Online marketing for health care: Where do you start?

New ways to reach prospects necessitates the adoption of new technologies, hiring of new talent

Doctor consulting
Jess Columbo

Today, more than 3.4 billion people are accessible through social media platforms. Nearly 90% of these users have leveraged their preferred social platform to communicate with a brand or business online.

For health care, specifically, this digital revolution has introduced great opportunity and great risk to our practice and our providers. Some leaders have embraced the change, along with the subsequent power shift:

  • Parents now tell their doctors about alternative remedies they found on Pinterest.
  • Residents and researchers learn from colleagues at rival institutions via Twitter.
  • Specialists find new referral partners and adopt telehealth practices thanks to patient reviews on Google and Yelp.

Some health care leaders, however, have been slow or down-right resistant to meet these evolving patient-consumer demands.

New ways to reach prospects necessitates the adoption of new technologies and the hiring of new talent. New channels for patient advocates to engage with our organization means we’re held publicly accountable for the things that do and do not happen inside our exam rooms.

Perhaps most difficult is that this change requires a shift in both resources and organizational culture. Beyond Facebook ads and eager junior hires, we must invest in corporate brand-building, in robust staff training, and in the tangible improvement of care delivery.

At the risk of wasting limited resources on the next Snapchat or AR tool, here are three strategies to better meet patient expectations and build your organization’s bottom line:

“Own” Your Online Presence: One-third of patients use industry-specific medical or consumer review sites as tools for finding providers. Nearly half of those, who look up a physician online, feel differently about that provider after reading her profile and reviews.

Just as you brush your hair and teeth each morning, you must make time to curate your online reputation. First, complete your clinic and provider profiles with basic business information, including address and phone number, hours of operation, and key physician specialties; this data should be consistent and up-to-date across platforms, so patients and referring providers find what they need, when they need it.

Don’t be Afraid to Get Geeky: Some of us are intimidated by the digital marketing lexicon. Understanding the basics will ensure you’re prioritizing the right work and that you aren’t getting ripped off by a cold-calling, fast-talking sales rep.

SEO is an acronym for Search Engine Optimization, which is the process for increasing the quality and quantity of your website traffic. This is a significant body of work, considering nearly two-thirds of the U.S. population searches online for information related to specific diseases or medical problems.

There are technical SEO strategies that help your website show up prominently in Google searches. There are also SEO benefits to be found in community management (responding thoughtfully to online reviews and social media comments), and in thought leadership (publishing op-eds in the VBJ or maintaining a blog on your own clinic website).

SEO work can be complicated and ongoing, so consult with an agency or professional before digging in.

Analytics refers to the performance metrics associated with your digital marketing program. GA is shorthand for Google Analytics, one of the most robust (and free!) tools in your toolbox.

Be sure someone in your practice is comfortable with the basics of social media and web analytics, so that you have an accurate and real-time look at how patients and prospects are engaging with you and where you have opportunity to improve.

If you hire a digital agency to help with measurement, be sure they’re tracking against business goals and explaining insights in a way that you can easily understand and apply to your practice.

Invest in Your People: Perhaps most challenging – or “where the rubber hits the road” – is connecting the dots between your online representation and offline care delivery.

Today’s health care consumer is just that – a consumer! From Amazon to Nordstrom, they are accustomed to immediate and personalized brand experiences.

Patients want their care when and how they want it. That means, you can successfully manage online reviews and build a robust social media community and still fail patients with an unfriendly front-desk staff, clunky appointment scheduling tool or an unaccommodating clinical team.
If your employees aren’t empowered to give great service in-clinic or your website isn’t mobile friendly, those promoted Facebook posts are “leading a horse” to a dirty watering hole. You’re literally inviting bad reviews that you’ll now have to pay someone to respond to.

A great Disney Institute mantra to follow is this: Allow your team to be off-task if they are on-mission.

This begets an important question: Does your team understand and embrace your corporate mission? Do they know what it looks like to “bring the bag around the counter” for patient-customers? Dig into this internal work before you waste too much money on tone-deaf social media marketing.

New generations of patients and physicians are driving significant change in health care. Although the resource implications can be challenging, this shift is driving real industry innovation, exciting new research and meaningful patient outcomes.

I encourage you to embrace this changing landscape by investing in internal education and incremental updates to your digital marketing presence; it will soon mean the difference between a sinking or sustaining health care practice.

Jess Columbo is CEO and chief strategist of Med|Ed Digital, a health care marketing consultancy in the Portland/Vancouver Metro area. Visit


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