What is patient marketing? Patient marketing means to market towards patients in order to persuade them to book consultations or exams with us.
Patient marketing is often seen as the broad category that encapsulates patient acquisition, retention, and everything else throughout the patient journey, no matter if it is marketing to existing patients or new ones.
This article is mostly focused on patient acquisition as that’s where I get the most of my questions. Referrals tend to be important parts of patient marketing too, as many patients share their experience and might even refer their close family and friends. But contrary to most other industries, they usually don’t like to share on social media or with people they don’t know well.
Retention is the backbone of the industry and crucial for success. In my experience, marketing plays only a little part in generating awareness and reminders while the real difference is made via the products and care available to patients.
The most cost-effective method for patient marketing
There are not many approaches we can use if we want to drive patients for less than $15 CAC, mostly because many traditional approaches don’t allow us to track the performance at all.
There are two approaches to patient marketing that attract patients cost-effectively long-term. One is to be in front of them when they have demand, the other is to be top of mind when they think about healthcare in general, and hope they think of us.
To be in front of them when they are looking to book a consultation can be challenging since the big problem is knowing exactly when that is. Search marketing is the only channel that can tap into that directly since we’ll be able to see which keywords patients search for.
It’s a great place to get more bookings but it is also competitive and not as affordable as many other channels since marketers are well aware of the benefits of search. If you have the budget to experiment though, it can also be affordable over time.
For most venture-backed tech startups in the healthcare industry, search advertising is the most beneficial as we can gain patients instantly. SEO takes longer to succeed with and tends to be a better choice to scale beyond the initial search ads, as we’ll get a better understanding of which keywords work well for us.
Within the search marketing landscape, Google is the major player and so far ahead than DuckDuckGo, Yahoo, Bing (Microsoft), and Yandex that most businesses don’t care about the visibility they can get there.
The pros of search:
- Search is the only channel that allows us to reach potential patients right when they are looking to book
- It’s relatively straightforward to begin driving patients even with a small budget
- You’ll likely see quick results compared to other methods
The Cons of search:
- The channel is often less affordable and more competitive compared to other digital marketing channels
- Scaling can be tricky as can’t simply increase our budget but have to find more, similar, keywords and battle it out with the competition
Search marketing is usually the first channel medical tech startups work with since it becomes a lot more challenging (and expensive) to drive patients if we can’t figure out exactly when they have demand and be in front of them.
That brings us to the second approach to patient marketing: to be top of mind when they think about healthcare in general.
The second method for patient marketing: always staying top of mind
This approach is a more traditional one that most marketers have been using for a long time simply because they had no other options. We have no idea whether the person seeing our promo needs an exam right now or if they are just looking around.
If not, we’ll simply have to hope to bank on the fact that they might remember us if we’ve exposed ourselves enough to them over time.
Some potential patients or close family of patients will have an unusual interest in it because they know someone who is suffering, and it impacts their life too. They are often more likely to take interest in more information about healthcare without a direct need right when they see our marketing material compared to the average person.
One approach to attract patients without search channels is to build a relationship with those people by offering more information to them in exchange for their email address or phone number. The challenge we tend to run into with those channels is that the marketing will sometimes work well and sometimes not depending on who saw the ad that day. It often won’t be consistent because it isn’t the best way to find and reach potential patients – at least if we are working to track the performance of our campaigns as is usually the point with digital campaigns.
If we don’t, we could simply do branding campaigns with the goal of raising general awareness of the brand by carpet bombing the local area with our ads. We won’t know if it worked 100% like we might with other digital campaigns since it’s hard to say if that’s what drove them to book an appointment or if it was a recommendation from a friend (and often it’s multiple touchpoints rather than just a single one).
The biggest challenge with these campaigns is that since we can’t track the results properly, we can’t improve our own thinking as we never truly know what worked.
The pros and cons of this approach are:
- If you can make it work, there is virtually unlimited scale
- If you are able to make it work, the performance numbers like CAC and CPL will likely be better than on search since the approach is totally different
- Most non-search channels are not a natural fit for on-demand healthcare services
- It’s hard to track the results and which bits are working/not working
If I were to start doing this for a new business, I’d work the search channels first as there’s a good benefit when first starting out since we can see results quickly. I’d use this to scale by following the ideas in this article on healthcare lead generation.
The simplified approach is segmenting the target patients up into smaller groups such as those with a particular chronic disease, allowing us to create a message so specific to them that they can’t resist joining the newsletter to hear more. After that, we can build a relationship with them over time so they think of us when they need their next consultation or examination. If you want to dive deeper, check out this article on patient journeys.
From 200 patients to 1000/month with patient marketing
Next, let’s look at a real-world project I worked on for a client that shall remain anonymous for now. That way, we can look at all of this when it is put to use in the real world.
