By: Jessica Schulz – @MassMediaJess
According to the National Rural Health Association (NRHA), 25 percent of the US population resides in small towns and agricultural areas. Compared to a more urban group, this demographic still relies on traditional media for news and information, trusts local media outlets and is persuaded by grassroots and community integration efforts. To be successful, you must understand the community, get involved and deliver the right key messages.
Throughout the course of our 15 year history, MassMedia Healthcare Marketing has had the opportunity to work with clients in rural areas across Nevada. Many of our health care clients have turned to us to create messaging and plan outreach in areas such as Boulder City, Pahrump, Ely and Mesquite. More recently, we were asked by HealthCare Partners, a large doctor group we represent, to help them reach the residents of these rural areas as well as develop a sustainable and effective communications strategy. Throughout the course of this campaign, our team learned about the needs of rural Southern Nevadans as well as the best ways to engage them in our causes.
With smaller populations and even smaller resource pools, rural residents are largely underserved. Due to the recent economic downturn, rural sectors have experienced high unemployment rates, which in turn increase the amount of uninsured and underinsured residents. Many patients are simply unaware of their options regarding insurance and treatment. A need exists for improvement in rural health care, and where there is a need there must be change.
HealthCare Partners is at the forefront of this change in Nevada, particularly in the rural areas where it is merging with or acquiring small, independent practices. This type of change can be intimidating to rural residents who are not early adapters to change. When HealthCare Partners entered the community, we knew that to be successful we needed to educate residents about the medical group and quickly integrate it into the community.
The first step before planning any communication campaign is to research your audiences. This is even more important in rural areas. Combining rural residents with metropolitan audiences can be detrimental to your efforts. Another mistake is thinking that rural communities all fall into the same category. Every community is different and you must understand each town’s unique culture and style. To be effective, marketing strategies must embrace the town’s nuances. For HealthCare Partners, the tactics we used in Las Vegas were not the same that we used in Pahrump or Boulder City.
Next, we assessed how news and information are shared in the area. One channel that seems to remain consistent in every rural market is the community’s support of local media outlets. Although the print media industry may be declining in urban regions, the local paper is still a trusted source of information that rural residents read on a regular basis. They still listen and watch local broadcast programming and purchase products and services from those who support the community. One could make the argument that the media is even more important in rural areas, as news tends to spread like wildfire because of rapid word-of-mouth diffusion. We can overcome rumors and misinformation with news articles placed in key outlets viewed and trusted by residents.
With the HealthCare Partners campaign in Pahrump, we worked hard to establish good relationships with the editors and reporters at these outlets to ensure our news was communicated to the community. In addition, we were looked at as a valuable resource for their stories. HealthCare Partners’ doctors served as expert sources for public health and safety articles, and we also submitted guest columns which ran in the local papers.
Another way to ensure success is to build relationships within the community. Being perceived as a “local” is the single most important thing a practice can do to be successful in rural communities. Whether it’s providing a free service to residents, supporting a local cause, attending town meetings or identifying key influencers to engage with, you need to build trust and support to be considered a source in the community.
Throughout the campaign we worked closely with James Oscarson, director of marketing for Desert View Hospital in Pahrump, who says one-on-one communication works well when raising awareness about new services, equipment or physicians.
“Relationship marketing is the most effective tool for health care professionals,” says Oscarson.
He explains that offering health screenings, immunization and flu shot clinics are very successful in Pahrump. “They must be at no cost to the patient. That doesn’t mean free, of course, this service should be subsidized by new groups entering the market.”
As with any relationship, rural community members will accept you as long as you remain true to the things you say and the commitments you make.
“The service has to be demonstrated and available before the advertising begins,” states Oscarson. “Always under-promise and over-deliver; the community will respect you and will be more likely to keep using you.”