The success of your hospice may depend on your marketing plan

Are you grasping for opportunities and lacking direction?

The word "marketing" is as broad a term as there is. Hospices apply a variety of marketing approaches — everything from cookie jars to television commercials — in illustration of that very point.

The problem is that many hospices’ marketing plans are ineffective because they’re based on hunches and theories that aren’t supported by market data. Yet when those same hunches and theories are uttered out loud, they seem to make perfect sense.

If, in the past year or so, your marketing plan failed — even though its logic seemed sound — ask yourself (and your administrative team) if any of the following were true:

  • You didn’t gather appropriate market data, such as referrals by specialty, patient demographics, length of service by disease, or admissions by geography.
  • You gathered data, but didn’t analyze them thoroughly or correctly.
  • Your marketing plan lacked specific objectives. The plan called for specific actions, but no expectations were tied to those actions.
  • Your marketing actions weren’t tied to the original marketing plan.
  • You didn’t have a strategic mindset when coming up with a marketing plan.

If any of the above statements apply to you, then you fell victim to some of the most common reasons why hospice marketing plans fail. If none of the statements apply to you but your marketing efforts still fell flat, chances are you fell into one or more of these categories without even knowing it.

The last point is worth focusing on. Having a strategic mindset drives the development of the marketing plan as well as its implementation. A devotion to strategic principles prompts organization leaders to move away from playing hunches and to rely on evidence instead.

"Someone with a strategic mindset has a plan and follows it," says Dee Vandeventer, president of Mathis Earnest & Vandeventer, a marketing and fundraising consulting firm in Cedar Falls, IA. "The plan’s strategies are based on research and facts. Strategies are developed for the individual business or organization. They’re not cookie-cutter strategies that could apply to anyone’s business, but are customized to that specific business."

Base strategies on data

Too often, marketing strategies are based on seemingly good ideas without the benefit of facts to back up those ideas. "Data collection can tell you how to focus your marketing efforts," Vandeventer adds. "For example, if you want to reach legislators about legislation regarding end-of-life issues, research may indicate previous legislation related to those issues, how and which legislators voted on previous bills, and other pertinent information."

A hospice marketer may surmise that a hospice needs to focus on physician referrals in the outer reaches of its coverage area and then direct resources to market the hospice to primary care physicians in the rural towns in neighboring counties. The reasoning: The hospice is doing a good job of getting referrals from urban physicians. The percentage of referrals from urban doctors far outweighs the number of referrals from their country counterparts. It all makes perfect sense unless there were relevant data that weren’t collected and analyzed.

For instance, suppose that while the hospice was indeed receiving far more referrals from city physicians than those in outlying areas, the number of urban physician referrals represented about 10% of the total physician population in their urban market area. Suppose further that of the remaining 90% of physicians who do not refer patients to their hospice, 30% did not even know the hospice existed, so they had been referring patients to a competing hospice program.

So, while the initial marketing strategy made sense in the beginning, a closer look suggests otherwise. Data would have pointed to the need to bolster referrals from in-town doctors. This example shows how data should be the driving force behind any marketing strategy, not ideas that may seem logical.

What data should a hospice collect? Any market-based strategy should begin with an inventory of one’s customers. A hospice serves a surprisingly wide range of people. Because of this, customers can go overlooked, resulting in missed opportunities. Hospice customers include the following:

  • patients;
  • physicians (listed by specialty);
  • hospitals;
  • nursing homes;
  • home health agencies;
  • insurers (Medicare, Medicaid, and private health plans);
  • employers;
  • vendors.

Some categories may include subcategories that expand the list of customer types even further. For example, physicians should be broken down by specialty so a hospice can gauge which specialties require more effort to reach.

Other examples of common subcategories are case managers and discharge planners of hospitals. Knowing the job titles of those who routinely refer patients to your hospice gives you the opportunity to market directly to people who hold specific job titles.

Get a complete picture

The idea is to collect as much data as possible so you can get a complete picture of each customer. For example, if you look at patients by age, sex, ethnic background, length of service, and disease, and you may find that your typical patient is a 65-year-old man with congestive heart failure whose stay is about two weeks. The data may suggest that opportunity lies in trying to diversify your patient base by actively marketing to specialties that are more likely to refer patients whose illness may result in longer stays, or in marketing to specific ethnic groups to ensure your mission to serve a diverse population is met.

