How to know if your marketing stack stacks up

Healthcare marketing tends to lag behind other industries, and the trend for several years has been toward chief marketing officer turned chief marketing technology officer.

By Chris Boyer • February 25, 2016

In my work with healthcare organizations across the country, I’ve noticed a considerable shift of late in marketing communication department budgets. Increasingly, healthcare marketers are going the way of their counterparts in other industries and investing more heavily in marketing technology solutions.

It was bound to happen. Healthcare marketing (and hospital marketing, in particular) tends to lag behind other industries, and the trend for several years has been toward chief marketing officer turned chief marketing technology officer.

Four years ago, Gartner’s Laura McLellan predicted that, “By 2017, the Chief Marketing Officer will spend more money on IT than the Chief Information Officer.” At the time, she noted, nearly a third of marketing technical solutions were funded directly from marketing budgets (instead of being shared with IT) and marketing investments in technical solutions (websites, CRMs, SEO, etc.) had been growing at a much faster rate than non-technical marketing investments.

If ever there was a time for healthcare marketers to start understanding and prioritizing their “marketing stack,” it’s now.

The scoop on the stack

To many of us, the term “marketing stack” may not seem familiar. At first blush, it sounds a bit techie – some term coined by an IT guy referring to a stack of marketing technology equipment (and you would be, in part, right). While there is no standard definition for “marketing stack”, we can loosely define it as the marketing platforms/technologies used to track customers, provide actionable insight into their behaviors and preferences, and ultimately provide the ability to communicate with them in targeted, personalized, and effective ways.

Some of these systems we’ve been using for years. Others are new and we’re only now starting to use them in marketing efforts. Each of these technologies or platforms may be considered separately. But to truly understand their power, we must understand how they work together – that’s the “stack.”

For starters it’s important to think of the potential components of your marketing stack in three categories:

Operational systems

This category contains systems in which marketing data about consumers (which in our space can include patients, potential patients, customers, donors), is stored. These technologies house the core/true data of consumers and can also save additional information that is supplied by other systems in the stack. This category includes customer relationship management databases (CRM), electronic medical record systems (EMR), and electronic data warehouses (EDW).

As the name suggests, the operational system level is the foundation of the overall stack. Having a single source of customer data is important – it allows marketers to track all activity against a single database, and provides the ability to report out on not only short-term but also long-term marketing success. This is critical data that serves as the center of all marketing communication activity. Having one a single source also helps prevent redundancies or missed opportunities that can flow from having multiple sources of data. Of course, given the reliance on EMRs in our industry, most hospitals and health systems have to manage at least two systems at this level, the EMR and the CRM. The trick then is making sure they are interoperable.

Execution systems

This category includes tools that allow marketers to execute on their marketing programs by delivering marketing messaging and tracking customer interactions (tracking back into the operational systems of record). The tools in this category allow for marketers to begin connecting personalized preferences back to individual records (in the operational systems) – an important step towards personalization. Examples include marketing automation (MAP) platforms, social media management (SMM) platforms, and even robust content management systems (CMS).

Layered on top of and deeply integrated with the operational systems, execution systems pass data to and from the foundational systems, using their knowledge of customers to personalize and optimize messages. In addition, execution systems manage the cadence of messaging and traffic the messages over digital systems.

Engagement systems

The last category refers to technology programs and methods used to leverage a specific digital marketing channel and optimize these channels for best performance. These platforms provide an understanding of how consumers act and interact within various digital channels, as well as provide insights into the channel’s effectiveness overall. For example, search engine optimization (SEO) tools (provided either by the CMS or a third-party source like SEOmoz) can help enable better search results; online advertising systems (such as Google Adwords) not only place online ads but help to optimize those ads for effective performance. Other examples of engagement systems include email marketing programs (EMP), and social media publishing (SMP) tools (like HootSuite or Sprinklr). In some ways, a CMS can also be considered an engagement system.

Almost exclusively, customers interact with the engagement systems layer of the marketing stack (rarely interacting with the other two levels). This is why this layer is considered at the top of the marketing stack.

All three stacks have a unique relationship with one another, and it’s critical to ensure all three are optimized and integrated for maximum performance. Of course, there are challenges inherent in optimizing your stack, and for hospitals and health systems, those challenges are often greater than in other industries.

How does your stack stack up?

Currently, the majority of hospitals and health systems are using some elements of a marketing stack, but in very limited ways.

Almost 60 percent of U.S. hospitals reported using a CRM, with many of these being managed and maintained by the marketing team. The two other operational systems – EMR and EDW – are not typically considered by healthcare leaders important data sources to support marketing. This, despite the fact that more than three-fourths of hospitals are using a basic EMR system. This leaves today’s hospital marketers with a limited set of core data…namely, only that information that can be gathered directly by the CRM.

While creating a walled garden between marketing and the EMR or EDW is understandable, is it justified? Make no mistake, preserving patient health information (PHI) is important, and we need to be sensitive to how the use of PHI is perceived publicly. However, as marketing continues to evolve and intermingle with patient education and population health efforts, the need to improve marketing to be more aligned with a patient’s care is critical. Arguably, being able to promote nutrition classes to people recently diagnosed with diabetes is good clinical practice and good marketing practice.

On the top end of the stack, the majority of hospitals and health systems are using digital systems regularly. From email marketing to PPC to SEO efforts, virtually every marketing team throughout the country is either using or learning how to use these tools effectively to support their marketing efforts. In addition, many health systems are partnering with specialized firms to assist them with keyword optimization techniques, online advertising buys (through search engines or social media), and are using social media publishing. In fact, many hospital marketing teams are actively retooling their organizations to become “digital first” – knowing that engagement systems are not just critical to the future of their marketing efforts, but should be the centerpiece of those efforts.

What’s glaringly missing across health systems in the country is a strong middle layer of the stack: execution systems. Sure, many hospitals are testing out marketing automation for smaller efforts (normally to support one or few service line marketing programs). But typically these efforts are very narrowly implemented and are still considered tests or protoypes. That’s probably because implementing marketing automation across multiple marketing activities to measure the overall patient experience can be extremely difficult (and not for the faint of heart).

Separating the stack from the chaff

To close the gaps that are so often found in hospital marketing stacks, many of the operational systems or engagement systems that are created for the healthcare industry are introducing extensions or add-ons to their core technology, and passing them off as pseudo-execution systems. While these bolt-ons may be useful (and allow hospital marketers to dip their toe into marketing automation waters), they often fall far short of what full-scale execution systems can actually provide.

We all know hospital and health systems have lagged years behind other industries in their marketing (and marketing technology investments). The time has come to change this reality. The very reason we often give to move more slowly – we’re dealing with people’s health and care – is the very reason why we need to move faster in filling out our marketing stack.

The tools and technologies are here – the stack is robust enough to handle complex customer pathways (those that patients use in seeking our care). Health system marketers need to spend time ensuring that every layer of their marketing stack is fulfilled and leveraging best-in-class options, and that the systems and platforms are optimized to work together seamlessly. It’s time for us to address our stack-gap – or we may fall even more behind.

  • Chris Boyer

    Chris Boyer

    Chris Boyer brings more than a decade of experience developing innovative digital marketing and communications strategies for hospitals and health systems. Chris is also a founding and Platinum Member of the Mayo Clinic Social Media Health Network, and is a nationally known speaker at healthcare conferences.

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