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Those Who Can't Do Buy It Canned

  |  September 17, 2002   |  Comments

Think out of the box, or get content out of a can?

Recently, I was asked to critique several hospital Web sites. I was pretty jazzed about doing this. I've been in hospital marketing for over 20 years. I thought I could pick up some new and exciting ideas.

Yawn! Instead of innovation and excitement, most hospitals seem to lean toward imitation. All the sites not only look alike, their content is depressingly similar. Instead of telling me anything new about their organizations, these sites post the same general information about heart disease, stroke, and breast cancer and the same battery of health-risk-assessment self-tests.

I'll make you a bet. If you're reading this column in the U.S., go to your community hospital's Web site. Click on "your health" or a similarly themed navigation button. I'll bet you'll read something about the signs and symptoms of heart attack. Don't get me wrong. That's good information. But how many sites even bother to add something original to that canned piece? How many add a quote from their own doctors? How many expend the energy to provide a link to a list of their cardiologists? Most canned content allows you to personalize, but few purchasers take the time to make it their own.

The Attack of Canned Content is nothing new in healthcare. Ten years ago, the same purveyors of canned Web content barraged the online field with canned newsletters, magazines, and brochures. Some healthcare marketers bought into it. A few of us rebelled. We recognized that differentiation -- and expending our energies on the pursuit of differentiation -- would ultimately benefit our organizations.

I don't mean to put down those health content, personal health pages, and ask-the-doc programs on the Web. They can be engaging and informative, and I'm sure they've actually helped consumers make better healthcare decisions. MayoClinic.com, for example, does a nice job of providing useful health tools and information.

But Mayo Clinic is Mayo Clinic. From L.A. to Boston, people know the name. Most hospitals and healthcare organizations don't have the luxury of promoting such a well-known entity. For them, the name of the pursuit should be talking up their unique qualities. At the very least, they should add a personal touch to canned content.

I have a few theories on why healthcare routinely reverts to canned content:

  • Tiny marketing departments. Let's face it. Marketing isn't a core business for hospitals. Resources go to nurses and patient care. That makes sense. However, it means most marketing departments run very lean. Departments with good in-house people (ah-hem) do a decent job of crafting unique messages. Departments with nonwriters and less-seasoned marketers resort to buying the canned stuff.

  • Me too's. A popular -- but erroneous -- marketing theory is that if the competition is doing it, we must do it, too. Unfortunately, a lot of healthcare and hospital marketers live and die by this theory. That's why hospital sites in America often look disarmingly similar.

  • Inability to look outside the marketing department. One thing I love about working for a hospital is you can always find a patient or doctor with a fascinating story. Miracles happen every day in healthcare. These true stories speak volumes for the passion and skill of great doctors and nurses. Many hospital marketers don't bother to seek out these stories and testimonials. As a result, their Web sites run advice columns from physicians 3,000 miles away. That's not differentiation. It's a missed opportunity.

  • Not listening to our audience. Let's say I'm pregnant and my doctor gives me the choice of delivering at Hospital X or Hospital Y. Where do I learn more about my options? I can tour both places, but let's also say I've got a few small children at home and am CEO of ABC Corp. I don't have time for tours. I want to see information about those hospitals' birth care centers on their Web sites. I want to pre-register for my hospitalization on the site, and I want to learn more about the qualifications of the labor and delivery team. What would my reaction be if all I found on Hospital X's Web site was a bunch of canned copy on prenatal exercises? I'd flip my (coiffed) CEO lid and, of course, run to Hospital Y at the first twinge of labor. Canned copy doesn't answer basic consumer questions, and it isn't very responsive.

All you folks who don't work in hospitals (I'll bet that's 99 percent of you) can learn a lesson from this rant. Canned content providers run rampant in other fields (banking and investing have their share).

Do I have hope for my field? Absolutely! Believe it or not, a hospital is a fascinating place for marketers. It's where skilled professionals give their all to relieving the pain of others. It's where people often get a second chance at life. And it's where new lives start, sometimes despite amazing odds.

A skilled marketer can provide pages and pages of content about unique happenings at each of America's hospitals. A not-so-skilled marketer can make it all seem very humdrum.

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Susan Solomon

Susan Solomon is the executive director of marketing and public relations for Memorial Health Services, a five-hospital health system in Southern California. In this capacity, she manages promotional activities for both traditional and new media. Susan is also a marketing communications instructor at the University of California, Irvine; California State University, Fullerton; and the University of California, Los Angeles.

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