social media.”

“Managing our online reputation.”

“Harnessing digital marketing to be the most compelling path it can be to drive business.”

“Knowing what works: gathering and analyzing data to support various marketing techniques.”

“Keeping up with digital and tele-health trends.”

“Information overload and the inability of patients/consumers to evaluate the legitimacy of the source.”

“Getting in front of the right people at the right time through multiple digital channels.”


Marketers: How to Sleep Better at Night


With all the challenging “3 a.m. thoughts” that our marketing clients and colleagues have, we certainly don’t want to suggest there are easy answers to the tough questions our community is asking themselves.

That’s why we wanted to provide more resources to help you—articles we’ve developed on topics that are top of mind for marketers.

We hope you find these resources helpful.

And please keep making a difference.




Time to Plan & The Need for Internal Culture Change

The #1 Skill of the Best Health Care Chief Marketing Officers

Finding Your Joy in Health Care Marketing

How to Market Your Marketing Department


Standing Out in a Competitive Environment 

How to Get Patients to Take Action With Your Brand

Marketers: How to Think Like a Patient

Discovering Your Brand’s Archetype


Digital Marketing Innovation

How to Combat Health Care Fake News

The Art and Science of Marketing Persona Development

Best Practices for Marketing Health Care on Instagram

Marketers: How to Get Patients to Take Action

Marketers: How to Get Patients to Take Action

If you’re in health care marketing, you know your job is challenging. When I made the shift in my advertising career from packaged goods and retail brands to health care, I realized I was no longer in the business of peddling want: I was now in the business of encouraging people to do what they needed to do. Let me explain—because I think this insight holds great opportunities for health care marketers.

When we market and advertise things like shoes, food, and gadgets, our job is to encourage prospective customers to want these things. Most people don’t “need” to buy a new car—they want to buy a new car. So if you’re an automotive marketer, your job is to encourage the prospective car buyer to want to buy your brand’s vehicle—and to spend more for the bells and whistles.

Health care is different. Our business is the business of wellness versus sickness, healing versus disease, life over death. You’d think encouraging prospective patients to care about your services and products might be easier than, say, selling makeup. But I believe our work in health care is harder. Because we’re here to help encourage people to do things they don’t want to do—but know they need to do.

I believe a marketer’s first core responsibility (and opportunity) is to help prospective patients move from the first of the six stages of their patient journey—the Trigger Event—to take action. (You can learn more about the six stages of the patient journey here.)

What are some common health care Trigger Events that initiate a patient journey?

  • A man turns 50 and realizes it’s time to schedule his first colonoscopy
  • A woman sprains her ankle and debates whether to simply ice it or visit an urgent care center
  • A man experiences strange sensations in his chest and wonders if the feelings will subside or whether he’s having a heart attack
  • A woman feels an abnormal lump in her breast and gets on the Web to diagnose herself

To my knowledge, nobody wants to spend the night in the hospital, have an MRI or wear a patient gown. Health care marketers are in the “needs business,” and at times our role is to encourage people to follow through and address their needs.

Needs like:

  • Knowing the signs of stroke and acting accordingly
  • Knowing the risk factors for disease and making lifestyle changes
  • Knowing they should consult an expert about reducing or eliminating chronic joint pain

In other words, the Trigger Event—the first step on the important patient journey—is where health care marketers can make the most impact for patients and for their organizations’ brands.

This is challenging work. People are stubborn. People would rather go about their routine days than change, even if the change could mean less pain, more vitality—even save their lives. (Case in point: a study found that about half of patients with chronic disease don’t take their medications as prescribed.)

We recently led a client immersion and discovered that their average patient waits seven years before seeking treatment. Seven years! We also know that most joint replacement patients wait months if not years before seeking treatment, even when in pain and even when that pain diminishes their quality of life.

So what are people doing after experiencing the Trigger Event and before reaching the fourth stage of the patient journey, the Decision stage? The answer isn’t “nothing.” People are researching for solutions, passively or actively. But the key insight here is that these prospective patients are not making a decision to seek care.

Therefore: as marketers, our opportunity is to shorten the Trigger to Decision timeline so that our prospective patients seek care faster.

