If you’re like most marketers working in the healthcare field or with a community-based organization, you probably come from a marcomm background, and don’t have a med school or a social work degree. And if you’re working for a rural organization, you may not hail from the area you’re serving. That’s common, too.
But for marketing leaders, it’s important to know that rural and urban healthcare systems can be quite different — not so much in what they offer, but to whom.
Take our home state of Vermont. Our office is based in Burlington, the most-populous city — yet it’s essentially a large small town. Working with clients across a spectrum of health services both locally and regionally, we’ve learned a lot about how to communicate with and what to say to your not-so-big-city consumers.
I’ll preface this guidance with a caveat: There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to reaching rural consumers. People and places may vary. But there are some general rules of thumb.
First, rural populations are older. According to U.S. Census data from 2016, adults in rural areas had a median age of 51, while adults in urban areas had a median age of 45. Rural areas had lower rates of poverty (11.7% compared with 14% in urban areas), but rural residents were less likely to have bachelor’s degrees or higher (19.5% compared with 29%). Rural areas also have a slightly higher percentage of residents who are military veterans.
People are independent. Particularly in less-populated areas, folks tend to be capable and self-reliant. Which means you need to be cautious about your marketing language. Rural people don’t want to be told what to do, especially if you’re perceived as an outsider or a large, dominant organization. This is why testimonials should be an important part of your messaging strategy. Enlist ordinary people and community leaders to speak on your behalf and share their personal experiences with your organization.
Similarly, they are skeptical about messages that are slick, overbearing, or needlessly complex. Keep language down-to-earth, simple, and practical — not because people aren’t smart, but because they don’t need fancy explanations or nuanced language. Clever copy is fun from a creative standpoint, but it doesn’t necessarily resonate. Rural residents want authenticity and straight shooting. And be sure to never talk down to your audience; always talk with them.
They’re also proud. Even with that independent streak, rural residents are proud of their small town or county. People know their neighbors and they interact with them on a regular basis, whether that’s at the grocery store, post office, or feed store. Contrary to some of the divisiveness on the national level, on the local community level, messaging about taking pride in place, helping others, and being all in this together works well.
For example, our team has been deeply immersed in this type of communication with an ongoing COVID-19 vaccination campaign for one of our clients, a community-based organization that focuses on supporting the health and wellness of seniors. Our campaign has centered on all the positives that vaccination can bring, including building a stronger community by doing your part, and recapturing all the family activities you’ve missed during the pandemic. A message of, “You must do this” would fall flat. Look to engage, not to lecture.
Given the age and education level of rural audiences, it’s not surprising that “old-school” marketing channels are effective; think print in addition to digital. In our experience, direct mail drives enough response to yield a positive ROI; we’ve even seen consumers bring postcards into a physician’s office or health agency thinking they needed it to secure the service or discount that’s being offered.
And because residents are scattered over a large area, out-of-home display messaging like billboards are cost-effective ways to catch a lot of eyeballs (although that’s not an option here in Vermont, as billboards aren’t permitted). Don’t overlook simple methods of communicating in gathering spaces — the grocery store’s community bulletin board is a great place for a poster promoting a healthcare or community-based organization program or service.
Paid, sponsored, or organic local media is another smart strategy, tapping into rural consumers’ connection to place and trust in local figures. Make sure your marketing team collaborates closely with your PR/media relations group to integrate outreach into your campaigns. Your tactics might include having advocates write op-ed pieces for the local paper, public radio underwriting, targeted TV and print advertising, and news coverage of your programs or events.
Yes, we’re recommending traditional marketing channels — but we’re not taking digital marketing off the table by any means. Social media ads and campaigns are inexpensive, trackable, targeted, and far-reaching, so they should absolutely be integrated into your plans. Match these channels to messages: For example, lifestyle-oriented Facebook posts showing active seniors or happy families can promote your ortho or maternity practices.
One final bit of guidance: Your team likely includes a mix of transplanted marketers and homegrown talent. Tap into the folks on your team who are born-and-bred as a triple-check on tactics and messaging.
Don’t hesitate to reach out to us for help as you translate your organization’s mission to your rural audiences; we’re really good at this. Let’s get in touch.
Tenth Crow Creative is a communications agency that creates, aligns, and promotes the external and internal messaging for organizations that support living healthier lives.
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