Monday, July 13, 2009

The Rating Game

While driving through a metro area recently, that music popped into my head.  You know, the theme that introduced "The Dating Game," the landmark game show of the 60's, 70's, and 80's. A bachelorette would question three bachelors, who were hidden from her view and at the end, choose one to go out with on a date paid for by the show.  (Sound familiar?  Come to think about it, maybe game shows were the original reality TV that took one episode instead of dragging us through 13 weeks.)

Back to my road trip and why that musical theme popped into mind.  On three consecutive billboards (and yes, I do look at them), there were hospital ad messages.  In a competitive market this otherwise would not strike me as odd, but it was the content that nearly caused me off the road.

The first billboard claimed "Rated #1 for heart surgery."  The second featured a well-known magazine masthead and cited "One of the country's best in neurosciences."  The third featured a top percentile in quality rankings.  If this was a series for Burma Shave Cream, it would not be unusual.  But it wasn't - rather it was for three competing hospitals, all within about 15 miles from each other.

And it was another example of hospitals trying to woo the consumer with virtually undifferentiated ideas and messages.  

Can you imagine this script on The Rating Game:

Consumer:  Hi there hospitals, you all sound so impressive!  (AUDIENCE MAKING "WHOOO" NOISES), I'm looking for a hospital,  tell me why I should choose you...

Hospital #1:  I'll make you see stars! (WHOOO) See, I've been given a 5-star rating and, 
aside from the small print, that's big news!

Consumer:  Why thank you, #1, very nice.  Hospital #2...

Hospital #2:  Ratings, schmatings, I've been published.  Sure, there are data to wade through, but once you read the fine print, you'll see why you should choose me.

Consumer:   I've always liked a hospital with its name in print (WHOOO).  Hospital 3...

Hospital #3:  Well, my dear consumer (WHOOO).  See, the reason you should pick me is 
that I'm ranked among the highest in the country...

Consumer:   Wow, by who???

Hospital #3:  Right, um, let's just say, by lots of different people.

Host:   Wow, so many choices - who will she pick, stay tuned after this message from (another hospital), named best in 12 zip-codes in six sub-specialities!


How to avoid The Rating Game

If your hospital has earned high marks in a given specialty or across quality attributes, it is important to bring that to your public's attention.  Rankings and ratings have long been a hallmark of the hospital marketing industry.  

The problem is that few consumers can truly differentiate one rating and ranking from another because the sources are not well-known and or credible outside the hospital industry.  Unlike "Consumer Reports" or "Good Housekeeping," or "J.D. Power," hospital ratings are all over the board and, if you dig deep enough, can find - or create - some statistic to position your brand as "best."  Until one source climbs to the top, or regulations arise which require hospital advertising to be substantiated, there's a good chance that your rating message will not get you selected from behind the curtain.

Here are some thoughts for competing in The Rating Game.
  • Your hospital still needs a larger brand promise - ratings should support your brand promise, not become it.  
  • A ratings message is a short-term opportunity - it has a short shelf-life, and frankly, doesn't need a sustained promotional effort.  Make it stand-alone news and then integrate it into your larger program.
  • Use a medium that can explain the message - billboards merely announcing your hospital's ranking or rating won't do it justice.  Newspapers, radio ads, and web sites are better at going into details.
  • Use social media to encourage customer interaction with your message and get "Fans, Friends, and Followers" to support your claim.
If your hospital has performed well enough to be named one of the nation's best or has a high quality ranking based on key attributes, you should give it a shout out.  But don't just yell it louder than the hospital down the street.  And don't make it the focus of your brand.  It's too transient a message and oftentimes not distinctive.

Make it part of your ongoing brand position and use the right media to make your point.  If you just throw it up on a billboard, there's a pretty good chance the guy traveling down the road isn't a healthcare marketing professional humming a game show tune out loud.



Chris Bevolo said...

Ahhh Rob, we are two pebbles cut from the same stone. I couldn't agree more with your assessments and recommendations. The more of us who post similar thoughts, the more ammo for those hc marketers who agree with us, the more leaders we'll hopefully convince to be smart about this stuff.

In the meantime, though, maybe you and I should start our own rankings - The Healthcare Ranking Billboard Rankings. We could rate the best (worst?) billboards promoting rankings, which would give those hospitals one more thing to promote. If you can't beat, join em.

Mosquitoman said...

As Ed McMahon used to say, "You are right sir!" But hospitals want desperately to be newsy and relevant. Auto companies can introduce shiny new models. Retailers can throw big-big sales. Restaurants can promote tasty new sandwiches. What do hospitals do? What makes them exciting? After all, who really cares about hospital services until they're really scared or really sick? "#1 in neurosciences"? Yeah, I'll file that away for the next time I have a brain tumor. What works better for hospital marketing is like what worked better on "The Dating Game." Stop talking about yourself (your job, your car, your $1000 suits). Engage the person you're trying to woo by demonstrating an interest in them and their concerns. You got a top ranking in heart care? Offer ME something that I need. A free risk assessment on your Web site. Or something else. Stop bragging. It's no way to win a date.

Anthony Cirillo said...

Hospital marketers are desperate, repeat desperate and honestly have no real way of showing how to differentiate themselves except to advertise, advertise, advertise. Today's ratings may come back to bite you later when those ratings fall. Bottom line - it's the experience stupid. Treat me like a human being and maybe I will tell others.

Daphne Swancutt said...

Well said, Rob! I like Chris's idea of ranking the billboards who are spewing the rankings, though I wouldn't stop at the billboards.

I just can't decide which is the bigger culprit in perpetuating this kind of crap: laziness, bad advice (yup, from the agency), laziness, fear of standing up to whoever, laziness, a genuine feeling that third-party rankings actually mean something to consumers, or laziness (or all of the above plus more laziness).

Anthony Cirillo said...

All the research that shows people do not pay attention to these and don't understand them does not deter the hospital marketer from carrying on! To Daphne's point of laziness, I add fear. Oh my God if we don't do something......

Anonymous said...

The ranking system is certainly not a good game to play.

For starters, I think it limits the hospital’s message in terms of their other services. Ok, so they are “ranked” by someone they are the top cancer treatment center in the Midwest. My first question is, what about the rest of their services? Are they not ranked #1 in cardiology, surgery or anything else? If not, why not?

I also think it is poor use of marketing dollars. The hospital is targeting a very specific need at a very specific time. If I don’t have that problem at the very moment I’m driving by the billboard and tune the billboard out.

If you look at hospitals that have a strong brand presence like Children’s Memorial here in Chicago or the Mayo Clinic or even the Cleveland Clinic, you’ll notice the hospital as an entity has the reputation. Not any particular service.

As a patient, I want to be assured that I'm visiting the best hospital, period.

Therefore, I think hospitals should focus on reinforcing their "story" (what they represent) which has much more sustainability than A ranking.

Because if next year, the hospital doesn't get the #1 ranking, then what will they fall back on, another ranking? Or should they focus on building a reputation that goes beyond any one ranking system?