So how do we do this?


5 ways marketers can help prospective patients move from a trigger event to seeking health care solutions

1. Help your audience envision their desired future state

A compelling future is a motivation to make a change. That’s why marketers should know, at the deepest level possible, what their prospective patients care most about, and help those audiences link engaging experiencing that desired state with the marketer’s organization.

2. Show the cost of waiting

People are also motivated by the desire to remove pain: either physical pain or eliminating stressful thoughts. Years ago I did a campaign for ex-smokers, encouraging them to get a CT scan to verify if there was any evidence of lung cancer. Early detection of lung cancer offers patients a better chance of survival. The headline was simple: “You quit smoking. Now quit worrying.” The hospital filled its appointment calendar.

3. Reduce fear and stigma

Health care is personal, sensitive, and often has fears and stigmas associated with conditions, disorders and disease states. Let people know they’re not alone, there’s nothing to be afraid or embarrassed about.

4. Give people the tools to feel empowered in their health

Because thinking about our mortality can trigger fear, many people become immobilized: they do nothing. Give your audience the tools and resources that empower them and help them feel confident in taking the next step to make the decision to seek care. These tools and resources can be in the form of relevant content on your website, seminars and screening events, and social media content and campaigns that help the prospective patient to investigate, know what questions to ask, then to seek a provider or health care solution.

5. Make it easy to seek care

Most people today believe health care is complex, arduous and disorganized, so they’d rather not initiate a conversation with a provider or schedule a doctor’s appointment. How easily can you coordinate care for your prospective patients? Do you have online appointment technology? Or a helpful call center that can advise prospective patients which physicians are currently open to new patients and accept their insurance products? Are the hours of operation for urgent care centers convenient for busy moms and dads?

Most health care marketers don’t have oversight on access. That’s why we’re fanatical about creating better models to help marketers have more impact at the operational level. Because it’s at the operational level that the best brand experiences are based.


Of the six stages of the patient journey, the first stage, The Trigger Event, is often the most overlooked stage that marketers seek to make an impact. Yet, it can be the stage with the richest opportunities: for your brand, and for the audiences your brand seeks to serve.

How to Conduct Onscreen Patient Interviews (That Don’t Suck)

How to Conduct Onscreen Patient Interviews (That Don’t Suck)

In health care marketing, nothing beats a good story with a happy ending. And video is often the most effective way to capture these stories.


But how do you get patients and caregivers to talk to you on camera in a way that doesn’t feel stilted or forced or awkward for them …  or you? How do you make people feel comfortable on camera? How do you get them to sound natural?

The answer is deceptively simple: Treat everyone (including yourself) like a kid.



When I first began as a documentary filmmaker, I was terrified of interviewing children. They can be shy. They can be unpredictable. And all too often, they can be frustratingly nonverbal. But after working with a lot of kids (and a lot of adults), I realized three things that made me a better interviewer:

1) Treat every interview subject like a kid.

Most people aren’t used to being interviewed. As a result, they can be scared. And they can be intimidated. It’s your job to reassure them that everything is going to be okay. You have to let them know that you’re on their side. You have to explain how editing works. Remind them that you’re going to take out the parts that make them look silly.

That’s what adults do for kids. They take care of them. And that’s what a documentary filmmaker has to do for any person kind enough to be an interview subject. So …  treat people with kids’ gloves. That was my first revelation. But I didn’t actually get good at this job until I realized something even more important: All of us are children. And that includes me.


2) Interview people like a kid.

The great thing about kids is they have no pride. If they don’t understand why the sky is blue, they just ask you. It doesn’t occur to them that a question might be dumb.

That’s how you have to ask questions of people when you’re interviewing them. Even if you know how a particular medical procedure or disease process works, most of your audience won’t. So don’t be afraid to sound stupid to your interview subject. Ask them how kidneys work. Ask them where cancer comes from. Ask them if they were afraid to be operated on by a robot.

Ask them why the sky is blue. It’ll make your edit go a lot smoother if you have too much information to choose from.


3) Remember when I said kids were unpredictable? So are adults. Roll with it.

