Health IT

Mayo Clinic is not ‘stupid’ for accepting advertising. It’s profitable

I think the problem is too many people still think Mayo Clinic is a hospital. Mayo — which treats patients, conducts medical research, launches startup companies, builds mobile apps and serves as a major healthcare publisher — was dinged this weekend for making money on its WebMD-like site, MayoClinic.com. One of the ad networks Mayo […]

I think the problem is too many people still think Mayo Clinic is a hospital.

Mayo — which treats patients, conducts medical research, launches startup companies, builds mobile apps and serves as a major healthcare publisher — was dinged this weekend for making money on its WebMD-like site, MayoClinic.com. One of the ad networks Mayo uses pushed an ad selling baby clothes on a page in its pregnancy section that shared a story about a condition that almost always results in the death of the unborn child.

“Here is a word I rarely use on my my blog: Stupid,” blogged marketing expert Mark Schafer. “But I think it is an unavoidable description when an organization sells the soul of their brand for a few advertising dollars with a mindless strategy of advertising children’s clothes to women who have just lost their child.”

He went further in an email to me: “I think an experienced marketer would know that you can’t engage in any activity that jeopardizes your brand promise. There may be ways to use ads in a way to enable the clinic’s strategy, but I can’t view a decision to shill children’s clothes to its pregnant patients as anything but opportunistic, and, in this case, disastrous. The clinic has spent millions of dollars in advertising and marketing to nurture its stellar reputation. Why threaten this hard-earned and sacred trust by trying to pick up a few dollars on blog ads? It makes no sense whatsoever.”

Mayo this morning blocked the ad from that page, thus caving to the philosophy of a bygone era when hospitals didn’t think creatively about revenue (it also reminded me of that Mad Men episode about the American Airlines crash when everyone hurried to pull the airline print ads).

But these institutions formerly known as hospitals are now full-blown publishers. So don’t treat them like hospitals. Keep in mind:

  • MayoClinic.com is the health system’s commercial site. MayoClinic.org, the main hospital site, doesn’t take ads (neither does the new Mayo Clinic social network).
  • Mayo Clinic is not only competing with other hospitals launching similar sites, but with the likes of WebMD, which also takes advertising (and have been unfairly criticized for doing so). Mayo claims, by the way, that the dot-com site gets more than 30 million monthly visitors and 90 million to 95 million monthly page views.
  • Health systems don’t make enough money for just taking care of patients, so they need new revenue streams.
  • MayoClinic.com is profitable thanks to both online advertising and content syndication. And Mayo takes the revenue above the cost of the site and uses it to fund patient care. (There are a lot of caveats with this point, however. Mayo staff members would not outline how much the site makes, how much the site costs to run and what percentage of that revenue comes from advertising versus syndication. Lindsay Dingle, director of health information and promotion business line in Mayo Clinic Global Business Solutions, also said the site generates revenue through attracting patients, but did not have figures on how many patients Mayo credits the site for attracting.)
  • There’s actually a pretty legitimate advertising policy on MayoClinic.com, coupled with criteria of what can and can’t be sold.
  • Yes, it looks bad for that ad to appear. But I don’t think anyone really cares.

Hospital systems need to be held accountable as publishers — and perhaps even more so than many private publishers. Hospitals need to be called out when they publish shoddy medical information in order to grab the public’s attention. Also, the general public needs to think more about the concept that health system-publishers, which rely on patient volume and clinical trials for major revenue, are often writing favorably about certain treatments or clinical areas that can drive that money.

But let the hospitals advertise. It puts them on equal footing with their real competitors and does not hurt their brand with anyone other than marketers.

 [Photo courtesy of BusinessGrow.com]