Health Tourism Marketing Trends for 2017: Refocusing the Lens

by Maria K Todd, MHA PhD

CEO & Founder
Mercury Healthcare International

For most health and wellness providers who believe they excel at global patient appeal and reputation, health tourism marketing has changed.

Hospital, physician and dental marketing and promotion are about to enter a new content marketing orbit around virtual reality immersion, transparency and authenticity, using more video and fewer words.  Will your medical, dental or wellness tourism department or destination be ready?

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Where a hospital or spa or medical practitioner was once limited to advertising by word of mouth and paper, now content and advertising vehicles of the past have transitioned into global, digital formats. The content is now far more accessible. As a result, savvy health and wellness suppliers have responded to the on-demand world by update their marketing and branding strategies to remain or become relevant for today’s global marketplace environment.

A new challenge, that of the cross-screen phenomena has left its mark on media, marketing and content creation for healthcare and wellness tourism suppliers. Today, television is not viewed only on a television set, the radio is not listened to on a transistor radio alone and a newspaper is not read solely on the printed page.  The phenomena has potential patients shopping for services and medical tourism destinations jumping from screen to screen and platform to platform. For those charged with the responsibility to promote providers, suppliers and medical tourism destinations, learning how to be fluid in a fast-paced, ever-changing landscape has forced a new skill level that requires them to be adaptive or risk irrelevance by a sophisticated, increasingly mobile-first audience.

For providers who approach this new challenge with a D-I-Y, bootstrap mentality, the quality of the brand’s representation, image, colors, graphics, layout, video quality, and use of typography that is hoisted onto these new platforms becomes the harsh proving ground where the consumer decides in 3 seconds or less if the provider is “of interest” or not relevant.  If the brand presentation captures the buyers’ interest, they may be granted an additional 3 seconds to see if the brand is worthy of their “trust”.  For example, providers in the CIS region hosting a website with royalty-free stock images that they bought for a dollar online that feature a Hispanic nurse will quickly lose out in the trust category.  A Korean health tourism supplier that claims to be a global brand but shows only Korean people in the website is not a global brand simply because it declares itself such; it is a Korean brand marketing globally.

Learn why they stay and why they go

If you don’t believe me, check your website dropoff rates and add heat map technology to your medical tourism webpages to track where people go, click and what they do on your website and when they leave. Add this technology to your website with a WordPress plugin from hotjar.com. They offer a forever free trial that will enable you to monitor and measure website visits for a certain number of impressions. Larger packages with more data capture are available for a modest fee.

Collaborations between brands and media agencies and brands and medical tourism referral agents have emerged as solutions to meet these newfound challenges. The development of new technology platforms has also presented methods to speak to target audiences, although up-and-coming technologies have proved disruptive.  For small private clinics in Greece and other tough economies, for example, there’s no way for them to afford to keep up. The money and staff to do it simply isn’t available. They must rely on facilitators – many of whom find they can’t sustain the business they entered – or that medical tourism is not as lucrative as they originally believed. We see a lot of facilitators give up before 36 months in business.  They don’t announce it to their healthcare supplier network, they just simply “fade away”.  Nobody hears from them again.

If the facilitator also does not have the money, skill and commitment to use these new technology platforms to create content on their own to ignite audience interest, trust and preference, the hospitals that engage with the facilitators see no results using the facilitator marketing strategy either. If they create content that does not accurately reflect the brand of the network suppliers, that is a risk to the supplier – who must now deliver on expectations set by the facilitator that may be unrealistic, untrue, or impossible to deliver. If the content created by the facilitator is subpar, the supplier suffers. If the supplier goes to the effort and expense of creating the collateral and supplying it to the facilitator to protect its brand, it often decides shortly thereafter that it can disintermediate from the facilitator and market its product without assistance. Right or wrong, that’s what is happening in the marketplace.  The turn to platforms such as WhatClinic for a low cost DIY solution with inbound activity directed to an in-house staffer – and poof! Another international patient department is launched. Like magic. 

Either approach done well thrives. Either approach done poorly does not.  Either approach prepared well but implemented incorrectly or aimed at the wrong target audience still fails.