Here’s an interview I did for a program called Summer Food Corps at the Damiano Center in Duluth. It gives kids attending an after-school program the opportunity to grow and eat their own fresh vegetables.



So that interview did not go as I expected. But no interview EVER goes the way I expect. Nobody ever gives you exactly what you want from them. You can certainly try to lead them down the path you want them to travel. But you’re mostly going to fail. And when that happens, don’t forget that videos operate on two of our senses simultaneously. If you can’t get a good sound bite, get a good visual bite to tell your story. In this, case, I caught young George eating a carrot not long after he assured me he hated vegetables. So I filmed him! Busted!

Stay open to possibilities, like a kid, and you’ll do fine.

The best health care advertising headlines we’ve ever read (or written)

The best health care advertising headlines we’ve ever read (or written)

Have you ever read a headline that just blew you away? The kind that sticks in your head. The kind you compare all headlines to. Throughout the over 40 years we’ve focused on health care advertising and marketing, we’ve run across several that have stood above the rest for us. Some we’ve written ourselves and some have been the brainchild of other advertising agencies.


The importance of great headlines

We know the goal of any headline is to grab a reader’s attention. But we also want our reader to consume, enjoy and even act on whatever we write. Your headline can either draw your reader in or send them on their way. Here’s a fact: only 2 out of 10 people read beyond the headline. Think about your reading habits. How many times do you read beyond the headline?

Even if the rest of your content is spectacular, it won’t get read if your headline isn’t spot-on.


Here are some spot-on headlines we’ve written (in our opinion)

The best headline we’ve ever written for a cancer center is simple, emotional and says it all:

Life. Cancer. Life.

Here’s one for a primary care campaign. There were several life-stage questions in the series in italics, all followed by the bolder headline.

Turning 40?  We’ve got a doctor for that.

Here’s another approach to primary care. This time we wanted to demonstrate the importance of having a relationship with your primary care physician.

Tom never eats breakfast.  Dr. Carl Magnuson knows that.

We’ve created our share of tongue-in-cheek headlines. The samples here are from an urgent care campaign and a flu shot campaign.

OPEN holidays.  Because strep throat doesn’t know it’s Easter.

Beating the flu can be easy, give it a shot.

Another simple and clear headline for obstetric services.

Oh Baby.  Maybe.

Here’s one to encourage people to schedule their colonoscopy.

Over 50? So’s your colon.

And another we used for an ad in a men’s bathroom to encourage being screened for prostate cancer.

You again?

Spot-on headlines others have written

I asked my colleagues at Hailey Sault to share the health care headlines that have stood above the rest for them. Many of the headlines they sent my way were from Mt. Sinai Hospital’s campaigns throughout the years. Some standouts included:

“We turned a child who couldn’t hear into a typical 2-year-old who doesn’t listen.”

“Amazing. How many hearts are saved by just treating one.”

“You’ve just found out you have breast cancer. Let’s start by removing the lump in your throat.”

“A doctor, a robot, and a comedian walk into a hospital. Trust us, you haven’t heard this one before.”


Headlines are everywhere

You’ll find them in:

  • The subject lines of your email
  • Blog posts
  • Banners on homepages
  • Facebook, Instagram and Twitter posts
  • Site titles for organic and paid search results
  • Billboards
  • Print ads

With just 2 out of 10 people reading beyond the headline, our marketing efforts have no chance to succeed without great headlines.


5 tips to consider the next time you’re writing a headline:

  1. Brainstorm … brainstorm … and brainstorm again.
  2. Think about what matters most to your audience.
  3. Excite your reader—don’t be afraid to break convention or be a little weird.
  4. Demonstrate value—why is your copy worth reading, why should someone go beyond your headline.
  5. Oh, and don’t forget search—use those keywords when possible.

You knew I was going to ask it, and I really care: what are some of your favorite headlines? Send them along.

The #1 Skill of the Best Health Care Chief Marketing Officers

The #1 Skill of the Best Health Care Chief Marketing Officers

Of all the amazing traits and skills of the leading CMOs we’ve had the privilege of working with for 40+ years, what is the number one skill that sets the most effective CMOs apart from all the others?

