The Evolution of Digital Advertising

In a recent episode of the Touch Point podcast, True North Digital Marketing Specialist Michael Robideau advises hospitals and healthcare systems on ways to optimize their digital advertising during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

Michael Robideau, Senior Digital Marketing SpecialistWith more than 10 years experience in digital/search marketing, including stints with e-commerce and retail brands as well as serving as digital marketing specialist for Fairview Health Services, Michael understands the digital marketing landscape in health care as well as anyone. He recently appeared on the Touch Point podcast to share expert perspective on how healthcare marketers can foster brand loyalty and build a pipeline for high-value service lines during the crisis. Listen to the full episode and get the highlights from Michael's interview below.

On Digital Marketing Shifts during COVID

Some marketers have this idea that they don't want to offend people by advertising online, but there are other ways healthcare organizations can engage consumers and help them through the crisis. The health systems we’re working with are industry leaders because they realize everyone is desperate for real, accurate information right now—and we're helping them meet that demand. If you look at search and social data, everybody wants to know about the coronavirus and they need content that helps them understand what's really going on. Most importantly, they're asking the question: “How can I help take care of myself?” Hospital and health systems are the most trusted sources of that information. For a while, Google was blocking legitimate companies trying to put out valuable information or trying to get people to make a shift and go to online healthcare platforms. You can't search anything related to COVID-19 or coronavirus without Google basically owning those top spots in search rankings as they rewrote their platform strictly for this pandemic. They've taken control over search results so it becomes even more important to find different ways to get your content out there. During this crisis, we have to adjust our thinking on digital advertising and ask ourselves: What is a conversion right now? A conversion is not a new patient while access is limited, but it might be looking at how much content are they consuming. How much are they viewing or downloading? How much are they responding? We're building a pool for when this turns back on. There's going to be a floodgate and we have to be ready to open it. These are challenging times, with Google claiming the majority of search traffic and delays in launching campaigns on Facebook as their employees are working home like everyone else. However, that doesn't mean we can't start filling the funnel while the costs are down. It's a down market, so we can take the approach of looking at different goals and different tactics, where the conversion might be capturing search volume for phrases like, "Do you offer this service?" or "What type of doctors do you offer?" We're looking at that higher level, top-of-the-funnel conversion now.

On Brand Strategies during COVID

You have to ask yourself: Is digital advertising stopping? Is my competitor stopping? No, they're not. Are they able to gain patients like you? No, but they're not stopping advertising. They're not stopping building their brand and that's the most important thing. By putting that top-of-the-funnel information out there, it's almost like a pivot to the new paradigm of patient acquisition. We're building positive impressions and getting them to remember us so that when the crisis is over, they choose us for their care. Once our campaigns are live and we review the data, it’s clear that consumers are engaging with healthcare content. You're seeing impressions go up much higher than they typically would because there's so much demand. We, as healthcare marketers, have a unique opportunity to start building more brand loyalty during this crisis. Most people don't know their primary care doctor anymore—if they even have a primary care doctor (they might have a facility or a clinic they turn to when seeking care). That's where we can start building trust and differentiating our healthcare brands.

On Building a Pipeline for Priority Services

A personal story: My wife is home and it’s been a cleaning-the-house type of moment for both of us. So we said, let's look at getting someone out to price getting some trees taken down. Let's get people out to look at replacing the garage door. Like us, people have more time than ever to be planning and preparing to make purchases for things they need. At some point soon, we're going to get back to normal and there's going to be a floodgate of healthcare organizations looking to refill their funnel. Everyone of us will be re-investing immediately when we can, so you're going to see a sharp increase in costs for those who haven’t been consistent. Google and Facebook like those advertisers that have stayed true to them. When you have a campaign that runs consistently, it builds credibility and gives you a competitive advantage. So even in these dark times, if we're taking those campaigns and just kind of shifting what we're doing with them and keep running, Google loves us. It gives us that ability to stay ahead of the curve.

