In marketing parlance, features are anything inherent in your product of service, what you have designed and embedded into it and how you differentiate your service or product from your competitors.

Benefits, on the other hand, are what the customer gets out of it. Many laws and regulations that protect consumers prohibit advertising by physicians and hospitals altogether. Others restrict what can be promised (results, cures, etc.) or advertised. So, above all, be mindful of both local and destination laws where your messages will be delivered.

Too often, my team of creative experts and I roll our eyes at the blatant mistakes made by novice healthcare marketers because of the content they choose to promote, to whom, how and where and also because of the use of graphics and images that accompany their marketing messages. With some of it, it is so bad and poorly developed that we have no words; we just shake our heads. The worst part is they won't accept any criticism or evaluate from a different more objective perspective. We can only wish them well and spend our time and effort elsewhere.

Healthcare marketing, advertising and public relations are great examples of the multiple mishaps that occur when providers attempt to market the features they spent hours developing and have pride in what they've built. There's nothing wrong with being proud of and passionate about your business and the features that differentiate you from your competitors, but the way you do this is the critical success factor that often escapes you - for one reason, because you may be too close to the matter to be objective about your advertisement, brochure, website, or other collateral.

How to create the messages you'll use

Start by thinking about interactions you've had with your clients. Which features do they mention and comment about in social media and ratings sites? Listen for and read what they view as the benefits statements in their comments.

Match the benefits of your targeted customers. To do that, you must first analyze your potential customers in terms of the following:

  • Demographics: age sex, income, education level, marital status, family size, home ownership, occupation and other similar characteristics
  • Lifestyle: Values and attitudes that include their needs and purchase decisions when it comes to choice of healthcare providers, brand influence and loyalty, value placed on name brand recognition (Mayo, Cleveland Clinic, Johns Hopkins, etc.) and faith-based organizations (Catholic Health, Intermountain Healthcare, Opus Dei, Baptist, Methodist, National Jewish, Shriners, St Jude, etc.)
  • Media usage: Bridal magazines, parenting magazines, inflight magazines, first time home-buyers, financial publications, etc.
  • Purchase characteristics: Do customers buy what you sell? Or do they pick providers from an insurance plan roster of participating providers? Parents don't buy pediatric services; their parents do. Seniors don't buy gerontological services; their adult children often do this for them. Determine who influences or restricts purchases to a short list of suppliers. Decide what messages go to influencers and what messages will be presented directly to consumers.
  • Geographic location: Where people live - suburbs, urban settings, out in rural areas where healthcare access may be limited.

These characteristics help you to know your customer and targeted prospects. From this knowledge, you'll develop your messages and transform features you offer to benefits they will derive.

Most novice marketers skip the critical step of conducting objective and unbiasedmarket research. This is often the well worth the time and investment, but the supplier doing D-I-Y market research may feel they already know this information. They are often too eager to get the word out even if it is wrong. When the marketing advertising and public relations is ineffective they have no one to "blame" but their own inexperience and lack of training and expertise. Skip it to your detriment!

Imagine your ten best customers

  1. What did they buy?
  2. Why did they buy it?
  3. Why did they choose you over your competitor?
  4. How frequently do they purchase services from you?
  5. How is the market changing? Are there sustainability risks to your business associated with these changes? What downstream trends will affect your customers? How will the answers to the four previous questions change over the next 3-5 years?

Remember, focus on the benefits to your customers, not your product, technology or services.

Study your competition

Analyze your competitors. How substitutable are you? You must analyze not only what your competitors offer and advertise, but their positioning in the mind of the competitor.

Two competitors cannot occupy the same space at the same time. True in physics. True in market positioning.

So to begin, write a short statement about each competitor. Include the following as you compare them to what you offer as a benefit:

  1. What do they do best, in their opinion?
  2. For whom?
  3. What is their biggest benefit to their customers?
  4. What publicly available evidence supports their claims?
  5. How will customers compare what they offer to what you offer?

For example, your comparative summary might say the following:

"XYZs customers perceive xyz's benefits as sufficient to earn their loyalty. They don't realize the value of ABCs researchers and specialists when it comes to routine major or minor surgical repairs and joint replacements, or consultations with world renowned specialists who are invited to conduct clinical trials on the latest surgical approaches and implants/devices and technologies. They do value what others say in social media rating sites, word of mouth from trusted influencers, and certifications and accreditations. They also value the reliability and predictability that XYZ has developed over its fifty years serving the community. These benefits will be difficult to replicate or drive successful market penetration as a newcomer. We can attempt to overcome this established loyalty by offering the following benefits and unique selling propositions: [list]."

Examine your Advantage Over Your Competition

Packaging: How do you package your offer? It doesn't matter if you offer hospital inpatient services, outpatient services, medical tourism, concierge medicine, wheelchairs and DME, home nursing services, or physical therapy. Packaging (bundling) isn't about pretty wrappers in healthcare. It is often about amenities that are included in the price paid.

Performance attributes: Are your services more accessible, are you open longer hours, on weekends, how soon can you give an appointment?

Follow-through: Do you call patients after a procedure? Do you offer transportation home? Do you include take home medications so they don't have to find a pharmacy and wait at the counter for a prescription to be filled? Do you offer pre-hab training and home safety inspections (stairs, loose carpets, furniture placement, threshold evaluations, toilet and shower assessments, etc.)

