Marketing During Tough Times
It’s very common that many businesses look for ways to save money when things start looking bleak in tough economic times. There’s no doubt that what most businesses are facing amid the COVID-19 crisis has become perhaps the worst economic crisis that many owners and operators have dealt with in decades; if not the entirety of their business lives. The financial impact affects not only the business, but their customers, suppliers, and many ancillary vendors such as insurance payors.
When faced with the survival of their organizations, the inevitable consideration is where to begin making cuts. Operators ask the tough question; Where can I save money? The answer is often found in places like staffing or inventory or marketing. Inventory is usually the easy answer. If you aren’t selling, then there generally isn’t a reason to stock supplies. Simple enough.
Staffing cuts are nearly always a more difficult decision to make. A deep incision, it affects not only the ability of the organization to function but also the “human aspect.” Making staffing cutbacks is never an easy call during financial downturns, but once considered, it must be done with compassion, fairness, and with a mind to what makes the most sense for the business to remain operational and to eventually bounce back.
But marketing cuts are perhaps the one financial expense that should always be the most carefully considered when the economy turns bad and the business is struggling. Many operators look at the accounting sheet and see the large dollar amount set aside to advertising or marketing and quickly think that it is an easy place to reduce expenses. In black and white, that probably makes sense when every dollar spent can be the difference between another day or week of operations. But with marketing and advertising, it would be wise to take a step back and pause before taking such a drastic decision.
Consider first what the purpose of your marketing program is all about? In the most basic terms – WHY DO YOU MARKET OR ADVERTISE? It seems like a simple question, right? You market to bring in customers – or in the case of your practice– patients. You market to let those patients – old or new – know about the services you offer at your practice, new services you’re offering, new hours, new practitioners, or even to remind them about healthful practices.
Many times, your marketing may be just an effort to “stay in touch” or “to show appreciation,” helping to create a tighter bond to those patients or the community that are already aware of your facility or offerings. For many new operators, the ability to market during the first days of their business is what creates a tangible connection between patient and practice by introducing the new facility to the future patient. Using Facebook or other social media platforms, potential patients can become aware of a new practice long before they ever have the need for medical care.
As a new business grows, the need to continue marketing tends to grow exponentially. Attracting new customers or patients is the superfood that spurs that development. A successful marketing plan for any new business – but especially a medical practice – generally means creating a campaign that involves frequent and multi-platform touches to the customer base. Not only reminding the potential patient of your service line but also engaging on a 1-on-1 or community level has shown to be the hallmark of a successful marketing strategy.
So, would this be any different during poor financial times?
Consider the current situation with COVID19 and your customer/patient base. Sure, many of them are facing difficult financial situations not far removed from your own operational struggle. Some have lost their jobs and perhaps even their insurance. But going dark on these patients by not marketing is not doing them any service. In fact, it’s like cutting off their source of reliable, medical information when they most need it.
Remember that in many places, entire families are sheltered-in-place with little more than Google or Facebook, or worse, their friends or family, to provide them with advice when it comes to that rash, that swollen ankle they got from playing in the backyard with the kids, or that new sniffle they developed and are now sure must be Coronavirus. Maintaining that connection by a continuing a strong advertising or marketing campaign provides not only important information to the general public, but also makes you and your practice THE RESOURCE now and into the future for their medical needs.
Maintaining your marketing budget or tailoring it to meet the needs of this new paradigm is really no different than how you created a marketing plan and customized it to meet the changing needs of your business as it grew from opening to developing and then a mature operation. Businesses are dynamic – or should be- and if your marketing is not modifying to meet the changes in your business climate then most likely it has become stale and ineffective. Now is the time to evaluate what you are doing and readjust.
During this COVID19 situation, stopping or decreasing your marketing is the equivalent of telling your customers that you’ve thrown in the towel; that there is no need to reach out to them or that they are not needed. We all know that’s not the case when we see that patient visits are down anywhere from 50-70%. Do we really believe that the patient population just stopped becoming ill and injured? Or that fear and the media superseded our advertising ability to reach patients and let them know that our facilities and providers were still there to manage their care?
