Think about the last time you went to the doctor. Chances are, you came armed with at least a few questions, maybe even a request for a lab test. You might have been convinced you knew exactly what was wrong: You just needed someone to narrow it down between a common allergy or something more serious.
You wanted a definitive answer, and if you didn't get one from your doctor, you were prepared to move on to a specialist.
Congratulations: You're an informed healthcare consumer.
You have access to more information at your fingertips than anyone in all of history had in a lifetime.
You know more.
You demand more.
And you share more; not only with your friends and family, but with the world.
It's all part of a digital consumer revolution that's been underway for years—one that presents new challenges for any healthcare marketing strategy.
Here are just a few of those key challenges and what healthcare marketers should be doing to address them.
Consumers are taking charge of their health like never before. More than 91 percent of all Americans search online for health information, researching how to manage a condition, exploring symptoms and looking for treatment, according to Makovsky/Kelton's fifth annual "Pulse of Online Health" survey.
General health information websites, such as WebMD, are the most popular sites, with 59 percent of people reporting they had visited them in the past six months, according to an eMarketer.com article that cites a 2012 comScore poll. That's followed by disease sites (12 percent), drug sites (9 percent) and government websites, such as the CDC (8 percent.)
In fact, one in five Internet users say they rely on the web as their trusted source of medical information.
Whether you're serving patients or medical professionals, it's clear your consumers are going to be researching a solution online long before they ever call for an appointment or request a consultation.
Patients Google their symptoms, wondering if their persistent hacking cough is a sign of bronchitis, pertussis or a cold that won't quit.
Physicians look to peer-reviewed publications, such as medical journals on ScienceDirect.com.
Whether consumers are trying to put a name to their illness or comparing options, healthcare marketers need to meet them where they are with a combination of high-level, awareness-stage content and more detailed information. Consumers in the awareness stage of the buyer's journey want to see intriguing blog posts, articles and videos with a general focus on solving their problems. As they come closer to finding a solution, they'll want to see more product comparisons, case studies and testimonials.
Almost two-thirds of consumers now prefer to use mobile apps to manage their health, according to the "Pulse Of Online Health" survey. In the next five years, Accenture's market research predicts 1.7 billion smartphones and tablets will have mobile health apps installed.
This isn't just true for patients. More than 85 percent of physicians use smartphones at work, including for online research. On average, physicians spend 11 hours per week online for professional purposes, according to a 2012 "Taking the Pulse" survey by Manhattan Research.
Unfortunately, 68 percent of the top 25 healthcare companies in 2013 did not have websites that were optimized for mobile.
If your company doesn't make it easy for busy consumers or healthcare professionals to access health information while they're on the go, you'll lose them.
A website that's responsive and optimized for mobile will make it easier for visitors to find you and make them more likely to come back.
Google's recent addition of mobile optimization to its ranking factors means your website is likely to suffer lower search engine rankings and less organic traffic if it isn't mobile-friendly by now.
But it's not just about being found. Studies have shown responsive website design results in higher conversion rates, experiencing year-over-year increases up to 11 percent higher than those that aren't responsive.
More consumers, particularly those in the youngest generation, are turning to social media to talk about health concerns or look for health-related news. In fact, 90 percent of those 18-24 said they would trust medical information shared by others on their social media networks, according to Search Engine Watch. And more than 40 percent of all consumers surveyed by Demi & Cooper Advertising and DC Interactive Group said social media factored into their choice of a specific doctor, hospital or medical facility.
Social media has created a new customer service access point where customers expect an immediate response, said Kelly Barnes, U.S. Health Industries leader for PwC.
The same is true among the B2B healthcare sector, where 31 percent of professionals use it for networking, and it's becoming increasingly common for providers to seek out medical advice in online communities.
Healthcare marketers should take advantage of social media as a way to respond to their concerns and join the conversation.
Most consumers (72 percent) trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations, according to a Search Engine Land article shared on MedNet.com. And more than half say they're more likely to use a local business if they have positive reviews.
If you run a patient-based practice, take the time to set up a Google+ business page and encourage patients to post reviews there. You can post signs in the office and send them a link to the page as part of any follow-up communications they receive, whether they are marketing emails or patient survey emails sent through a secure database.
Consider offering an incentive, such as a chance to win a gift card, to consumers who take the time to write a review or fill out a customer satisfaction survey.
Healthcare marketers face a number of obstacles as they press on across the digital frontier. They tend to be understandably cautious in their approach to using email and social media due to concerns about patient privacy. They're more hesitant to put out information that hasn't undergone a rigorous peer-reviewed process.
Their own staff tends to be so focused on serving patients or managing operations that they don't have the time it takes to produce or review quality content, keep their website updated and stay engaged on social media. They're nervous about outsourcing their marketing operations to a third party, fearing they won't understand their business. But in the meantime, they're falling behind competitors with a more established online presence.
They need to meet consumers and healthcare professionals where they are—online—and respond to their most pressing concerns long before the next office visit.
For practical tips on building brand awareness while adhering to industry regulations, check out our healthcare strategy guide.