The data you are looking for may be right under your nose. Start with a sampling of your own patient records, which will give you information such as patient demographics, the physicians who refer patients to your hospice, diseases patients present with, and the length of service. Depending on how much effort you put into your annual cost report, that document can also yield telling information.

Your market demographics will round out the data that need to be collected. While it is important to know who your current customers are — e.g., you currently receive 1,000 referrals a year from five primary care physicians, 20 oncologists, 15 cardiologists, and three hospitals — you get a more complete picture if you know there are 1,500 primary care physicians in your area, 500 oncologists, 300 cardiologists, and four hospitals.

State health organizations may also provide hospice data, says Lisa Spoden, president of Strategic Healthcare, a hospice consulting and marketing firm in Columbus, OH. In addition, Vandeventer says you should look at information on these topics:

  • trends for hospice management;
  • new health concerns or breakthroughs;
  • the competitive marketplace;
  • characteristics of your key audiences;
  • the level of understanding of the hospice concept within the medical community and the general public.

Try to compose as complete a picture of your market as possible. Think of it as a map; the more roads, streets, and highways that are plotted, the easier it is to navigate around the city. The more detailed your market map is, the more clearly your opportunities will appear.

Once you’ve collected enough data to get a three-dimensional view of your organization and your market, it’s time to analyze the data. It is important to stress that the process of developing a marketing plan should not take place solely in the ivory towers of administration. Coming up with a successful marketing plan requires the input of department leaders, medical staff, nursing staff, administration, board of directors, and other stakeholders.

Re-examine the mission statement

One of the first tasks facing these stakeholders can be an uncomfortable one: re-examining the hospice’s mission statement. The organization’s focus may have changed over the years. Its current goals, which serve as the driving force behind the marketing plan, may no longer be in tune with the organization’s stated mission.

There is no single right way to interpret the data you collect. However, hospice leaders should seek the input of department heads and staff during the data analysis process. The numbers may mean different things to people holding different responsibilities. For example, low referrals from one facility type may indicate to the administrator that more education in that area is needed, while the director of admissions, who may have better understanding of this specific customer type, determines that the admissions process hinders referrals. The recommendation that may arise from this observation could focus on streamlining the admissions process and promoting the changes to customers whose referrals lag behind the average.

"Create a team strategy when meeting with key members to develop the marketing plan," says Vandeventer. "Have every member participate. Don’t let the president or CEO take over."

Once members of the marketing team have weighed in with their recommendations, the leaders can begin developing action strategies. An action strategy is a general plan that addresses a specific area.

For example, the marketing team may determine that the data suggest the need to increase referrals from local hospitals. That is the action strategy. It will likely be one of a number of action strategies the marketing team comes up with.

Each action strategy should be accompanied by a detailed plan and should include specific goals by which the success of the strategy can be measured.

For instance, it isn’t enough to simply set in motion a plan to increase referrals from a local hospital. Instead, a data-driven number of referrals over a set amount of time should be set as a goal. Also, the marketing team must establish a monitoring component for each action strategy and plan so adjustments to the plan can be made during the reporting period in case current plans are not working.

While there is no guarantee that any marketing plan will ultimately succeed, hospices that implement sound market-based plans based on data are taking most of the guesswork out of the marketing planning process.

But there is one other way a plan can fail at this point: failure to integrate the plan with the organization’s business plan. Hospices must make marketing a key component of the overall business. Failure to do so increases the possibility that the marketing plan becomes nothing more than an annual exercise that has no value.

But success is dependent on being committed to the development and implementation of the plan. With that in mind, Vandeventer offers the following plan characteristics to emulate:

  • Make sure the plan is well-written. It should be simple and easy to understand, clear about responsibilities and desired results, practical about goals, and flexible with regard to changing conditions, and should take a comprehensive look at the organization’s business and competitive climate.
  • Make sure it is well-planned. There should be agreement on marketing objectives, strategies, time lines, and budget before the plan is prepared.
  • Make sure the team communicated well. This requires open communication among all team members on all aspects of the marketing plan.
  • Make sure goals are established. Before any planning, develop an outline that sets forth the plan’s purpose, overview, goals/objectives, challenges. The outline also should detail the plan itself and strategies to achieve it, along with action items needed to implement those strategies. There also should be a budget and a time line for when the action items will begin.
  • Make sure the plan is evidence-based. The plan should present an independent, objective point of view.