Digital healthcare marketing: uncovering the hidden big wins

Once I was working on a digital healthcare marketing project and testing out Quora ads, the new cool kid on the block in advertising land.

Only to discover that their traffic is mostly Indian and American, meaning that if we only service a local area we don’t benefit much from using this channel to reach them unless we are in major Indian or American cities. I did see local sites with the same Q&A idea perform a little better.

Most of us love the idea of performance marketing and know that search is the ideal marketing channel in digital healthcare marketing but what’s next after that?

It’s dangerous to bank on just one channel in the long run as new players without the need to drive the same level of volume have the advantage. With the pressure to keep them at bay, it can be challenging to think up creative ideas for new and exciting experiments that aren’t the usual funky Facebook ad.

I’ve found that starting with a white canvas is a terrible idea as it’s too broad. Instead, set some boundaries to get the creative juices flowing. Study your market to find hidden levers such as if there might be a law forcing companies to offer their employees checkups and take advantage of it as a growth channel.

Ironically, with marketing for digital healthcare products I’ve found that the best kept secret is offline marketing and relationships now that everyone is online focused these days. It’s much easier to build trust and relationships with platforms that can make a difference offline compared to online.

The dangerous trap of metrics in digital healthcare products

The birth of the internet and the connectivity it brings with it has given us some awesome inventions like telemedicine and tracking of advertising performance but it also brought many new challenges along with it.

One is the overwhelming number of metrics it brings with it and the task of figuring out which metrics we are right to be looking at when we dive deeper than just revenue and sales. Obviously, that is a good thing because it allows us to get a deeper understanding of our patients and their behavior, and we can ultimately build something they will love more which in turn would build us a bigger company.

We tend to love finite games like chess with set boundaries we can play within as infinite games become too ambiguous at times, so it’s only natural that we love using certain marketing metrics as our north star.

The difficulty comes in evaluating the metrics every now and then, “resetting” the game when we’ve made significant improvements, and delegating it to a team member while we question which other metric to dive into next. In the pursuit of growing a particular metric, we tend to forget to evaluate whether that metric continues to lead to the growth or the goal we thought it would. Often it does at first but might create a spillover effect in other areas of the business that isn’t always great.

A classic example is when the sales team increases the sales dramatically but you realize that they did so by overselling the product on something that it can never deliver, which leads to churn and unhappy customers.

This is only a representation of the true challenge: making ourselves redundant in the existing projects so we can take on bigger and more impactful ones to grow our careers. If you find yourself caring about the same exact metrics for several years in a row, it might indicate that we are stuck.

A simple digital healthcare marketing example is running performance-based ads. As a junior employee, we might start out by learning how to create scroll-stopping visuals and media buying, and our most important metric might be the ad’s clickthrough rate while our boss focuses on the overall performance of the campaigns. When we’ve mastered that, we might learn about website conversions and eventually be responsible for the entire campaign and funnels within that traffic source before we become in charge of the same for multiple traffic sources.

Ultimately, it all comes back to money so having your eye on revenue, profit and sales is never a bad idea. Within digital healthcare marketing, many of us might start out working to master a traffic source before moving up to analyze the entire conversion funnel only to realize that in an established business, retention is where the big impact is.

Should we solve patient acquisition or retention?

When we look at online healthcare marketing, those three (getting patients in the door, funnel optimization, and retaining them) tend to be the simplest way to break things down into smaller chunks.

Since the healthcare industry tends to be a retention heavy industry, it’s natural to want to be the hero and solve the problem of an attractive, stable and predictable patient CAC at scale. The irony is that there is a reason someone hasn’t already done that — it’s not because people haven’t tried! 

Often we’ll find some easy “pockets” to conquer on search and think “this is easy! What has everyone else been doing!?” until we reach a certain scale and those highly profitable pockets get conquered by new players who aren’t trying to scale yet as we have to manage a bigger patient volume. We’ll soon find ourselves with no clear way to scale on the marketing side without seriously considering a much higher CAC as new channels don’t perform as well and eventually lead to diminishing returns.

At this point, it’s sensible to consider connecting the dots between a higher margin due to retention, more use cases with a higher share of the patient’s wallet, and how that allows us to accept a higher CAC when acquiring the patients.