Accreditations and certifications don’t generate revenues

Sellers of “international patient department” training, setup, certification have made valiant efforts to sell what they believed would be the way to market and influence prospect trust. The sellers of this training and certification believed that the medical tourism world would pay them USD $25,000 to do this training, setup and then bestow on the provider a piece of framed wallpaper in the form of a certificate. For them, the mystery is now solved as to why their product strategy hasn’t taken off.  

Simply stated, the product they sell does not “produce” or “influence” buyers to buy. It doesn’t put money in the bank for the facilitator or the hospital, clinic, doctor, dentist or health resort. It takes money out of the bank account and doesn’t produce the intended results. Think of it like salt on food. Salt enhances flavor of a dish in many instances. Use the right amount of salt, it is wonderful.  Use too much, it becomes inedible. Put the salt on your hand and eat it alone with nothing else – that doesn’t happen.  Having an international patient department – one that is trained and certified is like salt. It cannot stand alone and produce results. It must be used in tandem with these other cross platform approaches to marketing and branding and promotion that address the consumers’ freedom to access content on every imaginable platform, served on all of types of devices, and able to be pulled down whatever they want, when they want it. Likewise, the technology is also like salt, it cannot function without an international department or facilitator to answer when someone requests more information or wants to make a booking.  In 2017 and beyond, health and wellness tourism marketers will need to adapt to the way in which the consumer watches advertising and absorbs branding messages, but also adapts to what they are watching and learn why they are watching. Otherwise they risk losing relevance.

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Mercury Health Travel – The leader in Corporate Health Travel Administration for Self-funded Health & Wellness Benefit Plans since 1983.

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Why digital marketing is different from the past

Digital marketing requires more insight than the past advertising metrics that simply measured reach to the eyeball. Digital marketing goes beyond reaching eyeballs in order to be deemed successful. The content must resonate with the audience no matter how the audience decides to view it.  A defining difference between older millennials, Gen Xer and baby boomers is the way in which the groups consume content advertising and marketing. Younger viewers don’t watch that much traditional television, so television advertising is wasted on them.  So spending on television advertising for an infertility clinic or a drug and alcohol rehab center is very likely a waste of ad spend.  Likewise, targeting a baby boomer crowd by advertising on television at the wrong time or the wrong shows is also wasteful.

With digital marketing, the results of failure are sharp and harsh. If you hope your target will be reached or worse yet, have no target and believe that your marketing will reach “someone” searching for what you sell, you will be disappointed.  On the other hand, digital marketing has not yet evolved to the point where we have standardized and viable metric systems for brand marketers to determine if they are creating the correct content, for the right market and at the ideal time.

This leaves marketers second-guessing themselves…and a second-guesser spends less on marketing and advertising. This is especially true in some risk-averse cultures where the penalty for professional failure brings shame and loss of face.

What is different about the new marketing technologies?

Innovative technologies such as augmented and virtual reality as well as 360-degree video content are leading these collaborations to spur consumer interaction.  People don’t have to guess or assume about what their experience will be like as they once did.  This will on doubt impact the sales of stock video footage and stock images available online. The transparency that the consumer will come to expect will be in the form of virtual reality tools that allow them to choose their hotel room or their hospital room after viewing their options of the actual room they will occupy or one just like it, in 360-degree video content.

Story telling will be the method of advertising, with the consumer in the middle of the story, not the features of the hospital or clinic and what it has to sell being bombarded at the consumer – the likes of which they aren’t interested or don’t understand its importance — the same as all these accreditation and certification plaques. What good are they to marketing messages if nobody understands their importance. That’s like speaking Mandarin to someone who speaks Greek.

Now that people can purchase a virtual reality viewer from Samsung and snap their smartphone into it for only $99, virtual reality will be bright shiny object for 2017 medical tourism marketing. Expect it. Watch for it, and if you can’t participate, expect to be left on the sidelines with all your other average competitors.

How will cultural differences in messaging figure in?

You should expect that you’ll still need a medical or dental tourism experiential product strategy, a destination strategy, a brand differentiation strategy, and a marketing and promotional strategy. These will first being with finding similarities across customers. You must know what your brand stands for and how to establish that in the mind of the consumers – regardless of their culture, language, consumer behavior and technology savvy and access. Strategy is the beginning. Execution is where the rubber meets the road. Failure to acknowledge and respect cultural and language differences and the psychology of the patient and or purchase influencers (e.g., parents, adult children, relatives, local doctors and nurses) The master of this was Dr Suzanne Salimbene who after years of dedicated service, thought leadership and authorship in this domain of culture and language sensitivity, has announced her official retirement in sunny Mexico.  Thank you Suzanne, for a career well done and all your contributions. Those of you who missed the chance to work with her missed a big opportunity to learn from the doyenne of this critical element of marketing, strategy and direct patient care improvement.

