Creating a big plan on a small budget

By Kimball G. Herrod, MBA

Senior Consultant

The Camden Group, El Segundo, CA

Health care providers have had to tighten their belts as they have faced declining reimbursements from managed care organizations and other payers. Medical group and physician practice marketing budgets also have felt the pinch. With the rise of point-of-service and other open-access plans, consumers are regaining the freedom of choice in selecting their health care providers.

In addition, the Internet and other information dissemination media are allowing consumers to become more educated about their health than ever before. Although marketing budgets are being squeezed, consumer-focused marketing plans still play a vital role in attracting patients with choice and increasing practice volume. A proven process for developing effective consumer-focused marketing plans is identified below:

1. Identify goals, objectives, and time frames.

The first step in developing a successful marketing plan is first identifying the goals and objectives of the plan. "Begin with the end in mind," as stated in Stephen R. Covey’s book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, is very applicable in developing a marketing plan. You must determine what you want to accomplish before you begin developing the plan. For example, if the goal of your marketing plan and campaign is to increase the overall image of the group or practice, you would develop entirely different strategies than you would if the goal of the plan is to get patients through the front door. Different goals and objectives in developing a marketing plan may include the following:

• increasing consumer awareness;

• building the image or brand of the medical group/practice;

• increasing patient volume;

• increasing patient/physician referrals;

• improving patient satisfaction.

Meeting as a management team and with physician leaders to determine the overall goals and objectives is an important initial step that will lay the foundation for the rest of the planning process. In addition to determining the goals of the plan, time frames and a schedule must be developed. A schedule that allows adequate time for analysis should be allowed; however, beware of the "deadly delay," which hinders momentum and support for the planning process.

2. Interview key stakeholders.

Interviewing key stakeholders not only will help gain support for the marketing plan, it also will assist in gathering marketing ideas and tactics. As you conduct interviews early in the planning process, you will be able to gain support among key individuals and help them take ownership in the strategies and tactics. Interviews should be conducted with the following:

• physician leadership;

• medical group management;

• referring and nonreferring physicians;

• existing patients;

• former patients.

Others may be interviewed as deemed relevant. During these interviews, you will find out how your physicians and group are perceived by consumers and physicians in the marketplace. Finding out why existing patients choose your services and why physicians refer to your group will help you determine what qualities, benefits, and attributes you should communicate in your marketing efforts. Interviews with nonreferring physicians or with former patients will help you learn what your group must do to improve and what barriers it must overcome.

3. Assess the situation.

The next step in the process of developing a marketing plan consists of performing an internal and external situation assessment. The internal assessment reviews current operations, performance, and internal practices of the medical group. The external assessment evaluates key environmental or marketplace factors that will influence the development of the plan.

o Internal assessment.

Conducting an internal assessment will help identify the overall strengths and weaknesses of the medical group. Reviewing current operations can be accomplished using a variety of research methodologies, such as patient satisfaction surveys, one-on-one interviews, or review of internal data. The internal assessment should help you identify attributes or benefits you provide that differentiate your organization from the competition. Information to be reviewed and analyzed could include the following:

• physician qualifications, experience, and bedside manners;

• office hours, waiting times, and other operational issues;

• quality measures and outcomes;

• existing patient origin (where patients reside);

• accessibility and convenience of physician practices;

• patient volumes by physician, specialty, or service;

• managed care contracts;

• patient satisfaction levels.

Reviewing this information should help identify your organization’s strengths to be leveraged in marketing activities and should be a focus of the marketing plan. In addition, this analysis should identify weaknesses that management must be aware of and deal with appropriately.

o External assessment.

Conducting an external assessment will help identify the opportunities and threats facing your organization. Evaluating the medical group’s position in the marketplace will help determine where the group is now and where it needs to go in the future. Information to be reviewed and analyzed could include the following:

• demographic profile of the service area;

• competition and competitor activity;

• area use rates;

• health plan and payer initiatives;

• managed care penetration;

• market share;

• market segments/potential target audiences.

By understanding your competitive environment, you will be able to develop a marketing plan that will help your organization successfully compete in the marketplace.

4. Identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT).

Pulling together data and information gathered from the interviews with key stakeholders, internal assessment, and external assessment, you are now prepared to conduct a SWOT anal ysis. Although there are many other strategic analysis tools for processing and assimilating information, the SWOT analysis is probably the easiest and most concise tool for summarizing the organization’s overall situation. After completing this analysis, you should meet with the management team and physician leaders to review the findings and evaluate the direction and strategic alternatives for the marketing plan. In this meeting, you should identify key market segments (i.e., demographic, payer, geographic, etc.) you want to target and attract, discuss critical success factors, and revisit the goals and objectives and modify them if appropriate.

5. Developing marketing strategies and tactics.

Now that the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats have been reviewed and evaluated, as well as market segmentation, you are finally prepared to develop specific marketing strategies and tactics to reach targeted audiences. Strategies should focus on communicating your organization’s strengths, rather than trying to use promotions to overcome any negative perceptions your consumers already may have established.

For example, if your medical group has been known for having long waiting times, do not develop promotions that communicate "we don’t have long waits" or "we have quick physician access." Instead, focus on what you already do well and the reasons you are loved by your loyal patients, such as "our physicians utilize the latest technology" or "our physicians listen carefully and are understanding." Try to differentiate your organization from the competition in areas that really matter to patients.

Specific physician marketing strategies and tactics may include the following:

• developing advertisements in local newspapers and magazines;

• improving satisfaction and increasing communication with existing patients;

• improving communication with physicians in the community by developing a newsletter or providing educational presentations;

• sponsoring youth teams (e.g., little league) or volunteering as a high school team physician;

• developing a Web site;

• targeting specific geographic areas;

• using direct mail;

• presenting health education seminars to community groups.

The primary focus of these activities should be on communicating quality and the strengths of your physicians and organization. As you increase positive communication with patients and physicians, you will begin to build trust and develop long-lasting relationships.

6. Achieving agreement on the plan.

The last step in the process of developing a marketing plan is to have the management team and physician leaders review and approve it. Including these stakeholders throughout the planning process will garner good insights and help them take ownership so the plan can be implemented successfully.

Following this six-step planning process will help you develop a marketing plan that will reach targeted audiences and maximize your marketing budget. Developing a marketing plan without going through the appropriate planning process may lead to a plan that is not consumer-focused and does not achieve your organization’s goals. Staying focused throughout the process will increase the effectiveness of your marketing efforts while efficiently using your marketing dollar.