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Mayo taps new technology to reach patients

The concept of "Mayo Clinic everywhere" has reached the virtual world.

Mayo Clinic held an educational session this week about a colonoscopy, the test that can catch polyps before they become cancerous.

But the session wasn't held in the Gonda Building's Geffen Auditorium in Rochester. Instead, it was held in the virtual world called Second Life, where people worldwide can join the room in their avatar bodies.

It's just one example of Mayo's increasingly visible marketing presence on the local, national and international scene.

"People are doing word-of-mouth through the Internet. This is just another way of embracing that. You're just easing that transaction. So you're not really advertising per se. You're just easing the transaction," said Stewart Gandolf, founding partner of California-based Healthcare Success Strategies , a healthcare marketing companies.


Marketing is about more than just advertising, said Mayo cardiologist Dr. Thoralf Sundt, chairman of the national Mayo Marketing Council. It's also about first understanding what people need — and then providing it. Sundt said a patient from another state described trying to figure out where to go for medical care and the patient's neighbor started talking about Mayo's service with enthusiasm, leading the patient to make an appointment at Mayo.

That's old-fashioned word of mouth. These days, the Web does the same.

Amplified word of mouth

John La Forgia, Mayo's chief marketing officer, said it's surprising how many people on the Web protect Mayo's reputation by interceding if someone makes a negative comment. That's how loyal Mayo patients are, he said.

"I like to call it 'amplified word of mouth,'" he said.

Building name awareness is one marketing technique that "takes at least seven impressions for someone to even have a prayer to remember your name," Gandolf said. But Mayo's name recognition already hovers at 88 to 90 percent, La Forgia said.

A second marketing school of thought, Gandolf said, involves offering something (such as buy one, get one free) — a method of selling shown to work. In health care, Gandolf said, you can give people a reason to visit you (Have heart burn? Come to our heart-burn clinic.) and you can thus gain "trackable" patient flow.

But "to go directly after patients would feel very distasteful to most organizations. I'm not inside Mayo, so I can't speak for them," Gandolf said.


Leveraging reputation

The other option is name-recognition building to get customers familiar with your products. And that, for the most part, this is what Mayo does in response to patient demand identified by the clinic. The theory goes that once high-quality service meets that demand, patients then feel an obligation to help others learn about it.

Mayo, Gandolf said, does not need to sell reasons to visit the clinic.

"They've already got a great reputation. You could argue that you'd be crazy not to leverage their reputation. It's kind of like letting this great reputation lie fallow in the field," he said.

So Mayo can build on its reputation by putting its name on the Mayo Clinic diet book, which quickly became a health-topic best seller. It can partner with the Minnesota Twins, such as it's doing this season. It can open a gateway at the Mall of America, post wellness information on its blog, provide smart phone health applications and offer health updates via text messaging. With each move, it leverages what it does well, adding to its reputation, Gandolf said.

Reaching the planet

La Forgia said Mayo relies on data during its decision-making process. But that doesn't mean the answers are always cut-and-dried.

"A lot of us develop an instinct about what feels right for Mayo Clinic," he said.


In the old days, you could reach a few million people with your message, La Forgia said. Today, with the Internet, "you can reach the whole planet" on the Internet.

One of the great things about social media is that they're interactive, La Forgia said. The Mayo Clinic Health Policy Center, for example, has received "lots of input, feedback and discussion," he said.

"The health policy discussion was an enormously important conversation. It was such a vital issue for our country and such a vital issue for our patients that we felt it was very important that we were part of that discussion," La Forgia said. Its work to raise health reform as a presidential campaign issue got Mayo a seat at the health-reform table and President Obama repeatedly brought up Mayo's name as the type of health provider that health reformers should strive to emulate.

Proceeding cautiously

Very few hospitals would have the "resources, willingness and smarts" to do this type of marketing, Gandolf said, especially if one considers the "constraints within" Mayo that must be overcome.

"We're very thoughtful about it, and we're very cognizant of it, and yeah, there is debate," Sundt said. But a consensus-driven decision-making process helps overcome that internal concern, he said, because it's clear that once a decision is made that it has been well vetted.

There's inherent risk in any partnership.

For example, Tiger Woods had endorsement deals with some of the top names in corporate America before scandal caused many to drop him. What if something similar happened with the Minnesota Twins?


"I think that Mayo has such a strong reputation that if something were to go crazy like that, people would understand that's not Mayo," Gandolf said.

At Mayo, "the rare, rare time that something happens that doesn't fit the mission, it's so glaringly obvious that it doesn't survive the light of day," La Forgia said.

When Mayo representatives consider a new foray into the public eye, such as the stance the clinic took favoring health reform, La Forgia said, "we evaluate every one of those activities first through the lens of whether or not it's in the best interest of the patient."

Health marketing

Gandolf said that health marketing was banned by law until a 1977 Supreme Court decision and many health providers still get queasy about placing ads, putting signs in stadiums and trying to entice patients. But providing information to patients, Sundt said, is "the right thing to do, to meet those needs in a responsible way."

La Forgia said he thinks about the Mayo brothers when he reviews the clinic's marketing efforts.

"I would like to think that if they were alive today, they'd be using YouTube or whatever," he said.

Gandolf said a good example is LASIK surgery. Many eye providers were nervous about advertising, even though patient demand was high.


"The people that took little baby steps forward were ridiculed by their peers, but did really well," Gandolf said. Thus, if Mayo meets a patient need, it will do well too.

La Forgia said the important thing, from Mayo's perspective, is that the marketing used is "worthy of Mayo Clinic, that it upholds our integrity … we want to do it right."

"The goal of this is rarely to directly have a patient call us up," La Forgia said. Instead, Mayo staff want people to be familiar with their services so that, when a medical need arises, they'll know where to go.

"The objective is to provide the best care anywhere and we believe we do that," Sundt said.

"It all comes down to a good product, if you take this approach," Gandolf said.

La Forgia likes crossword puzzles and on the day he was interviewed got a chuckle because that day's edition fit Mayo's goals perfectly.

"The clue was 'blank Clinic,' he said.

"…and the answer was Mayo."



Mayo also has a widespread presence on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Read about it in the weekend print edition.

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