Embracing national, cultural, language and consumer behavior differences with targeted messaging is something that I find not just lacking but for the most part absent in medical and dental tourism marketing. Most inexperienced medical tourism marketers paint the world with a single color and brushstroke. The few who have experience and a reputation for success have learned that respecting and understanding of neighboring cultures is important. A medical tourism brand in Tunisia for example may not mean the same to consumers in Algeria, Libya, Lebanon, Mauritania, Morocco, Spain, The Canary Islands, Italy, France or  Egypt.

A lesson can be learned from a case study involving German-based Zurich Insurance. As a health insurance provider in 170 countries, the brand’s meaning is the same regardless of locale. But, having a grasp on cultural differences impacts execution. In Germany, there may be 80 million consumers who are native German speakers. Their use of language, meaning and cultural norms and attitudes about healthcare and wellness may be somewhat homogenized. But in nearby Switzerland, 8 million individuals speak four languages. Knowing which languages to develop communications and what to say helps Zurich better position and create authentic connections to its target market. Why the healthcare provider market believes it can succeed in selling medical and dental tourism services and medical tourism destination experiences without a similar acknowledgement to required differentiation and adaptation is incomprehensible.

Visual marketing channels can help to overcome language constraints

Visual social channels such as Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, and You Tube benefit from visual marketing content because marketers do not need to rely on language to convey brand lifestyle. People can watch it. Despite different languages and cultures, everyone (with the exception of China, in many cases) watches the same YouTube and uses the same Facebook. In CIS markets the Facebook and Instagram channels are cannibalized somewhat by VK. In China, RenRen, Baidu and Weibo lead Facebook, Twitter and Google, respectively.  In Latin America, Taringa! is the Facebook clone gaining regional traction.  But video marketing, virtual reality, and experiential story telling with the consumer included as a participant in the story is marketing strategy re-imagined. The video story telling campaign requires no words or translation if the video message is clear.

Another area that is a brand, cultural and regional touchpoint is payment processing. Online banking, mobile payment processing and transferring money by handheld devices is something that private healthcare providers have not yet adopted and mastered.

In 2017, this will become a do or die choice. Why would a consumer agree to pay exorbitant wire transfer fees when they can mobile pay from their smartphone or tablet in a few clicks. What you don’t accept mobile payments? Hmm. Your brand is global? Really? What else about your brand is out of date? Your doctors’ and nurses’ skills? Your technology? Hmm. Maybe I will keep looking for a supplier that is ready to do business – with me!

Your brand messaging, workflows, and imagery must all be congruent and consistent. Nobody would portray a “Call Us Now” call to action using a photo of a rotary dial phone.  When I look at images used on medical tourism websites, if I see paper charts and film-based xrays, and they tout the “latest greatest world class technology” I laugh out loud. And then I click off the site and make a mental note: “Clueless. Not ready. Not trustworthy. What else is false?

When I look at images used on medical tourism websites, if I see paper charts and film-based xrays, and they tout the “latest greatest world class technology” I laugh out loud. And then I click off the site and make a mental note: “Clueless. Not ready. Not trustworthy. What else is false?

That’s what is playing as the sound track in your buyer’s minds as well. Not your JCI or MTA accreditation status!  Hospitals and clinics that remain in the “old word” will find it very difficult to make the leap. Based on the trajectory I see worldwide in medical tourism from my vantage point, the medical tourism market will transition not to “mobile first” but to “mobile only”.

For medical, dental and wellness tourism marketing specialists, medical tourism facilitators, medical tourism destination marketers and other referral agents, the art of content creation, especially video, has evolved. Platforms such as YouTube, Snapchat and Facebook Live have almost overnight revolutionized the playing field.

As consumers’ viewing habits adapt to new options available to them for free, medical tourism brands must rethink what and how their video content will be planned, produced and shared depending on where it will run and on what device and to whom the message is aimed. The time is now to get to know your market – or it won’t be your market. It will be someone else’s.

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