On Effective Content

I’m seeing a lot of negativity in the news and online, but there are many ways that we can actually start to find joy in this crisis. There are so many incredible stories within health care and we can start advertising around that. This could simply be informing the community of what's going on and how to stay safe. It’s about expanding focus from solely bottom-of-the-funnel conversions to building brand awareness and affinity at the top-of-the-funnel. In some ways, we’re hitting the reset button on advertising right now. There are so many new opportunities to educate, inform and teach our audiences who are hungry for information. For example, elective surgeries are postponed in many areas—but just because we can't do it doesn't mean people aren't searching for it. I've been walking on a daily basis with my family and my knee is starting to kill me. Am I going to be able to get my knee taken care of right away? No, but that doesn't mean I'm not trying to figure out, in two months, where I am going to go and what I am going to do. You're seeing these shifts in digital advertising. Instead of talking about coming in for an appointment, your messaging can answer questions like, “How do I take care of myself until I'm ready to come in?” It's critical to build that brand knowledge now so you’re the best choice for treatment when the time is right.

On the Future of Digital Advertising in Health Care

I think one of the biggest shifts is the idea of telehealth and digital health care. The virtual care market has been growing slowly for a long time—and now it’s exploding. There were a lot of questions around how it works. While in-person visits have been preferred, everybody's now being forced to use telehealth. I think you're going to find that once people get a taste for it and find out how simple it is, that's going to become the new norm. For healthcare organizations, providing that education is critical. It's a new way to build relationships with our brands and fill the funnels for priority service lines.

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A Unique View on Healthcare Digital Marketing

Having guided the digital marketing strategy for health systems, our digital team leads can relate to the highs and lows that come with the territory. Here’s how that translates into their roles at True North Custom, along with their take on trends with the greatest potential impact on healthcare digital marketing.

Ashley Dufrene, Senior Digital Marketing SpecialistMichael Robideau, Senior Digital Marketing SpecialistAshley Dufrene and Michael Robideau, senior digital marketing specialists at True North, have both walked a mile in the shoes of health system marketers, having previously served at Halifax Health (Florida) and Fairview Health Services (Minnesota), respectively. Here’s how they’re leveraging that experience, their digital marketing expertise and healthy doses of empathy to help clients navigate a path to success.

Why did you decide to shift to the strategic partner side of the marketing relationship? 

Ashley: Whether I am working at a health system or on the agency side, being a strategic partner is ingrained in me. I wanted to work for True North because the opportunity to be a strategic partner for many health systems, instead of just one, was very appealing. [Watch Ashley share additional perspective on why she joined True North in this video.]

Health care, and the understanding of health care and what you have access to in your community, is very important in this country. I feel people still hear “health care” and think of it as this complicated beast and try to avoid it at all cost. To me that is not a fair assessment, and communities need to understand what access they have to care.

Michael: The great thing about digital marketing, and why I love the industry so much, is the fact that what you do today could completely change tomorrow. Now that I’m on the strategic partner side of the equation, I am able to push my limits more and build off my skill sets to continue helping clients grow and succeed.

How does your previous experience working for health systems inform your work at True North?

Ashley: I know there is more to the story. Some people see a hospital building, and that’s often all they see: a building. Most do not realize what truly goes on inside of that building and the access to amazing care.

That access carries through to all healthcare systems or hospitals­—each has many different attributes that make it the best. Knowing how to make the community aware of those attributes is a game changer. My goal is to help foster the relationship between communities and their healthcare providers so they’re closer than ever before.

Michael: I come from a unique situation in that, when I started my previous job, I was working with three of the largest healthcare providers in the state of Minnesota, all at the same time. I helped lead the new branding efforts when they all merged and have experience with numerous aspects of health care.

I have worked in everything from primary care to most forms of specialty care to educational medicine. There is little that can be thrown at me in terms of digital marketing for healthcare organizations that I haven’t already seen, tested and created a strategic plan for.

What are some of the greatest challenges health systems face when it comes to digital marketing? How do you help clients overcome those challenges?

Ashley: Even though digital marketing is not a new concept, it’s still an emerging concept in health care. A primary reason for that is HIPAA. Many systems avoided using online marketing because of patient privacy information.

Now that those established rules about HIPAA compliance are in place, the health industry is more open to using digital. But where do you start? That is where we come in. We know the rules, we know what you can and cannot do when it comes to healthcare digital marketing, and we bring that knowledge to our clients every day to ensure they remain complaint while getting the results they’re looking for.

