Sunday, October 17, 2010

Can You Believe this Campaign Didn't Win An Award?

I hated high school. I have judged some of these awards programs and although there is a formula for how to pick winners sometimes it still seems like all that matters is size, trying to impress people who can help you and brand names. Just like high school. This is one of the most successful PR campaigns I've ever done. Enough said. Launch Campaign - 2009

The Market was a Mess

As healthcare costs climb 9-10% a year, and national unemployment edges close to 10%, companies are increasingly shifting their employees into consumer directed health plans which with health savings accounts, according to Mercer, mean more out-of-pocket costs to everyone.

For a generation trained by managed care organizations to pay flat fees for most healthcare services and prescriptions, learning what they have to pay for health insurance and care can be staggering. Most consumers didn’t even realize that physician’s and hospital fees can be obtained in advance, vary dramatically even within the same market for the same service, and are negotiable particularly if they pay cash.

Dr. Jeffrey Rice, an E-health veteran and healthcare data expert, created the web-based product, to help educate consumers about fair prices for surgeries, treatments and provider office visits.

I worked with Dr. Rice 10 years ago at the beginning of the E-health boom when he raised awareness about the inaccuracies of healthcare information on the Web and advocated the beginning of research-based sites. He asked me
if Stern Communications would help him market and publicize his new venture.

Since all healthcare contracts are negotiated by insurance companies with individual providers, prices for the same service in the same market can vary by more than 500 percent. The Blue Book provides the average price that PPOs pay their providers by zip code for each service. It includes not just the doctor’s costs, but facilities and most other fees associated with a procedure, helping people avoid sticker shock. So consumers can go to their provider with fair pricing information in hand before they agree to a healthcare service and where it will be performed.

Figuring out a Media Strategy with a Product No One Understood

Jeff had a Beta prototype up of on the Web. While competitors required digging for pricing information and a lot of generalized data, the Blue Book was really easy to use. The challenge was that although consumers were savvy about shopping for cars and houses – they knew very little about shopping for healthcare.

A media assessment conducted by calling a dozen major healthcare bloggers at outlets like the Wall Street Journal, US News & World Report, the New York Times, and Health Day showed that the challenge was even greater. Veteran healthcare reporters were skeptical that any new product – was funded by insurance companies as a way to make more money. And they were not reluctant to tell us that.

Making a Splash with a New Launch

The PR campaign goals were to: Transform the Healthcare Blue Book into the leading brand in the fledgling healthcare pricing market by educating media and consumers and creating a network of advocates through industry partners and PR, and to make Dr. Rice a major resource to the media on healthcare pricing.

We wrote a Communications Plan with messages, target audiences, etc. but it was very flexible and changed a lot as we moved forward.

The web site was designed for maximum search potential. Key words were identified and used throughout the site, page coding was aligned to SEO terms and volume and all traffic was tracked and sourced.

More specialty categories are developed as search terms for commonly searched ailments and tests, a higher volume of traffic was driven to the site. Every media hit was analyzed for how much traffic it drove to the Blue Book – and we made a point of going back to places that drew large audiences.

The launch focused on Web versions of traditional name brand media as our top twenty targets and then PR Newswire as a primary distribution source. Our plan was to use monthly news releases to get the Blue Book’s name out there explaining that price is negotiable and build a solid search engine presence.

We did put up a Facebook page, a Wiki, and I tweet campaign milestones, but as the healthcare industry is closely regulated it was not a priority. We also added a modest media home to the web site but focused more on resources for patients, teaching them how to use the Blue Book and shop for fairly priced care.

Initial coverage of the Blue Book was extensive but pretty negative by seasoned healthcare reporters – most media came right out and said it wouldn’t work. Many of the bigger outlets we wanted to write about the new company passed. Although this was somewhat expected, it was a real stumbling block. The bright spot was radio coverage which was primarily based on how to save money.

We sat in on the early calls with Dr. Rice and gave advice on how to tell his story better. He has done quite a bit of media before and is very good at it – our focus was mostly to point out areas where he wasn’t as succinct as possible and could strengthen his messages.

So we switched to a regional strategy and collected data on healthcare prices on specific services or tests like MRIs on a market by market basis. So for instance, we researched MRIs in Chicago, pediatrician office visits in Manhattan and physical therapy fees in Boise. With data showing that what people were charged varied by hundreds or thousands of dollars, we were able to go back to reporters and get them to write about us.

Some took our data as it was – others did their own research. The campaign started to build momentum and we started to get coverage in markets like Chicago, Miami, Houston, etc. We also got coverage from some local television stations – but it was harder because they wanted real people to talk about their experiences. That became a year two goal.

Using Google and Lots of Free Tools to Track Everything

As a supplement, we monitored through Google Alerts coverage of CDHPs, healthcare pricing, and a dozen other search terms related to the business the Blue Book is in. Every time a story appeared on one of these topics we left a comment relating to the story but talking about the Blue Book and the benefits it offered. Slowly but surely we began to get the attention of leading bloggers and writers in the healthcare and consumer finance industry.

Then the health reform debate started and we shifted strategies again. To take advantage of the coverage, we started pushing stories on how to negotiate prices with doctors and hospitals offering advice for how to do it to personal finance reporters who began writing about how to save money on health costs.

We received feature coverage in the online editions and some print editions of the Wall Street Journal, Business Week, New York Times, CNN Money, SmartMoney, Forbes, NPR, Mother Jones and many other outlets.

Analytics were closely tracked and we were able to evaluate which media hits sent the most traffic to the Blue Book site and develop an understanding of media reach in this changing time. There were over 1,000 articles mentioning the Blue Book and about two dozen features in major online media.

How to and pricing data-based news releases were written for SEO and garnered hundreds of thousands of web placements. Blue Book web traffic climbed from a handful of users to upwards of 30,000 per month and grew dramatically in year two. It consistently places at the top of major search engine rankings.

Consumer education is still in its early phases but the Blue Book is clearly the most respected and best known healthcare consumer pricing guide on the market today. Dr. Rice gets an average of 3-5 media calls a month, generated by the 2009 campaign, and the Blue Book was recently featured on CBS’ Morning Show, the Today Show and ABC News online.

I spent three days and a couple hundred dollars creating a notebook that was really thick, a cover, etc - killing trees - because there wasn't even an electronic submission process.

I guess that's what blogs are for.


  1. The article "Expert Marketing in Tough Economic Times" is great

    Economic times epaper is one fo the good site

    thanks for provide more and continue your updates....

  2. Hi Aimee,

    Great story! I heard the piece on NPR, and it really stuck with me.

    I work for a company (Sermo) that provides social networking for physicians. We have 20% of the doctors in the US on our site.

    I would like to speak with you about the possibility of Dr. Rice creating a post on Sermo to start a discussion amongst our community. I think it could start a really incredible discussion.

    --Jon Kaskey