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Differentiation drives marketing plans

October 23, 2015

New sector growth will present some key marketing challenges for addiction treatment centers for the next several years. After all, a growing market is an attractive prospect for investors and new entrants to the marketplace, which translates into more competition.

Since behavioral health derives its patient volume largely from referrals—not location, as is the case for most medical providers—it’s especially important to optimize marketing efforts.

The Affordable Care Act and other favorable legislation have provided consumers more access than ever to insurance coverage for addiction treatment. In addition, the political landscape is shifting toward advocating treatment as an alternative to incarceration. Clearly, one new marketing challenge stems from the need to convert the broader pool of potential patients into program admissions.

“There is a larger and much more diverse population that now has access to addiction treatment,” says Melissa Fors, executive director of marketing strategy for Hazelden Betty Ford in Minneapolis. “Our job is not only to educate people about addiction and the treatment options available, but we also have to let them know that they are now able to get treatment because they now have insurance coverage available to them.”

Fors also notes the need, in many cases, to educate these consumers about their benefits under the Affordable Care Act and parity rules.

Growing competition and capacity in the marketplace is partly a result of the influx of investment into the addiction treatment industry. More cash is allowing new programs to launch and existing programs to expand organically or through acquisitions. This influx of private equity capital is also offering new resources for enhanced marketing budgets.

Therefore, in this environment, “the marketing challenge is differentiation, whether through a website or social media” or some other means, says Rachel Docekal, vice president of marketing and brand strategy for Origins Behavioral HealthCare in West Palm Beach, Fla.

Differentiating your business

As treatment centers look for ways to stand out in the crowd, online marketing will continue to predominate with treatment centers investing heavily in websites that aim to turn clicks into admissions.

“Pay per click (PPC) and search engine optimization (SEO) are the most obvious elements of this, but even direct marketing has to have an online component,” says Andrew Spanswick, CEO of KLEAN Treatment Centers, a CARF-accredited organization based in West Hollywood, Calif. “Right now, it’s all about content and mobile devices. If you are not seen there, you are missing 50 percent or more of the market.”

The trouble is, online marketing can be costly, especially for smaller operations.

“Those that are simply throwing money at media are seeing their costs rise by roughly 12 percent a year, which is pretty unsustainable,” says Dan Gemp, president and CEO of Dreamscape Marketing in Baltimore. “That has the potential to make the cost of sales double every six years or so.”

Online marketing can also be an ethical minefield. In a click-centric environment, treatment centers must be careful how they go about getting those clicks.

“There are players in this space who are not ethical,” says Docekal. “These players are using keywords and phrases to represent their programming in a way that may not reflect what they are actually doing.”

A more transparent call to action is recommended by experts with a marketing strategy that places greater emphasis on content.

Many treatment centers are driving online traffic to unique informational content, including blog posts, articles, podcasts and video. For example, to maximize its online presence, KLEAN Treatment Centers leverages a radio show that it has been producing for the past six years, which is captured in short video clips, showing the speakers interacting in the recording studio.

Recently, Elements Behavioral Health launched, a consumer-facing website with content such as, “Would you become un-addicted if you could?” and a link to download its Cassava recovery app. Marketing teams are paying attention to content as much as they are clicks. And it’s time well spent.

Who, What and Where?

The more relevant content a treatment center develops and promotes, the stronger the overall online presence, specifically: better placement in organic (not paid) internet search results. This content-driven marketing has the added advantage of educating audiences about various aspects of addiction treatment and recovery. For example, Fors notes the need for marketing to provide education about opioid addiction for not only potential patients and their families but to the medical professionals prescribing these drugs.

How treatment centers go about developing a content-based marketing program will depend on what generally drives that center’s admissions. For example, if most admissions come through referrals, content can include something as simple as regular email campaigns or periodic newsletters to the center’s referral network and alumni. If sales and outreach personnel are driving admissions, Gemp suggests developing a mobile app or other tools such as video tours or a photo gallery that these professionals can use to demonstrate the benefits of the treatment center.

This type of marketing strategy is paying off.

 “These centers are not only succeeding at a higher level, but they are experiencing a lower cost per admission over time,” says Gemp.

However, others are not convinced that content alone will be enough. In fact, as marketing technology grows more sophisticated and/or expensive, it could put pressure on smaller treatment centers that are unable to keep pace in their marketing budgets. Spanswick predicts that larger, consolidated treatment centers will soon be working with big data mining companies to target new clients directly on their communication devices.

In the meantime, treatment centers are spending more and more on marketing, all vying to attract basically the same client population: those who have the resources or the insurance coverage to pay for treatment.

Find the right balance

The most compelling story any addiction treatment center has to tell is in its outcomes. For that reason, Origins Behavioral HealthCare focuses its marketing on solutions, says Docekal. Because treatment decisions are too often driven by insurance questions, Origins aims to move the discussion beyond that by focusing on why its program provides patients genuine value.

“Suddenly, this is no longer about the deductible, it’s really about programming,” she says.

While most treatment centers make sure that their websites have professional photographs of patient rooms and meals, marketers can’t lose focus on treatment efficacy.

“Comforts and amenities are relevant because when people feel safe and at home, they are more likely to receive the message and absorb the therapy,” says Joe Schrank, founder of sober living facility The Williamsburg House in Williamsburg, N.Y. “Recovery can be viewed as depravation or punishment, but rehab isn’t a spa either. Finding a balance is key.”

Some treatment centers offer specific numbers on program success and outcomes. However, using these types of metrics comes with constraints and should be presented with extreme care, according to experts, not only from an ethical standpoint but also from a marketing standpoint. Industrywide, there are no agreed upon, validated, objective measures of outcomes that can be compared across programs—at least not yet.

What’s more, from the consumer perspective, outcomes data is often misunderstood. Add in the lack of independent standards for this data or a recognized means of ensuring its validity, and it’s clear that treatment centers must be able to explain why their data is relevant and accurate. Transparency is key. Organizations could consider using a third-party auditor or outside clinical consultant to independently validate the data.

Experts also say treatment centers should take care not to allow outcomes data to create outsized expectations among potential patients and their families. Outcomes data is “putting a number on hope, and consumers will be paying you for probability of success,” says Gemp. For that reason, he urges treatment centers to underpromise when it comes to publishing outcomes data.

“You will find your consumers trust you more,” he says.

Reputation is all

Executives know that marketing is just the beginning. Capabilities, reputation and response to the changing landscape have become mission critical. In fact, as addiction treatment becomes more common, some marketers expect word-of-mouth referrals to become more valuable.

“As more and more people are able to access treatment, they will have first-hand knowledge of what it was like and what they would change about the programs,” says Schrank. “While shame continues to be a massive problem, it is slowly diminishing.”

As a result, clients are more willing to share their experiences, educating others and making these types of referrals more common.

“The best marketing is providing effective treatment and getting organic referrals from the people whose lives you have saved,” says Spanswick.

Joanne Sammer is a freelance writer based in New Jersey.

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