I believe the answer is simple: the ability to build consensus for meaningful change.

Let me explain.

Health care CMOs face a very special kind of consensus challenge that CMOs in other industries don’t face: the consensus around investing in marketing. I might be wrong, but I doubt the folks at Amazon or Coca-Cola disagree often with the merits of marketing and branding. I also know that the CMO’s role in impacting the brand along the touchpoints of the patient journey is—to use a technical term—fuzzy. For example, when does marketing end and patient experience begin? And when does marketing “return” to mattering for long-term patient engagement and loyalty? I seriously doubt such debates occur at Taco Bell over what marketing’s role and purpose is, but I may be wrong.

When we look at building consensus for meaningful change, this doesn’t mean diluting the strategy or ad campaign so that everyone “agrees to agree.” That tactic doesn’t serve an organization, especially the patients and people it seeks to help and heal.

Building consensus for meaningful change means aligning stakeholders with a common purpose. Without a common purpose, there’s no vision for change. And change only occurs at the organizational level when the pain of remaining the same is worse than the pain of changing.

Highly exceptional CMOs deal in the currency of change. They balance the need to preserve and protect the status quo among stakeholders with the desire to make a meaningful difference in their lives and work.

Most often, CMOs skilled at the art of organizing meaningful change leverage the “What’s at Stake” conversation. That conversation often looks like this:

  • Describing the current landscape
  • Addressing the storm clouds in the near distance: in the form of competitive threats, changes in regulation, and other factors that can negatively impact the organization’s ability to thrive
  • Clearly stating that there will be winners and losers as the storm clouds converge
  • Inviting the stakeholders to ask themselves: if we remain the same and do nothing different, will we be winners or losers?
  • Inviting stakeholders for meaningful change

We’re often called in to help shape the meaningful change conversation, whether it’s with health care branding, service line marketing, strategies for new client acquisition, or simply lowering the cost of new patient or client acquisition.

It does not surprise us how challenging it is for stakeholders to embrace change, even when what the organization is doing isn’t working. This is not meant to slight an organization or its stakeholders. It’s just the reality of today’s business climate. The pressures are immense and given a choice of changing or not, most people would prefer to stay where they are. If nothing else, they know what they’re dealing with and the fear of the unknown, like the fear of public speaking, keeps people stuck.

To help our CMO clients, we often engage their stakeholders and decision-makers in reframing the problems and opportunities. For example, we may bring credible evidence to stakeholders that what they believe about their audiences—their preferences, health care purchasing patterns, etc., is incomplete, or even incorrect. (This is always handled delicately, of course. Being diplomatic is another trait of highly effective CMOs.)

We find that stakeholders have different agendas, so we look for common purpose and shared beliefs. These shared beliefs may be around patient care, a desire for high quality, innovation, and winning the future. We then look for opportunities to illuminate a perspective, backed by data, that helps our client and stakeholders to see the problem or opportunity differently.

What do I mean by this?

For example:

  • Stakeholders may want a larger pipeline of prospective patients for a service line campaign. But in our research, we may see a significant drop off among prospective patients from interest to making the health care decision. By putting more emphasis on nurturing the current prospect pipeline, we help our clients to convert more patients or customers than if the client had focused on growing the pipeline.
  • Another example: the CMO recognizes the need for a rebranding effort but isn’t getting traction with stakeholders for the funding and long-term commitment for a rebrand. We might present research that demonstrates that audiences in the client’s service area or territories are ambivalent to all health care solutions available. This presents a mighty opportunity for the organization because it’s far easier to encourage preference when sentiment is neutral. Because of this, a rebranding effort is seen internally as a strategic priority positively impacting all departments and stakeholders.

As we look to the future of health care, we see winners and losers. The winners will be the ones who embrace consumerism in health care, who know the most about their patients and audiences and are willing to embrace meaningful change. The CMOs who win are the ones who serve as expert guides in managing change for their organizations, one boardroom meeting at a time.  

