Shortage of Health Care Digital Marketers

Combination of strategic and technical skills makes them hard to come by, and even harder to retain

This is part 1 in a 3-part series about the role of digital marketers in health care.

If you’re in a health care organization having a hard time hiring and retaining digital marketing talent, you’re not alone. If you’re fortunate enough to have qualified digital marketing members on your team, you better treat them right.

Health care organizations have a difficult time finding, qualifying and retaining good digital marketers. In a way, it makes sense. Combine the churning landscape of the health care “system,” with the fastest-growing segment of marketing, and you have a profession that requires a daunting cross-section of strategic and technical skills, a mix of soft skills and hard coding. Those who find a foothold tend to make a name for themselves, while the rest tend to drift back to seemingly greener pastures in other industries with fewer hoops to jump through and a faster pace of adoption.

Wearing hats, hats and more hats

I was recently asked if I could refer any qualified candidates for a new digital marketing manager posting for a health care provider. The job description listed a full litany of 28 different key responsibilities. Here is a partial list of the requirements:

  • PPC
  • Mobile apps
  • Social media
  • SEO
  • SEM
  • Direct response
  • Lead generation
  • CRM
  • Content management
  • Drupal
  • Web design
  • Branding and brand strategy
  • Team management
  • Vendor management
  • Measurement
  • Testing
  • B2B and B2C
  • XHTML, CSS, XML, accessibility

It’s part marketing strategist and part front-end developer; in other words, pretty typical for a digital marketer in today’s health care world. It takes career agility to adapt to new platforms, new channels and new trends every 6 months.

Why is there such a shortage?

To do a better job hiring and retaining talent in this area, it helps to identify some of the reasons why there is such a shortage of qualified individuals:

  1. Not making it appealing enough. You’re asking someone with one of the most forward-facing skillsets to find their way in one of the most laggard industries and be happy. By nature, there will be some frustration when projects tend to move at a glacial pace or they find themselves jumping through extra hoops.
  2. Underestimating what it takes to find fulfillment. Some organizations may still think that they can bring up someone from a traditional marketing or marcom role and have them fill the role like many did for Web marketing roles in the 2000’s. But today’s digital marketing roles are vastly different compared to the one-dimensional Web marketing focus of 8-10 years ago. The learning curve grows steeper when considering multiple platforms.
  3. The tug of war between departments. Does digital belong to Marketing? MarCom? IT? PR? Creative Services? Redundancies or overlapping job descriptions between teams can interfere with success.
  4. Lack of career paths and senior-level opportunities. The lack of senior-level digital marketing roles in health care is notable. Retail has been discussing the role of Chief Digital Officer or Chief Content Officers for years now, but health care still has a distinct gap of digital marketers at director or VP levels within their organizations.
  5. Lack of professional standards, accreditation and certifications. Digital marketing as a profession has not existed very long, relatively. This means there has not been very much time to develop professional standards, accreditation, certifications, professional education and degree programs. This makes it difficult to standardize professional qualifications.
  6. Not knowing how to qualify applicants. I’ve been on both sides of these interviews for the past decade, and they’re pretty unique. On one hand, you want to show that you have the technical skills, but on the other, you have to prove your strategic prowess and demonstrate that you understand how to segment, craft messages, write, etc. Interviewers can quickly get lost in the sea of buzzwords.
  7. It’s too easy to maintain the status quo. “We’ve always done things this way.” That mentality can make a team downplay their need for digital in the first place.
  8. Thinking it’s all voodoo magic. Another reason that teams downplay the effectiveness of digital marketing — they underestimate what it takes. Just remember, those leads didn’t generate themselves, and those Twitter followers didn’t come all at once.
  9. Keeping them in a cage. Once you hire a digital marketer, fewer things can show less trust than getting in their way by inserting yourself or trying to put your stamp on their projects. An effective digital marketer will keep the team informed but can get a lot done independently. My most memorable boss regularly asked for my input, and then asked, “How can I help you?”
  10. Unreasonable or unclear expectations. This isn’t unique to health care, but the lack of clear expectations can muddle the digital marketer’s career path.
  11. Lack of compensation to match the skills. Along with #4, there is a trend to lowball salaries compared to similar positions outside health care.
  12. Lower margins and higher overhead. Health systems must devote more resources each year to regulations, reform and requirements. This tends to trend in favor of paying contractors rather than adding FTEs.
  13. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater. With providers’ low margins dropping lower (see #12), senior management sometimes has less patience with long-term initiatives. Social media, inbound marketing and content campaigns — just to name a few — can yield great rewards, but they can take time that senior executives don’t want to spend.
  14. The lack of qualified individuals. At the end of the day, the combination of required skills described above leaves a limited hiring pool.
  15. Agility opens doors. Ultimately, the agility that makes digital marketers so highly qualified can give them the security to explore opportunities elsewhere.

How to move forward

In part 2, I will discuss thoughts on how to approach hiring and how to know when to consider outside help.