Ask the Expert, with Nick Ragone
// By Jane Weber Brubaker //
Nick Ragone is senior vice president and chief marketing and communications officer at Ascension, the largest nonprofit health system in the U.S., with 2,500 sites of care in 24 states and the District of Columbia.
He leads the “One Ascension” effort from the marketing side. “We decided as an organization that we really needed to have a strong, identifiable Ascension brand that connected all of our sites of care together,” he says.
In the interview that follows, Ragone shares Ascension’s vision to leverage its brand strengths, employ data-driven strategies system-wide, and forge stronger connections with consumers.eHST: Healthcare is back in the spotlight this year. What do you see as the major trends impacting healthcare?
NR: I think the healthcare sector is going through a pretty dramatic transformation. It’s not just the Affordable Care Act and what’s happening in Washington—I think that’s a piece of it. It has to do with the financing and reimbursement of healthcare, which is shaping the way provider systems interact with consumers.
Equally important is the trend toward consumerism. Consumers have more options. They have more information at their fingertips. They’re expecting more from healthcare systems in general, and as a large integrated healthcare organization, we’re trying to be responsive to consumers and have a relationship with them.
eHST: How do these trends influence your approach to marketing at Ascension?
NR: From a marketing perspective, we’re bringing that end-to-end experience to consumers the way other industries do. In the hospital space and in the provider space, we’re learning that that experience is really important, both in the way we deliver care and outside of the care setting.
For us, that means transforming our marketing function to be much more analytical, data-driven, and digital. We are migrating away from traditional media and doing more targeted, focused, and measurable media.
eHST: What other industries have shaped your thinking?
NR: I’ve spent the last three years as the chief marketing officer for Ascension, and prior to that I worked for a global communications agency, Ketchum. I specialized in healthcare, but I worked with other verticals like retail and consumer packaged goods. I brought that kind of thinking to this job.
eHST: Data is beginning to play a much larger role in marketing. Where is Ascension on the continuum?
NR: One of the things I’m really interested in is getting more into predictive modeling and using analytics and data to fully understand the needs of populations. From a marketing perspective, we want to deliver the right piece of content to the right person at the right time. That is a much more digital, analytical, focused approach than just brand awareness, which is the way most provider systems have done marketing historically. It’s a pretty big transition. It’s different than just putting up billboards and running TV ads.
eHST: Ascension underwent a brand overhaul fairly recently. Can you tell us about that?
NR: When I started three years ago, we began what we call our One Ascension journey, which is about making our sites of care more clinically integrated, as well as our operations. Previous to that, each one of our markets acted independently from each other. There was not much sharing of best practices. There was some redundancy and duplication of functions, and the clinical integration didn’t extend beyond markets.
At some point after conceiving that, it became obvious that we needed to think about how that One Ascension journey should manifest itself externally in the marketplace. We decided as an organization that we really needed to have a strong, identifiable Ascension brand that connected all of our sites of care together, and we announced that in September of last year.
We rolled it out in our two largest markets, Michigan and Wisconsin. The early returns are very positive. Our associates are really inspired, and our patients are finding it easier to understand all of our sites of care. Now we’re putting together the timeline for rolling it out in the rest of our markets.
eHST: Are consumers in these two states more aware of the Ascension brand than they were?
NR: Consumer awareness in Michigan and Wisconsin went from less than single digits percent to up to 70 percent in each market, so it’s gone dramatically up, which is great. Not only are consumers in those states more aware of the Ascension brand, they associate it with personalized, compassionate care.
eHST: Let’s talk about your vision for data and analytics
NR: On that front we’ve done a couple things. We’ve implemented one CRM tool across all of our systems, Tea Leaves, which has helped us standardize our approach. We’re in the process of redesigning our websites on one content management platform, Sitecore, which will give us more consistency in our web entry points and allow us to have the same functionality across all of our websites. It will help us analyze the data and metrics similarly. We’re also working with Omnicom’s digital agency, as well as its media-buying arm. We’re reducing the number of vendors and consolidating our data, which allows us to develop predictive models.
eHST: How was marketing structured before?
NR: In the past every market had its own creative, media buying, digital, and social agency, as well as analytics. It was hard to compare data, or even compare apples to oranges. Streamlining it is allowing us to have much more insight into what’s working and what’s not, and to share those best practices across our system.
eHST: How does that work out on the local level? How do local marketing teams tap into centralized resources?
NR: They work directly with the team here to look at the data. I rely on the local teams to take that data and interpret it and figure out where there are opportunities, whether it’s acute care, emergency room, urgent care, ambulatory, virtual care, on-demand, senior living—but look at the data, look at the trends, understand what’s working, and where we should focus, and then translate that to better serve our local communities.
eHST: Is there a centralized marketing group in St. Louis?
NR: I consider it all one marketing team whether they’re here in St. Louis or based somewhere else. Our hub is in St. Louis, and we have some people here that are working across our entire ministry, but I view it as one marketing community. We’re working together every day. If we decide we want to do a national campaign on primary care, for instance, we decide it as a community. It’s not something that happens in St. Louis and gets sent out. The community works together to figure out our national approach, and how it is going to be localized.
eHST: Can you give me an example?
NR: We just launched a nationwide campaign around primary care. We did focus groups in a lot of markets, and tried to understand what really compels the people we serve to come to one of our ministries. What do they like about us? It turned out that consistently, in each one of our markets, they loved the fact that our physicians and our caregivers do more than just listen to them. They really dialogue with them to understand their specific needs and create a care plan specifically for them.
Based on that insight we created a primary care campaign that was all about how our caregivers take the time to truly understand you as a person. You’re not just the person who goes to work. You might be a skier on the weekend, or a volunteer with the PTO. You are multifaceted, and your healthcare needs are not one-dimensional.
We just launched the campaign and the early returns have been very positive. It’s consistent with how our patients think about us, that we really understand their total needs, and care for their body, mind, and spirit. A couple of years ago we wouldn’t have approached it that way, but now we did one set of research, one set of creative, and one set of media buying across the board. That has been a really great success story as far as this new marketing model.
eHST: How is your digital strategy evolving?
NR: On the digital side, we’re migrating a lot of our media from traditional media to digital, and to a lesser extent social, but using digital as a much more effective, efficient, targeted way to deliver the right content to the right person, and then measure it. I don’t think that’s just in healthcare. I think in general, marketing is migrating in that direction. We’ve changed up our marketing mix model to be more consumer-centric and measurable, to really understand what’s working, what’s not, and why.
Jane Weber Brubaker is editor of eHealthcare Strategy & Trends.