Indeed, this is the best time to implement the strategic use of marketing to ensure that your business and message is reaching your customers – and outreaching your competition. Think of this as an OPPORTUNITY rather than a loss or expense. When others are reducing their advertising footprint, your business may have the loudest or most prevalent VOICE in the community. Your business may even be the ONLY one reaching out to let the patient population know that there is still a viable source for healthcare in their area.
Some business operators question what types of marketing they should utilize, which are most effective when considering where to put scarce operational funds. The simple answer is to utilize every form or means that REACHES your customer base. Remember, you are in a fight for your business survival and in healthcare, which means treating patients. Don’t rely on the assumption that patients will come looking for you- especially when they are sheltered in place. The tried and true advertising method of “drive-by” and best location, simply won’t do right now.
Consider some of the following tactics:
- Create a newsletter. This doesn’t have to be lengthy but should be personalized to your community. A newsletter can be a great way to create a more personalized way to get in touch with your patients or prospective patients. Showing that you hear, understand, or share with what they are dealing with, helps bond you with them on a more 1-on-1 level.
- Keep your patient base/prospective patients informed with availability or changes in your practice through social media or direct mail. Lack of knowledge or information is most-frequently the first barrier to utilization
- Promote services through your website, social media and use of video/live video. As above, many patients are under-utilizing services due to a lack of knowledge. Promote new services, show patients how new services work or what they can expect. Reduce the fear of the unknown through video which also “humanizes” the people that work within your business to patients/prospective patients.
- Text or email established patients. Many people are feeling shut in and shut down. Something as simple as a “hello, we’re here and we’re thinking of you”- can not only provide a pick-up but also create a lasting connection.
- Create and promote “safety hours” and the safety precautions your facility has implemented. Like many businesses – have your facility set aside specific hours for “at-risk” patients – those patients that are MORE concerned about coming in contact with other patients due to their age or co-morbid factors. In conjunction with this, you could/should also promote whatever type of video/telehealth services available in order to protect both these patients as well as your staff. Reassure patients about their safety and help reduce the fear.
- Have a banner made. Sometimes “old school” works best. Don’t forget that people are still “visual” and seeing a banner hanging from your façade or in your windows telling them that you have testing available, or simply that you are open, can be a positive and powerful marketing message.
Whatever type of marketing you choose to employ, just CHOOSE SOMETHING. Don’t dig a hole, climb in, and pull the dirt in on top of you; that’s the equivalent of burying your business. Not marketing is essentially deciding that you don’t want to attract any more business- that you’ve given up.
It’s understandable that when finances are tight, you must find a way to trim the fat anywhere and everywhere you can. But doing that at the sacrifice of the one thing that potentially increases your revenue just doesn’t make good business sense.
A last piece of advice – BE POSITIVE. In your marketing, its especially important that you avoid creating a feeling of a FIRE SALE. Customers can sense when things are going downhill with a business. They can see the cutbacks, can tell that morale is suffering or service is lacking. If you’re trying to keep the revenue coming in, then it needs to be business as usual OR better than ever. Customers will flock to a business to get that “deal” when it’s circling the drain, but that only works in retail. When it comes to healthcare, most patients will avoid a provider if it appears that they are closing or there’s a decrease or lack of care provision. Being visible and positive reassures your patients that your business is strong and in it for the long run.
Be sure to convey positivity even if it seems that things are bleakest. There is a quote “If you are hanging in there, that means you still haven’t reached your limits… so don’t give up.” Remember, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. When finances are tight, you don’t have to spend money on expensive ad agencies or folks to create elaborate campaigns. The folks in your community tend to be just like you and your staff. Treat them as you would like to be treated and communicate with them as you’d like to be communicated with if you were in their shoes.
When it comes to tough financial times, the thing to remember is that patients don’t stop getting sick and injured, they just get become more careful about how they spend their healthcare dollars. Make sure that when they DO decide to seek care, they choose your practice. Make sure your facility is the clear choice, the business that comes first to mind for them. Stay in touch with your customer/patient base and do it through an effective and aggressive marketing plan.