Imagine you’re 13 years old and away at summer camp. You’re given free time one afternoon to write home.

You decide to first write the obligatory letter home to your mom and dad. Your words are chosen carefully. Your penmanship is precise. Your letter’s voice is mechanical, but you’re checking off the boxes of what your parents want to hear.

The second letter is different. It’s the one you can’t wait to write. That’s the letter to your best friend, your latest crush or a sibling. That letter erupts out of you in a fury. You describe everything with Van Gogh-like intensity. Your pen scratches out your heartfelt declaration with extreme, blistering urgency.

Two letters. One person (you). About (practically) the same topic. Yet the letters couldn’t be more different. Why? The answer is your audience.

Your 13-year-old self knew what your parents wanted to hear, and so you obliged. Your younger self also knew that your friend, crush or sibling cared about your feelings in different ways. So you delivered.

The more you know about your audience, the more personalized your communication strategies will be. You’ll make informed decisions about key messages, design and media selection based on tangible knowledge of your health readers, viewers and listeners. 

Personalize everything

The fundamental reason most advertising and communication strategies don’t work is because they target a nondescript consumer who:

  • Is anywhere from 25 to 64 years old

  • Is either male or female

  • Is married or unmarried

  • Is Caucasian or another ethnicity

  • Has children or doesn’t have children

  • Is wealthy or comfortable or lives paycheck to paycheck

Without a clear, defined audience in which you know her life, challenges, hopes and fears—and why your brand is relevant to heryour marketing and advertising will likely be ignored.

Audiences today have plenty of ways to tune out brands. The average person spends 147 minutes a day on her phone. Do you think she’ll pay attention to messaging that doesn’t engage and resonate?


Knowing your audience also means appreciating how they think about health care and how they search for health care brands. This knowledge determines how your marketing approaches should evolve.

A national survey conducted by Klein & Partners reveals that the first place people look for health-related information today is WebMD, followed by Google, and then asking friends and family.

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Just the facts, ma’am

Knowing your audience also helps you derail internal stakeholders who want you to market based on their biases, not on proven data.

Klein & Partners also reports that 11 percent of people have been to a hospital website in the last 90 days. (I find that statistic amazing; don’t you?) It’s also noteworthy that fewer than 25 percent of respondents felt the hospital website exceeded their expectations. This is a tremendous opportunity to leapfrog your competition.

Knowing what your audience thinks, feels and does gives you the credence to inform stakeholders of the strategic opportunities for your brand. These data also help you avoid being pressured into producing another outdoor billboard because somebody important says you should. Decisions like this must be based on your specific target audience, who has self-identified that outdoor advertising is how she makes her health care decisions.

Ask good questions

You already know the virtues of conducting primary research—whether qualitative or quantitative—before engaging in any significant campaign or brand positioning. Many of you, however, are tasked with doing more with less. Conducting feedback groups with prospective and former patients can give you credible insights into your audience.

You should be asking people:

  • About their experiences with your brand

  • How they entered into your organization (online search, physician referral or friends/family recommendation)

  • What was good and what could be better

  • To define what makes a good doctor or good nurse

  • About their media-consumption habits

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Don’t be caught in the trap of familiarity and assuming you know your audience. Liz Wiseman’s new book makes a compelling case for the benefits of approaching problem-solving with the enthusiasm, curiosity and the fearlessness of a “rookie.”

A physician’s oath is to first do no harm to the patient. What’s our oath as marketers?

Maybe it should be to first know our audience.

Stephen Moegling is a principal at Franklin Street, a health care marketing and branding agency. The original version of this post was published on his blog.

First published in July 2016.

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