Lisa Wells is a veteran of online marketing and e-commerce with more than 20 years of experience with public relations, marketing communications and web-based product management. She founded Naturally Able, Inc., a consumer support organization and medical device marketing consultancy that advises health care providers on better ways to connect with customers who have disabilities. HomeCare talked with her about how to improve home medical equipment (HME) marketing and public relations.
HOMECARE: Is there a “step one” for communicating better with customers, especially in these times?
WELLS: COVID-19 caused a lot of disruption in the marketplace, especially in the supply chain. And on top of that, there’s a recall from a major respiratory manufacturer. How should HME providers communicate these difficulties with their clients? … A golden rule of public relations is, if you don’t state what the reality is, the people you serve who are dependent on it will make up whatever the truth is for themselves. And 99.9% of the time, that truth will be negative because it’s how we are wired psychologically, especially when you’re dependent on something.
It is super important through challenging times—whether it’s logistic challenges, product recalls, pandemic response—in any one of those situations, you have a lot of uncertainty and a lot of fear. So you have to go back to your caregiver roots in this space to understand how to calm fears and the way you communicate about what’s happening to your customers. And I’m not calling them patients for a reason. They’re customers; they’re people like you and me and they react like we do. It’s better to over-communicate or anticipate a need that you’re going to have to explain before you’re in the middle of a crisis.
So, when you have to tell somebody you’re out of an item, always recommend an alternative, explain the timeline and make sure to share that it is network-wide and not a failing of you as a health care provider, because that helps them understand. People are more likely to be gracious about it and calm down because they’re understanding they’re dealing with uncertain times. But you have to explain it, because if you don’t, they’re just going to assume the worst and think you’re bad at your job.
HC: What language should providers avoid when they’re talking about this kind of issue?
WELLS: You want to avoid language that makes people feel like they are powerless, like they have no choices because chances are, your customers already encounter that feeling because of whatever condition they have on a regular basis. So you don’t want to drive away your active base. That’s the fastest way to do it—to take away their choice and their power in a situation and to talk to them as if they don’t have one.
The second thing is, even if there is no choice because the product or the situation is untenable and it has to be a change for the better, … [then you approach it as] we have to work this out together. That is the way, language-wise, to do it. We are here to work it out together, but we need your help to figure out what’s best for you. So if you start with that in any type of crisis, it calms down your audience, calms down your employees because you’ve given them a script that’s now helping. And then you work out solutions together, but you have to have a plan before you go into of how to train people. And then you communicate, communicate, communicate to as many touch points as you can.
HC: What are some marketing angles people are missing? Talk a little bit about personalization.
WELLS: If you blast people with emails, personalize them. If you’re doing social media, put out content that talks about people like them, that they can identify with. Use technology to your advantage. If you are spending $300,000 a year on Google AdWords, consider targeting ads instead of blanketing ads like you have done on TV, because it’s such a broad-based, expensive way to do it. Look at technology for ways to really drill into your identified customer base. Chances are, if you have a thousand active clients, I guarantee you, you have 10,000 inactive names. Internet Protocol (IP) target those addresses.
The first adopters for this in the health care space were hospital systems because they have a very defined service area. A hospital has a service map in which they’re allowed to provide care, so when people come into the neighborhood, you’ll see hospitals targeting those people. They do mailers into those physical addresses, which you can do, too. But when you have the physical address technology, it’s called IP targeting. You can send your messaging straight into any computer at that physical address as well.
I’ve been doing that for five years already to drive brands around big competitors that have 10 times the sales force and 10 times the budget that I did. I’m targeting straight into the physical source that either can choose our products or recommend the products. So instead of doing $300,000 Google Ad campaigns, I target banner ads into a list of 1,000 urologists that go straight into their office and anyone on their computer, in their office all day long, they’re going to see my product ads bounce up in front of them. And they think I’m running a $300,000 national campaign; I am not, I am running a $1,000-a-month campaign.
HC: People are often unable to go into the community because of COVID-19 and other things. If you can’t go out into the community, how do you engage your audience?
WELLS: Digital is the way. And that’s actually a strategy. I’ve been talking with some of my friends in the industry; so many salespeople are locked out of referral sources right now, because you know, if elective surgeries are canceled, I’m pretty sure your reps not going to be invited there either, right? So that’s where things (come in) like appropriate imaging and ramping up your digital presence and personalizing your automated experience and really doubling down on how you would reach out online to get your brand out. This is the time for that. This is the time where, if you haven’t understood the power of technology, if you don’t know anything about IP targeting, if you don’t know how to write an authentic blog and to share it in a condition-based Facebook group that is solely an audience made up of people you serve, if you don’t know how to get there, now’s the time to.
I mean, it’s past the time you should already be there, but now is the time to really commit to that digital change. You’re a lifeline right now, you know this … While you’re sitting at home, feeling terrible, [it helps to check] in with people online. Don’t you feel that yourself? Well, anyone who’s recently paralyzed or who’s just had a stroke or who’s found out they have cancer or who doesn’t know what to do with their mom with diabetes is going to find that same comfort level in those online channels, if it’s delivered in a way that’s meant to be received well by them instead of a sales pitch, right?
HC: Is there anything that we missed that you just really want providers to know?
WELLS: I will tell you that if you are interested, truly, in scaling your business in a way that is meaningful, yet profitable—which means [it’s] sustainable for the long run for the people you serve—digital [marketing] is a key component that you can no longer overlook. [And it’s] not just having a responsive website that people can see on a cellphone. That’s basic, right?
You have to get to the point where you’re talking to people on a regular basis in ways that are not a physical cost to you, a physical action by a set of hands. The other thing about buzz versus branding: Brand is who you are, what you stand for; this is the body of the car. Buzz is the wheels on the car. And the wheels on the car are so important from a digital standpoint because it will influence more than just potential customers. If you ever want to sell your business, it influences the people who might buy it. If you have a recruiting need for your own team, it helps people evaluate who you are and whether or not they want to work for you. If you have shareholders, it gives them more meaning behind what they’ve invested in so they’re not screaming at you all the time because of a blip on the market. Now’s the time to do it. There are so many good reasons for doing more in this space than just the bare minimum that I would really encourage providers to consider that as they are making their plan to go to market. Make sure that it’s customer-focused first, because if you choose to be the difference then you will be, not just with your own team, but in the families you serve all over your community.
Want more from Wells? Listen to her episode of the HomeCare Podcast here.