The Healthcare Internet Hall of Fame (HIHOF) was established in 2011. This article is part of a series of profiles of past HIHOF inductees.
In 2016, Neal Linkon was one of two individuals inducted into that year’s class of Innovative Individuals. After a long distinguished career in marketing Neal retired this month as the Director of Marketing Operations at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. We recently spoke with Neal about his healthcare marketing journey.
HIHOF: How did you first get involved in healthcare marketing?
Neal Linkon (NL): In the early 2000s, I was working for a local digital agency. That was about the time the dot-com bubble was bursting. My position at that time was half doing marketing for the digital agency itself and half doing digital marketing projects for clients. But business was drying up and I was looking for something a little more stable. I was enjoying the digital marketing work itself beyond the regular marketing stuff that I was doing. I saw a posting for a new position at Aurora Health Care for the Manager of Digital Marketing or something like that – I don’t remember the title at the time. I applied for it, as healthcare was always an interest of mine. My wife is a nurse and the field seemed interesting – and has proved to be so. It was a great opportunity and it was the first position I held that was fully digital marketing. That’s what got me started in healthcare.
HIHOF: Throughout your career you’ve held positions within multiple industries. How did those experiences help contribute to pushing boundaries within the healthcare digital world, which we all know moves at a slower pace than other industries?
NL: I think that gap between healthcare and other industries is narrowing, for whatever that’s worth. I think folks in healthcare are catching up quickly. I think the biggest difference – the orientation I brought to the table that seemed to be missing in healthcare at the time – was having an organization that’s marketing-driven and that’s data-oriented so that you have specific financial targets you’re trying to meet and what marketing activities you need to engage in to help meet the targets.
Healthcare is there now, but when I joined Aurora back in 2000 or 2001, that was a new concept for them. And the notion that we should be trying new and different things in order to do better on some of our targets was an orientation that seemed unique at the time, and continues to be so, a little bit. “We’ve always done things this way.” How come? Is there a good reason why? This is a new or different way we could try that might be better, and to be able to convince people to try something new and different and see how it works, because sometimes it works fabulously. If you’re not willing to try that and use the data and results to determine your course, then you never really start down that path. I think what I learned from the other industries is more how to operate like a marketing-driven organization that makes decisions based on actual results.
HIHOF: What about working in marketing, and specifically digital communications, has kept you coming back to healthcare organizations?
NL: In between my time with Aurora Healthcare and Children’s of Wisconsin, I spent 3½ years in financial services, so I did leave healthcare for a while. But when a marketing effort can be documented to the point where you tie it to a patient’s family who got care or help for their sick or injured child, the personal reward you get from that is just fundamental. It’s great to make it easier for people to be able to buy life insurance – everyone should have it, I get that – but when we can do something in marketing and we can see the reaction or the comment from the family about how helpful it was or what a Godsend we were and the marketing effort is what helped connect them to get the resources they needed to get help for their child, you can go home at the end of the day feeling pretty good about what you do.
HIHOF: From a mentorship standpoint, did you have key mentors during your career that helped you succeed?
NL: That’s an easy one to talk about because without a doubt, it was John Eudes. John was a great guy, and he had this way of being very supportive and helpful of whatever successes I had. But there was always “Have you thought about this?” or “What about that?” and he just kept pushing, expanding the envelope and encouraging me and pushing me to do more. I always found myself wanting to reach that next level. He was such an inspiration for me every step of the way but he did so in a way that didn’t make me feel badly about it. He was being very complimentary about what we were just able to pull off and man, he just set a new target and said, “Let’s go!” He really was that guy for me. I’m sure he was for more than just me, but he had this unique way of making you feel like it was just you.
HIHOF: What’s one thing that’s part of your job now that seemed like science fiction when you first started?
NL: Tongue in cheek, I say all of it. The parts that we’re able to do fairly routinely now that I wouldn’t have believed when I first started is how granularly we can target and track the results of what we do. We’re able to do advertising and marketing efforts that reach audiences of very small numbers that we can fairly easily modify what we’re sending to them based on what we know about them. And we can tie those activities back to actual revenue – revenue over time, not just an individual appointment. That would have been mind-boggling 20 years ago when I first started.
HIHOF: You were inducted into HIHOF with the 2016 Class. How has your digital program expanded since you were inducted?
NL: Probably more into the patient experience side of things than we were before. We were always dabbling in that area but we really have jumped in with both feet to the point where Marketing and Communications, including the broader team that I’m a part of – we’re leading the way on things like devices in the home that will allow your doctor to look in your kid’s ear without having to meet them. That’s marketing to the extent that the experience is the brand, but it sure goes way beyond the normal realm of marketing. But it’s marketing that’s driving that stuff here. It’s marketing that drove the patient portal that launched at Aurora in 2001 or 2002. It’s often marketing that’s bringing those innovations to the organization. That’s probably the biggest area of growth and change since 2016 for us.
HIHOF: What did induction into HIHOF mean to you?
NL: I had a hard time getting my head around it for a while. As I said in my remarks after the gracious introduction, I often just feel like I’m somebody that’s willing to try stuff. And a lot of stuff I tried doesn’t work. Some of it does, and maybe a lot of it does. I guess it’s that spirit of being willing to try new things and eager to try new things that is maybe what the judges were recognizing. I joke with people who didn’t know there was a Healthcare Internet Hall of Fame that it’s a small pond but it is the pond I’m swimming in.