Note: I’ll show you a general framework but the ranges of patients and how they change as you scale depends on how big your service area is and how many potential patients you can get. For example, compare New York to a small town in the rural mountains – there are just more patient leads available.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that even though patient marketing contains the word marketing, there are huge wins to be had working on the care products, care service area, etc.
You might be in a situation where you feel that the product-market fit is pretty good and it’s time to acquire more patients. By now, many of the patients are likely friends and family, and their friends via word of mouth.
It’s exciting as hell and what’s even more exciting is getting the product in the hands of hundreds of strangers!
The first place to start if you haven’t already is with Google search ads, since we can go for small pockets of patients that bigger players might not want to compete for anymore because it isn’t worth the effort. At the same time, this is our best bet in terms of spending our patient marketing budget effectively since we can reach the most people who need care with the fewest number of tries. Even though it might appear expensive at first, it’s a great fit for a healthcare startup on a limited budget.
Within Google search ads, the big difference comes in the type of keywords we go after since that shows how relevant the people we reach are. There are generally four stages:
- What causes a headache (here they might be looking for information)
- What cures a headache (here they might be looking for a solution and learn that a consultation is relevant)
- Best pediatric clinic in seattle (now they are looking for a specific clinic to visit)
- Dr. Chan’s pediatric clinic seattle book consultation (now they are looking to book with that specific clinic)
I refer to stage four, and in part stage three, as ‘book now’ keywords since they are focused on the final step in the patient journey — booking a consultation with the physician. This is where the money is since people have been through the rest of the flow step by step until they now feel ready to book. At this point, most people’s favorite ad–the one with the big logo, slogan and “buy now” plastered everywhere–will be a great fit assuming that the clinic you and the team represent is trustworthy. Patients at this stage tend to be aware of the product, competitors and are simply looking for the right solution.
If you’ve tried pushing ‘book now’ ads at one of the earlier stages, you already know it’s an expensive approach. We might get the odd patient from time to time but when you look at the CAC, it isn’t worth it. It’s too early for those potential patients to be presented with ‘book now’ ads, instead, we need to bridge the gap between the symptoms they feel and our solution for them.
I’ve found that since the keywords in the first two stages hint that the patient is merely looking for information rather than a booking, it makes more sense to drive organic traffic from those rather than spend the ad budget there. My point here is that since we, at first, are looking for patient performance marketing and direct bookings, we’ll be distracted if we focus on informational keywords or SEO.
That is great news because the broader the scope, the harder it is to dive deep in the keyword research which is where we tend to find great results. By limiting our scope to only looking for ‘book now’ styled keywords, we can dive deeper and look for the keywords with less competition, meaning they drive more affordable bookings for us.
That might for example be:
- General ‘book now’ keywords for your services in your area (e.g. general consultation in denver, pediatric consultation in denver, etc.)
- Competing doctor/clinic names that would serve the same patients in your area
- Best clinic for X (or in X area)
- Pediatric care in X area
- Best telemedicine clinic
- Best general care physician in CITY
Finding the right healthcare keywords is an ongoing process. You might use an ad group with a low budget to ‘scout’ for new search terms that get excluded and added to a targeted campaign but at the same time, look at what competitors are showing up for to get new ideas. Depending on your priorities and team size, you might do that on a weekly or daily basis.
At the same time, we need to test new ads often–more often than you might imagine as there are serious gains in CAC to be had from experimenting. Make sure to test relevant ad copy to the keywords you are running for and focus on what matters; CAC and patient bookings. Often, the Google ads dashboard (and even reps at times) like to distract us with other non-important metrics like CTR. Sure, it can impact the rankings but there are plenty of examples where the ad with the worst CTR is actually the one with the best CAC and volume of new bookings.
The approach that works well here is to focus on small “pockets” of keywords and traffic that don’t scale but are easy to maintain and collect new patient bookings with. Patient marketing will become more challenging as you grow and this will be the easiest place to start if you are looking for your dollars to make an impact.
Only after that, can we consider the informational keywords via ads and SEO. That requires a longer funnel and multiple funnels, and while it’s sexy it’s often a distraction because it creates a disproportionate amount of maintenance work without disproportionate results. Only when we’ve maxed that out and feel stuck for a while, can we go to the informational keywords and follow the same process.
And only after that, does it make sense to consider social media because it makes patient marketing way more complex when it doesn’t have to be. It requires a totally different funnel along with partnerships and Q&A sites, and we tend to get better results by doubling down on what is already working compared to looking for shiny new things because it takes a while to get them going properly.
- There are two overarching approaches to patient marketing: being in front of the patient when they are looking for care or be in front of them as much as possible and hope they remember us when it matters
- To push beyond the first thousand monthly patients in your startup, Google ads tend to be the best bet to find patients that are looking for care right now
- Avoid shiny new patient marketing tactics and channels until you’ve mastered what is already working