Forget, for a moment, that you're in healthcare marketing. Imagine that you're a consumer staring at your hospital's display advertisement or web landing page for the very first time. Now, list all the reasons why you should check into your hospital and not some other facility on the other side of town, using the ad as your only source of information.

Is it a short list? Maybe you need to rethink how well your content represents your brand. When healthcare researchers at Drexel University analyzed 168 hospital ads in the Philadelphia region, they discovered that most of them looked like each other; 62 percent used photographs of people — representing patients or providers — as their primary piece of content.

“We concluded that hospitals are true to the marketing objective of 'winning the hearts' of healthcare consumers by using patients in the main model in ads," said study co-author Caichen Zhong in a public statement.

However, relatively few of the ads emphasized any unique advantages that would make the hospital stand out from its competitors. For instance, only 4 percent emphasized content related to technology.

“There is nothing wrong with using 'high touch' advertising attributes and focusing on patients," said study co-author Stephen Gambescia, also in a public statement. “But it flies in the face of a primary marketing principle: Differentiating yourself from your competitors."

On the one hand, engaging consumers on their preferred channel with hospital advertising definitely works, increasing market share with “a persistent and prolonged effect over time," according to a study from Emory University. On the other hand, consumers see an average of 5,000 ads every day, according to data presented by the University of Southern California.

If you don't stand out, you don't stand a chance. Let's look at some strategies for developing a brand identity that people will remember.

Your brand arises from your success — or lack thereof — in delivering desirable outcomes to your consumers. So, when influencers like AARP post advice on choosing a hospital, what do you see on the page? Smiling faces? No, you'll find hard references to in-house capabilities, such as patient-to-nurse ratios, and reputation metrics, such as ratings by consumer organizations.

Let's throw in a second factor, location. Potential consumers who live relatively far away from a hospital are more responsive to its advertising, according to the Emory University study. They may be less familiar with it than with other, closer providers, making the ad an important first-contact experience.

In fact, pulling in distant consumers is the primary benefit of hospital advertising, according to Emory. These are the consumers who prize quality healthcare over convenience and have the means to afford it. Privately insured patients respond to advertising more than those with “restrictive forms of insurance," also according to Emory.

So, if you want to increase service line revenues and out-of-town consumers, reach out with content that promotes the high success rate of your couples fertility clinic, or the world-class ambiance of your new in-patient gerontology ward.

Listing how much you charge for services is not an industry custom. But arguments can be made for and against at least mentioning your price philosophy, if not listing them outright. It's a question of who you most want to walk through your front door.

On the one hand, if your prices are low enough to brag about, research at Northwestern University shows that consumers “opt for lower-priced medical services when presented with clear, simple price information."

On the other hand, patients patronizing “high-priced, highly desirable providers," rarely take price into account, “because patients are willing to pay whatever it takes to get their care there," also according to Northwestern.

So, if you specialize in affordable services, by all means let struggling families know that they can afford you. If you have invested in premium talent and equipment, increase that ROI by promoting the best services that the industry has to offer.

Yes, “feel-good" images do play a vital part in your campaigns. Ads based on “emotional pull" are twice as successful as ads based on rational content, also according the University of Southern California.

But it's not an either/or choice. With a little creative planning, you can present emotion and substance together. Why settle for stock images of nurses smiling into their stethoscopes? Hire a professional photographer to shoot patients and providers experiencing a state-of-the-art sports physical therapy center that rivals anything within a hundred miles (or actors portraying patients, for HIPAA compliance). Now anybody looking at those smiling faces will know exactly why they're smiling.

To understand what makes your health system unique, ask for input from its unique human talent. Promoting the county's best oncology department? Take your marketing team on a tour of the offices and labs. Get a feel for what sets it apart from rival clinics. Ask doctors, nurses, and administrators about innovative treatments, patient expectations, and customer service strengths.

“They may know just enough to spot something that may be more aligned with the reality of the product or resonate with the audience," said Gambescia.

Finally, you can't design a great brand if you're too busy designing its delivery system. Focus your marketing talent on content development, while leaving the nuts and bolts to automation. Investing in a modern content management system, built for multi-channel deployment, will make it easier to publish across various displays, analyze with real-time metrics, and revise content in a cost-effective manner.

So, there you have it. Discover where your hospital excels, promote its strengths, create visuals that show off your shiniest equipment, and give yourself a reason to smile.

Want more insight into how your hospital does (or does not) stand out against the competition? Request a free healthcare marketing assessment.