HIHOF: What do you think are the key drivers in running a successful digital presence?
NL: I keep going back to not just the ability but the willingness and eagerness to try new things. Some new things can be ground-breaking, some not. As best as I can tell, we’re one of the first in the industry to try advertising on Waze and we continue to get terrific results there. That was just an opportunity to advertise on this new platform – to try it – and to be able and willing to say, “Yes, let’s do that – let’s throw a few hundred bucks at it and see what we get,” and now it’s grown quite a bit larger than that. But I think a side of it that is relatively new that speaks to a couple of things I’ve mentioned before, is to be data-driven. “It’s flu shot time – we need to send out an email to all our patients to encourage them to have their kids immunized.” But wait a minute – the last couple of times we did that, it didn’t help move the needle at all, so let’s not clutter their inbox with it. Let’s do something different. “But we’ve always done that!” Yep, but here’s what the data shows. We need to be able and willing to interpret and stand behind the data. That is, in today’s digital world, an absolute requirement but is a fairly new skill set for a lot of people.
HIHOF: Where do you see digital expanding in the healthcare space?
NL: I do think it’s in the patient experience side of things. Most of the people I talk to in the business seem to have their arms pretty well around the true marketing side of digital; expanding into those patient experience areas is the new frontier for everybody. We’re seeing it at HCIC, we’ve seen it for a couple of years, and we’re seeing more organizations starting to head that way. And it’s usually their digital marketing team, if not leading, then actively engaged with their support.
HIHOF: You’re retiring in the Fall, and over the years you have been a well-respected industry expert and mentor in this space. What do you hope people take away from the legacy you’re leaving? Is there one project that stands out that you’re most proud of?
NL: It’s going to sound repetitive, but I do think the willingness to just try new things is what I hope people take away. Probably the best-attended session I’ve ever given – I don’t remember what year it was – was called “The Just Try It Method of Web Development.” I couldn’t even walk around because there were so many people in the room. I do believe that’s the biggest thing that stands between good and great with the people I meet at HCIC and other conferences: not just doing the same stuff they’ve been doing, but maybe trying an occasional new thing and being able and willing to be a little more adventurous and creative.
As to what I’m proud of, there’s a bunch: The patient portal we launched at Aurora was huge. At the time it was small, but there wasn’t even a MyChart at the time so there were very few patient portals.
But the one I get the biggest kick out of is how our text messaging service here at Children’s, called Patient Journey, came to be. The idea is that it sends scheduled text messages before and after a procedure to help guide and remind the parents of things they need to know about. It gives us the ability to send text messages during the procedure and during recovery.
I got asked to a meeting where the head of our ENT (ear, nose and throat) group said they were getting so many phone calls at the clinic from parents for routine things after the kids had their tonsils out. They cancelled one procedure a day because of an NPO violation and 10-15% of the families wound up in ER and they didn’t really need to be there and they were upset about it. She wanted a series of videos reminding the parents of the stuff we told them already. I said, “Sure, that’s easy. Videos aren’t hard to do and putting them on a website is even easier. But how are you going to get them to the parents when they really need them?”
Then I starting “riffing.” I asked the physician, “Can you predict how many days or hours before a procedure you want to send those reminders or how many days or hours after a procedure you want to send some of that stuff?” The physician replied that yes, it was very predictable. “Well, what if we had a system…?” and I just started thinking out the idea for Patient Journey and it has been huge for us. So that’s probably the most recent thing that was something that just popped out of my head and people were willing to try it. And it worked out well.
Patient Journey has been used in creative ways. We actually have a year’s worth of weekly inspirational messages that we’ll send to the family of a child who died in our care. When our bereavement team came to me and asked about it, I said, “Are you serious? I’m Mr. Let’s Try Anything but really?” “Yes, we think it will be a hit. We’re not going to do it automatically – we’ll get the parents’ approval beforehand.” They get zero unsubscribes. They like it so much we just added a Spanish version of it.
HIHOF: Are there any “rookies” you see coming up in our industry who people should be following?
NL: I love that question and I’m embarrassed that I don’t have a good answer for it because I should. I would have said Andy Gradel – and he’s not a rookie – except that his role currently isn’t really what it was. He’s a young guy who’s absolutely on board with “let’s just try stuff” and he’s tried a lot of stuff and succeeded with a lot of stuff. I am coming to HCIC this year and I need to take a look around to see who I should have been noticing that I haven’t.
HIHOF: What does retirement look like for you? Any plans for your first day of retirement?
NL: I’ve got plans, but I don’t know what Day 1 will look like. There’s a lot of little things I want to do more of. I’m going to read more. I’m going to write more. I’m going to walk more. I’m going to see my kids more. I’m going to cook more. I’m going to sleep more. There’s a couple of volunteer things I’ve been looking at and a couple of consulting opportunities that I may pursue. The biggest thing is I have three kids and two daughters-in-law and none of them live in the Milwaukee area, and we just don’t get to see them enough.
And finally, some fun facts about Neal:
Favorite breakfast cereal: Grape-Nuts
Favorite food: Sushi
Dogs or cats? Dogs
Favorite sports team: Denver Broncos
Favorite movie: Blazing Saddles
Favorite song: “Crying in the Rain” by Whitesnake
Mountains or beach? Mountains
Favorite vacation spot: Anywhere my kids are
Favorite season: Fall
Favorite quote: I hate to quote myself, but one that has worked for me and that I use the most is “The only difference between a vision and a hallucination is the number of people who can see it.”