Your image: This relates to the ambiance, cachet, or environment of care. Where are your services rendered? I am having some difficulty with this as I relocate to another city where there is no real highrise downtown setting with a central business district like the 28th floor penthouse office we are currently headquartered in. This is a problem because where we are located now, people "google the address" to see the street view and the building we are headquartered in to see how established we are and where. I remember doing this with a medical tourism facilitator that published his address. It was a council flat with the garbage bins lined up at the front entrance. The grass was brown, there was no landscaping and a car was up on cinder blocks in front of the flat. How does that compare to my office in a Central Business District Class-A highrise with a reception desk to greet visitors, and covered parking. When I asked the other guy about his on a fam tour in Malaysia, he said "No one is expected to come to my office, everything is done via the internet and telephone." Wrong answer! People make judgments on the fees you charge based on the image they interpret. My downtown office coupled with my commercially published, best selling books, client references, and other competitive differentiation often translates to comfort in our experience, success, confidence, establishment, etc. The home business entrepreneur gives the impression of a startup, small operator, not as established, unsuccessful, unable to afford a downtown CBD office rent, or doesn't have customers. They don't think "oh, it doesn't matter that transactions are internet-based or telephonic". They are buying part of that image as part of the product - logical or not.

This whole image matter is also what pulls down the popularity of healthcare services offered in India and other lesser developed nations. People see the hospital pictures and then start looking at the neighborhood where the hospital, clinic or hotel are located. They look at walkability, safety, urban and regional settings, sidewalks, public transportation options and more before deciding on the treatment destination in tandem with the specialist or surgeon.

I've had many clients ask me to come to their location to transition their practice to a concierge medicine business model. I've assisted about 420 transitions so far over the last 10 years. I can easily estimate that about 20 percent where in an ideal setting to charge a membership fee and all cash or part cash / part insurance. The rest needed to change locations to be successful with the model. Most were surprised when I brought up the connection between image, location, and price. But then, when I asked why they don't eat or order from XYZ restaurant up the street they said "Ew, that place?" Helloooooooo?

Your distribution: Are you where your customers need you to be located? Are your advertisements and promotions everywhere your competitors appear? Or are you the best kept secret? Do you have what your customers want, when they want it?

Your price point and impression of quality: This combination is critical in establishing your value. When customers perceive high value, they expect to pay more for it; not less. That is why when medical tourism providers in countries like India, Turkey, Colombia, and Mexico purport to have high or higher value than the USA but claim prices are 90% less than the USA, the customer doesn't believe the advertising. The argument defies all consumer logic!

Low quality at a lower price can be a good value too, but in healthcare, the consumer doesn't view this the same as a purchase of rubber beach sandals bought in a tourist convenience store or gas station.

Ease of substitution (fungibility): How easy would it be for patients to switch doctors or hospitals? Or wheelchair vendors? Or physiotherapists? One phone call, one authorization for release of records is all it usually takes. That's because most medical providers, facilities and suppliers have yet to establish an unsubstitutable, differentiated position in their customer's hearts and minds.

Newness: Are there new products, procedures, surgical approaches, technologies, improvements or innovations you plan to introduce? How do they benefit the customer? The fact that they are new is not the answer. It has to be something that is beneficial, and more so than that which its predecessor supplants. Otherwise, it is "just new." So what!

Brand name and reputation: Who are you and who cares who you are? Why do they care?

Determine where and how you outperform your competition in terms of benefits instead of features

By doing this, you will discover where your advantages may lie. Decide which benefit is your key advantage with each targeted customer group. Stake out a territory where you can stand alone. Peel back as many layers of the onion as necessary to differentiate yourself.

Let's talk

If you are having trouble doing this exercise yourself because you aren't sufficiently objective or unbiased, hire the help you need. To advertise and promote your business, you must create a favorable impression and positive perception about your service or product or amenities package. To do that, you must begin from where the customer is, not your offer and features.

Market research, done properly, can dramatically increase the odds that you will position your healthcare business or professional services offering successfully. Without this, your subsequent work and expenditures on advertising, promotion and public relations will suffer. Make sure you lay a proper foundation that is sustainable.

This article originally appeared on LinkedIn's Pulse - 7/18/17

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Clients dramatically improve their healthcare operations, business growth, and profitability after working with Maria Todd. They realize benefit to reimbursements, volumes of new patients, and health plan brand value resulting in higher reimbursements and patient steerage.

Her unique skill set comes from over 35 years of experience at all six seats at the table, clinical, administrative, insurance contracting, healthcare marketing and branding, and health law paralegal work. She intertwines these skills in a way that no other consultant can offer because most usually only offer one of these expertise and have to call upon others - each with their own fees and expenses to comprise the other five. She solves problems for clients and shortens time and reduces expenses associated with hiring a consultant. This is an additional value added benefit of working with her.

Maria adds value to every project she accepts. If she doesn't believe she can add value, she turns the project down. She loves watching her clients' successes and watching them grow and thrive. She is also brutally honest with clients which they tend to appreciate when working with her. She is direct. She pulls no punches and doesn't sugar coat bad news or constructive criticisms.

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