The art and science of health care marketing persona development

The art and science of health care marketing persona development

Wouldn’t it be amazing if you understood your patients so well that creating content for them was like sitting down and having a discussion? Wouldn’t it be even better if you knew where to find them and how to get their attention?

That’s the magic of personas—composite sketches that represent the real people who inhabit your key target audiences. Personas allow you to walk in your patients’ shoes by giving you insight into their families and jobs, their concerns, time constraints, desires, beliefs and life experiences—and their cultural backgrounds, emotional drivers, motivations, health challenges, and health goals.

The purpose of creating health care marketing personas is to be able to create strategies, content, and designs that are meaningful and actionable to your target audience.

At Hailey Sault, we use a lot of research (science) and a little art (storytelling) to create our personas.

The science behind our personas

“Your personas are only as good as the research behind them.”

— Usability.gov

Data is what makes a solid foundation for any persona. Starting with science, not opinions and assumptions, is the only way to create truly actionable personas. So we always start by digging deep and researching the data behind each persona.

Background and demographics:

  • Where they live
  • The work they do
  • Marital status
  • If they have dependents
  • Their ethnicity

Personal preferences:

  • Their interests
  • Their habits
  • The entertainment/blogs they consume
  • Are they a cat person or a dog person?


  • Common fears
  • Health challenges
  • Barriers to taking action


  • What are their hopes, values, and motivations? Their health goals?
  • What does a healthy lifestyle look like to them?

How they intersect with health care:

  • Do they prefer holistic methods of treatment?
  • Is their experience rooted more in traditional medicine?  

How they consume information:

  • What’s the best way to reach them (e.g., social media, direct mail, patient portal, etc.)?

Our tools are varied:

  • Global Web Index—allows us to uncover and analyze digital consumer behavior for our target personas.
  • https://datausa.io—is a great resource to analyze geographical specifics and key demographics such as: household income, average education level, likelihood to have commercial insurance, etc.
  • Google Site Analytics—gives us a look at your existing site visitors and identifies any trends from a geographic or demographic standpoint, as well as the type of content our personas are consuming/where they’re spending the majority of time on your site, where your visitors come from, what keywords they used to find you, how long they spent once they arrived. In other words we are able to discover trends in how patients consume your content.
  • Facebook and Twitter Analytics—allow us to look at your existing digital follower base for trends in demographics, preferred content topics, engagement rates, etc.  
  • Existing Testimonials and Site Review—if there’s a strong base of reviews and testimonials for your brand, we can scour those to uncover themes among conditions, gender, age, location, etc. to see what your existing patients are saying.
  • Brandwatch—this general listening tool allows us to pull keyword themes to see what people are saying about your industry, brand, other common areas.

The art of persona creation

Once all the data is collected, we get to work building personas that are genuine and have a fact based, believable identity and story.

We get heard when we get human.

We look at each of our personas as a character, writing their back story in the first person, using their authentic tone of voice and vocabulary. We want our persona’s ideas, experiences, feelings and daily life to shine through so that we as marketers can use what we know to answer questions, make our audience think, laugh and live healthier lives.

For example, meet Jennifer. She is just one persona we may use for an orthopedics campaign. She’s 45, a teacher, married and has two kids. She is experiencing back pain. Here is a small portion of her story:

“I stand all day and by the time I get home my back is killing me. I’ve tried new shoes and those smelly pain creams, but they didn’t work. Can you believe it, I even ordered one of those back brace things from Amazon. I seem too young to have back pain like this. I know I need to call the doctor. I just keep hoping I can fix it myself.”

Jennifer acts as the single truth about her particular target audience for each person in our team who touches this orthopedic campaign. From strategist through media planning and execution—who she is, what she needs from us and how we can reach her is paramount. She is so much better to think about and communicate with than the usual broad target audience that can include women age 40–60 who are experiencing musculoskeletal pain.

Final thought

The better you understand your target audience, the better your results.

Among the many outcomes you can expect if you put personas to work for you is the opportunity to establish marketing strategies that are more on the mark, to form better connections and to communicate your value to your target audience. If you need help creating these valuable representations of the real people in your audiences, we’re ready to put the art and science of personas to work for you.