Since most of us tend to not argue with a doctor and just go see one when we have a health problem, strong retention is a given and it often makes more sense to play to the industry’s strength as that fits the natural behavior of the customers rather than trying to excite them about visiting a physician when they don’t see the need. Making them care about something they naturally don’t is really hard and expensive.

The problem we run into here is that everyone loves the same set of metrics and framework for all VC backed startups, and since there is no popular framework or examples from the healthcare industry yet, it’s convenient to attempt applying frameworks of other industries to it.

We can feel tempted to look at businesses that we buy products from in our personal life, often ecommerce businesses or marketplaces that have a fundamentally different approach to acquiring customers. Many of them struggle with retention and have to make up for that on the top of the funnel, often with attempts to gather free viral traffic and publicity.

Try that for a physician based business and you’ll quickly realize that no one cares. Ramit Sethi is a great example of that when he created a product around picking a health insurance only to realize no one cared.

A more viable solution in the long term is to demonstrate the power of retention and connect the dots between how retention leads to dominating patient acquisition.

We’ve already seen this happen with most of the big performance marketing channels like Facebook and Google since their inception. They started out allowing everyone to buy their ad space and not regulating anything meaning that people would create super spammy ads because it sold and was easy. 

Sooner or later, regulations becomes tighter, word spreads and bigger brands enter the same ad space wrestling out the smaller players by being able to pay a lot more to acquire their customers because their backend is stronger or they are able to accept a longer payback period until eventually industries like healthcare, real estate, investment and insurance dominate relevant keywords.

The same is true for the new hip neighborhood in town. Small random shops start out leasing the space but eventually, the bigger chains wrestle them out until they, too, dominate the area simply by having a stronger business model that allows them to pay more in rent upfront.

Dominate your digital marketing metrics

A great approach for digital healthcare marketing projects is the portfolio strategy. If we are looking to grow the revenue, sales or traffic it’s hard to predict which ideas will truly move the needle and which won’t. 

The good news is you don’t have to with the portfolio strategy. It’s inspired by venture capital investing where an investor might have a portfolio with a range of investments and she knows that many of the companies won’t make it, a few will do ok and just one or two will make it big but pay for the return of all the other ones and then some. That’s the game.

Following the portfolio strategy with online healthcare marketing means building and testing enough experiments that some of them will work out and make a meaningful impact but many might not. It removes the stress that every experiment has to perform, which isn’t realistic as it’s a test based on a hypothesis. It also helps us avoid oneitis and instead of putting all our hope into one great idea, we experiment with many.

That means we can instead focus on the marketing operations and ensure that we consistently put new experiments in the world as that gives us more chances of making an impact — like entering a new gladiator into the ring to battle the existing champion.

digital healthcare marketing - fighters

The idea is to shift our thinking from the outcome that we can’t control to the input that we can. It’s challenging to build a well-oiled machine that churns out new projects every week and the best way I’ve found to start building a foundation is to analyze the existing digital sales funnels and then list out the areas where you see a problem, bottleneck or room for improvement.

I like to keep track of them in a simple spreadsheet that shows an overview of each project along with things like the hypothesis of the project, the deadline and impact the test had on the business. 

Next, forecast the impact of each potential experiment so you know if it might make a difference before even starting the project, that way we can identify the most important metrics to work on. Following that, drill into that specific metric and brainstorm all the ideas that could help move the needle on that one item, prioritize them based on impact vs resources and timeline needed to complete and test the idea. Then build and test each one.

Keep the flow going and it’s now all about the swings we take each day and week rather than the sales or revenue metric itself since we know that it will be improved over time as we test different ideas.


  • It’s important to question our metrics regularly to make sure if that the output they are measuring is meaningful for what we are trying to do and doesn’t create other problems that we hadn’t anticipated
  • Sooner or later, we’ll come to realize that the consistency of our day to day marketing operations will make or break our results in the long term, which influences the result of our career as well
  • It can feel surprisingly challenging to brainstorm new creative marketing ideas for the 57th time. If you are stuck, try creating boundaries for yourself to spark new ideas and look to avoid the classic channels and ideas

By Aske

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