The proliferation of health care report cards has not seen an uptake by the majority of health citizens in the U.S. In fact, there are more than 200 health quality ratings programs accounted for by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), yet few consumers use them to make choices about providers or health services.

Since maternity services are among the most consumer-facing health services that people might use in the course of their lifetime, the California HealthCare Foundation (CHCF) wondered how to “nudge” people to use quality ratings to inform their choices. The Issue Brief, From Here to Maternity: Birth of an Online Marketing Campaign, describes how CHCF increased California health consumers use of the online quality website,, and what the team learned in the course of implementing a promotional campaign to educate consumers about the website.

To put the project in context, we should first ask: what makes an effective health care “consumer?”

For purposes of this brief, a workable definition of “consumer” is someone who can make the decision whether or not to purchase an item at the store, and someone who can be influenced by marketing and advertisements.

This definition comes from and I especially like the second half of the definition that speaks to the reality of shopping in the 21st century: that consumers can be influenced by marketing and ads.

CHCF undertook a multi-pronged marketing campaign to promote’s maternity service ratings. Promotional channels included display and text ads online, search words, branded emails, and finally an ‘offline” event in the form of the San Francisco Birth & Baby Fair.

CHCF quickly learned that the online ad campaign had an immediate impact and drove up visits to by eleven-fold in seven months.

As in any good pilot, the team measured progress and took away several key learnings:

  • Match the medium and the message to the audience.
  • Target group diversity.
  • Pay attention to placement of online investments and measure ROI.
  • Cost-effectiveness varies by strategy and audience, so pay attention to these details.
  • Be flexible throughout a campaign and adjust as needed.
  • Words matter: ads should have a call to action and be meaningful to the consumer.

Health Populi’s Hot Points: Questions remain which CHCF’s study raised: for example, Yahoo and Google yielded positive results, but would AOL and/or MSN do the same? Is maternity unique compared to other health conditions; would an online campaign to drive traffic for mental health services, for example, fare as well? This campaign was for health services; would a similar campaign for physicians produce the same cost-effective outcomes?

Manhattan Research published its 9th Cybercitizen Health survey this month, finding that most Americans are now ePatients: the number of Americans seeking health information online reached 157.5 million people in 2009, 1.6 times the number of online health seekers found in 2005. As more health citizens come online to seek health information, they’ll be looking for quality data to inform health decisions. Among those 200 quality health info sites AHRQ has inventoried will be a few trusted brands that health citizens will come to trust. The trick will be to meet health consumers using the language, channels, and other qualitative factors they’ll demand that are highly relevant and meaningful to their own lives.