Posted by Shawn Gross

I’ve been talking a lot lately with Dan Greenwald, White Rhino CEO & Chief Creative Officer, about our perspectives on “what’s next” for the agency’s healthcare provider clients. Not the next SEM ad, new page of web content, email blast, microsite or magazine ad. A much deeper and farther-reaching conversation about the future of healthcare provider marketing.

Specifically, we’ve been asking ourselves whether the practices that every healthcare marketer lives by—those ubiquitous SEM ads, web content pages, microsites and magazine ads—are really the best way to influence today’s hugely well-informed and autonomous healthcare consumer.

Or, simply put, do the marketing practices that dominate our industry still even work?

... orthopedic practices reported spending just 18% of [marketing] resources on current patients and primary care—areas that influenced 91% of new patients.

If it seems like an odd question, consider this: Healthcare provider marketing is overwhelmingly directed at prospective patients, a group that can be difficult and in some cases impossible to reach effectively. Imagine a Boston hospital with a new monitoring technology it hopes to market. The target audience might consist exclusively of people with cardiomyopathy who live in New England, a group numbering just a few thousand at best. And in reality, that already tiny prospect pool is probably further limited to newly diagnosed patients, since they’re the only ones still in the throes of decision-making. The pool is now hopelessly small. It’s simply unrealistic to expect that any ad – digital or not – could possibly reach them effectively, let alone economically.

A while back I read about a fascinating study in which orthopedic practices were found to allocate 68 percent of their resources to advertising and sponsorships. Yet these marketing efforts were named by fewer than one percent of patients as influencing their decisions about where to seek care.

Which raises the obvious question: If we shouldn’t be marketing to prospects, then to whom?

Turns out, those same orthopedic practices reported spending just 18 percent of their resources on current patients, primary care, sports medicine, and workers’ compensation—areas that influenced 91 percent of new patients. That bears repeating: Nearly all new patients were motivated by activities directed solelytoward current patients.


My long discussions with Dan always seem to turn on that very question: What if the next evolution in healthcare provider marketing is a wholesale shift away from targeting that tiny prospect pool, instead committing ourselves to forging bonds of trust with our existing patients? To building lifelong relationships by being there not just when they’re sick, but always? It’s a marketer's dream.

Studies show that when you have trusting relationships with your patients, they’re more likely to seek care, comply with treatment recommendations and return for follow-ups. Most important, these loyalists are the most likely to recommend your practice to others. Which, as the study demonstrated, is the best marketing tool you could possibly hope for.

I recently accepted an invitation to speak at the Society for Healthcare Strategy and Market Development (SHSMD) conference, where I was joined by Julia Jackson, managing director of the Healthcare Transformation Lab at Massachusetts General Hospital. We spoke about how focusing on the patient-provider relationship represents an almost complete reversal of current practice:

As we noted in the presentation, the healthcare industry would do well to draw some inspiration from its mainstream B2C counterparts, where experience-oriented marketing is fast becoming the norm. We invited the audience to visualize how these models of engagement might look and feel in a healthcare setting:



These tactics—companion apps, portal add-ons, physician dashboards, hospital experience apps—are prime examples of what we at White Rhino call an “addictive health” approach to marketing. Our goal is nothing less than transforming how our clients view the role of marketing in their organization.

Every day we push them, and ourselves, to move beyond traditional thinking and into this new marketing landscape where the foremost goal is to create an addictive customer experience—so called “advertising without the ads.” We see this as the inevitable future of our industry. It’s also an unsurpassed way to cultivate loyal and lifelong patients who—in the manner of true believers everywhere—are only too happy to spread the word.

RELATED: Read Mark's Story, a hospital brand experience that builds life-long trust and loyalty >

Shawn Gross is the Chief Digital Strategist, Healthcare Practice Lead for White Rhino in Lexington, Massachusetts where he helps health care organizations build content rich, patient-centric websites and addictive digital health services. Shawn was previously the head of digital marketing at Massachusetts General Hospital and Tufts Medical Center and can be reached at

Topics: Strategy, Digital Marketing, Healthcare