Michael: Honestly, when we talk about digital marketing, one of the biggest areas that needs work is just the effort. There is often this idea of, “Everyone needs health care, why advertise?” But that is the furthest thing from the truth. Consumers today are very savvy and conscious of their decisions, and with all the technology at their fingertips, it's more important than ever to place your brand message out there.

On top of that, the healthcare industry is changing by the minute. How brands advertise to consumers has become a challenging puzzle as providers start to look at how they compete, not only with your standard healthcare providers, but also with new providers in the market such as Amazon and Walmart. These brands definitely have the ability to change the way health care operates, and the opportunity to work in the area is exciting.

What are some digital marketing trends you anticipate having the most impact on health systems in 2020 and beyond?

Ashley: Three words: Trim the fat. Now that there have been several years of data to showcase what works and what doesn’t in digital marketing for health care, many organizations will start trimming the fat—focusing on niche targeting efforts to ensure they are getting the right message in front of their consumers at the right time to achieve the goal conversion.

Since health care was late in the game getting into digital marketing, we have seen organizations overspend on digital efforts just to not get the results they were told could be achieved (because they didn’t know better). But now the knowledge has caught up. We are seeing a shift in health systems: They’re consolidating vendors and trying to find strategic partners that can align on all fronts of marketing, not just one aspect of it.

Michael: Right now, looking at how Walmart and Amazon will potentially change the way health care operates is crazy to me. Today, you can slip, fall and break your arm, and while waiting for your X-ray results (which you got at Walmart), you can shop and prepare for your day. Walmart has already started rolling out clinics within their stores—and not just minute clinics, but fully operational offices.

Or, imagine being able to ask Alexa to contact your doctor for a prescription refill, or even have a face-to-face conversation with a doctor, all with your information and vitals being taken from your Alexa device. This is the future of health care, and the change that it will bring is incredibly exciting.

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Weight-Loss Campaign Generates 100+ Leads in 60 Days

Claxton-Hepburn Medical Center’s ongoing campaign for its weight-loss surgery program is generating outstanding results.


In late summer 2019, Claxton-Hepburn Medical Center approached True North Custom with a challenge: The Ogdensburg, New York, medical center had partnered with bariatric surgeons to launch a weight-loss surgery program, and the first patient seminar was already scheduled for Sept. 17. The hospital’s marketing department had no materials to support the program.

Claxton-Hepburn, a True North client for 17 years, needed a campaign that would inform potential patients about the existence of the program, encourage those interested to attend an information session and then provide potential patients with additional materials to help them make a decision about the surgery.

“Our team was up to the challenge,” says Debra Branson, account manager at True North. “Within days, our team had developed a strategic approach for a multi-pronged campaign that met the client’s needs.”

Nurturing Patients Along the Way

The center of Claxton-Hepburn’s campaign was a weight-loss surgery landing page that provided seminar information, introduced the surgeons and served as a seminar registration portal. A direct mail campaign, along with digital advertising through Facebook and paid search, directed potential patients to the landing page to learn more about the program and register to attend an information session. Once registered, patients began receiving the components of a five-part email drip campaign that guided them along the decision-making process.

“Before they attended the information session, the potential patients received an email thanking them for registering, and two emails were deployed a few days before the information session reminding them of the date and time of the program,” Branson says. “After they attended the seminar, they received supplementary information to help them learn more, including a four-page downloadable guide, an infographic and a video—all custom content created by the True North team.”

Generating Outstanding Results

In the first 60 days, campaigns promoting the September and October weight-loss seminars delivered outstanding results:

Leads Generated

(candidates interested in attending the seminars)

Registrants Confirmed

People attended the seminars

with 20 attendees signing up to be formally evaluated for the program

The email nurturing campaign has proven to be a valuable asset for the campaign, with an average open rate of 48%. 

“Within two days of launching this campaign, we saw potential patients register for the information session, and continued to have multiple people register every week,” Branson says. “This is an example of how a well-designed campaign can attract the right patients, encourage them to take action and then nurture them along the decision-making process.” 

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