Communicate with the baby boomers

Aim to reach the decision makers

Educating physicians about the cost-effective, high-quality care provided by your facility is only half of the marketing equation. Patients are the other half, and in many ways they are a tougher nut to crack. While most elderly hospital patients are older Medicare beneficiaries, they can be a diverse lot, especially if you account for the fact that their middle-aged children may be the decision makers for medical care. As the nation’s population grows older, baby boomers — the proverbial cow making its way down the python’s gullet of U.S. health care — will be faced not only with their parents’ mortality, but their own as well.

Boomers have been characterized as a group that is accustomed to being in control. It was the boomer-aged women who prompted hospitals to rethink their approach to labor and delivery. They demanded more choices and greater power in the process, and changed an industry as a result.

Baby boomers are poised to change the health care industry in much the same way. They will watch their parents go through the dying process, and that experience will provide the basis for their own choices regarding health care. Health care facilities have every reason to make that experience as good as possible.

According to Kristen Wolf, president of Spitfire Strategies, a Washington, DC-based communications consulting firm that helps organizations affect social change, targeting marketing efforts toward health care decision makers within a family and those who have influence on family decisions can go a long way.

The traditional health care marketing approach can be summed up simply: "Get the word out." That usually entails producing brochures and videos explaining the facility’s philosophy. At its best, this approach is a rational way of increasing awareness. But it’s less effective as a way to reach a middle-aged daughter confronted with the declining health of a parent.

"These are emotional times," says Wolf. "Your marketing cannot be rational."

In other words, brochures or nurses explaining health care may not be enough. In a time of crisis, the health care message will be lost if it is not delivered by a figure of trust. You have to target marketing to those who have an emotional connection to the patient or family. For example, clergy can have a tremendous influence on families in times of crisis.

A targeted marketing approach begins with understanding exactly whom you are trying to reach. Look for the gatekeepers, Wolf advises. These are the people who are advisors to patients and their families. Once you determine who your target is — women in their forties, for example, because they are the primary medical decision makers for elderly parents — ask yourself this question: What motivates this population to seek a health care facility for a family member? There may be a number of answers, such as guilt, fear of watching loved ones suffer, or dissatisfaction with current medical care.

Targeted marketing is nothing new. It’s omni-present. Just look at the wide variety of television ads. Fast-food companies aim their messages at a variety of different audiences. Cereal boxes are designed to appeal to children because producers know children can affect the buying habits of their parents.

"If you want to grow your customer base, you’ll have to target your marketing," Wolf says.