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Healthcare Marketer Interview: Rob Birgfeld, AVP, Chief Digital Marketing Officer at Inova

Posted on May 12th, 2016
Written by TopRank Marketing
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  • Healthcare Marketer Interview: Rob Birgfeld, AVP, Chief Digital Marketing Officer at Inova
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    In today’s world, marketers in all industries are working hard to keep up with technological innovation and changing consumer trends. But for some marketers, major shifts in the very foundation of their industry are presenting difficult hurdles as well as great opportunities. Yes. I’m referring to you healthcare marketers out there.

    Healthcare marketers are contending with an evolving industry landscape that not only involves new programs and regulations to abide by, but also new consumer expectations.

    With that in mind, TopRank Marketing has tapped into the expertise of marketing veteran Rob Birgfeld, AVP and Chief Digital Marketing Officer at Inova, a nonprofit healthcare system based in Falls Church, Virginia. In this interview, Rob talks about how he came to the world of healthcare marketing, what he sees as the top three industry trends, and how his team is using digital marketing tactics to create a better experience for their audience.

    You’ve worked in Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) marketing, media and nonprofits. What led you to the world of digital marketing for healthcare, and what lessons have you learned from your past experiences that help you lead the digital team at Inova?

    I’d be lying if I said I knew what I was getting into when I started this journey into healthcare. I had an idea, and I knew that meaningful change, solutions and strategies could be implemented to an end-user eager for a better experience. In short, healthcare was (and still is) attractive to me because the opportunities to address consumer demand are vast.

    If I’ve taken anything from other industries, it’s how to bootstrap — roll your sleeves up, deploy and fail as fast as you can. Not only is there great demand in healthcare — there’s scale. Quick wins/losses are possible in even the largest healthcare organization — but they are often buried in larger complex proposals or solutions. Pull out the quick tests, the quick wins and losses — and learn.

    What does the digital marketing team at Inova look like? How do you divide and conquer your initiatives and tasks? It looks like you have been focusing your team’s efforts on driving consumer participation and engagement.

    I have a team of about 8 and we split amongst content development, web production and functional expertise in email, social media, digital media and CRM. We primarily serve our “clients” as an internal agency of sorts, responding to requests for new products including websites, apps, campaigns, etc. But we make it a point to set strategies and deploy projects that move us in the direction our organization needs to go to remain competitive and innovative.

    What have been your biggest challenges and successes?

    The biggest challenges we face are around integration with large and/or disparate systems. Lack of integration leaves the patient or consumer with a fragmented experience, where continuity and consistency are impossible. Where we can get our arms around the entirety of a “digital patient journey” we can deliver a superior experience. Our greatest successes have been examples of organizational and technical integrations — bringing about great experience. One example of that has been the release of our physician ratings and reviews on It represented a truly coordinated effort and generated a truly differentiated and valuable tool for consumers looking for data to help them choose the right physicians.

    What are three trends that you see as being specific for healthcare marketing?

    1. Consumerism. We’re moving from talking about being patient-centered to acting and building products and experiences with the consumer directly in the middle.
    1. Transparency. This is an extension of consumerism, and actually features three components — patient provided input via ratings and reviews; pricing transparency, performance and quality transparency. This will redefine the provider discovery process for consumers regardless of whether it occurs on owned digital properties or third party sites. It’s going to happen — and we have to be ready.
    1. Digital Experience. Generally speaking, there is a shift from just web or mobile strategy to a more holistic recognition of the “digital experience.” This means moving beyond just “digital marketing” as a standalone function and working collaboratively or on a wider scale to deliver solutions for today’s digital natives that see the digital experience as just as important as the physical experience.

    What are some marketing technology tools that you’ve found work or that you would recommend to other healthcare marketers?

    Most of the time, it is less about the tools than the execution and implementation of the tools. Free solutions are still amongst the most consequential for even enterprise-level marketers — and I think getting the most out of Google Analytics, Webmaster Tools and keyword tools like Moz are critical. Some of the tools we utilize for directory management are indispensable — including directly via Google My Business or with tools like MozLocal to help manage the accuracy of data for our physicians, programs and facilities. Whatever your ESP or CRM, make sure they’re taken advantage of and working together.

    What is the top priority that you think healthcare marketers should focus on this year?

    Accuracy. I often say that directory management is the least sexy, but maybe most important job of a healthcare marketer. As consumers redefine how they find and choose providers, optimizing your listings wherever or however they may discover so the information is accurate, rich and optimized is essential. Marketers have a tendency to focus on the target not the intake — but having the right link, number, and address is what we should be fixing before any other work is done.

    How do you stay current on marketing and technology and what information sources do you find most useful?

    I tend to fixate on SEO and local focused blogs and newsletters, but still have an affinity for all the SmartBrief products since they help me sift through the noise. I’m increasingly dependent on LinkedIn as a source for ideas and content, but make sure to continue to learn via webinars, demos and occasionally an immersive course with General Assembly.

    Any last words of advice for our readers?

    The digital space is so fast moving, don’t ever give yourself too much credit. There is always, always, always someone who knows more than you. A thirst for learning new technologies, new platforms, analytical approaches and exploration will keep you, your projects and your strategies relevant and honest.

    Thanks for sharing all your insights, Rob!

    You can find Rob on LinkedIn and Twitter.

    Are you a healthcare marketer? What are some of the trends you’re seeing in the healthcare industry? Tell us in the comments section below.