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Leverage effective marketing in a post-ACA environment

July 28, 2014
by David Stone, PhD and Stephen McLean
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It's a post-ACA world

When the Affordable Care Act (ACA) became law in 2010, the effect was seismic and far reaching. Not only did millions gain access to vital mental health care services for the first time, the legislation also opened extraordinary new marketing opportunities for community mental health organizations.

For many behavioral health providers, consumers traditionally accessed services through various county, state and federal agency referrals. A post-ACA environment, however, compels providers to adopt new ways to reach an untapped customer base.  

The newly Medicaid-eligible and low-income individuals obtaining affordable healthcare through health insurance exchanges represent a new opportunity for providers to actively market and sell their products and services. Today’s mental health provider must not only be effective at integrating the latest models of care into their practices, but must also become equally fluent and skilled at marketing their services. For those able to seize these opportunities, the reward will be new customers, increased revenues and the potential to treat thousands who previously could not access quality care.

As a community mental health agency that primarily serves a Medicaid-only population, Sound Mental Health (SMH) has begun to make the substantial cultural, staffing and internal investments needed to succeed in this new marketplace. While the organization will not abandon its core community mission and clients, it is making changes necessary to succeed in the new era. We hope that our experience may prove helpful to other behavioral health providers.

Let’s face it: change can be disconcerting.  For organizations historically oriented toward clinical work, asking staff to step into the world of marketing can be daunting.  If clinical staff, who are typically unaccustomed to the language, philosophies and intentions of marketers, resist the process, then their organization’s efforts to reach new consumers will not likely succeed. Collaboration between the clinical and marketing teams, trust in the marketing process and working through the inevitable rough patches along the way are just a few of the keys to success. Executive management staff must be highly engaged and influential in making these necessary changes happen.

The executive team must be comfortable with investing in the marketing effort, ensuring that the right staff/consultants are enlisted. More than the staffing and tactical investment, however, the CEO and other leaders will need to guide the essential cultural shift necessary to transform the organization from one that is primarily clinically-oriented to one that embraces its newly acquired marketing directive. Because the marketing function—with the planning, audience segmentation, market analysis, product development and measurement analytics— may not likely yield an initial high return, executive leadership must embrace their roles as visionary and vocal cheerleaders for the effort.

The Strategic Roadmap


After the behavioral health provider has demonstrated that its services fill a market need and positioned itself competitively,  it will need to establish a marketing team. Whether it uses in-house staff or an outside firm, finding the right people to support the marketing effort will be an important step. Many providers may be tempted to endorse market-savvy clinicians to serve this function, but it is usually better to invest in personnel experienced in communications and marketing. These professionals must be familiar with creating and nurturing collaborative relationships with clinical staff, and with mapping a vision that engages them.  They also should possess a strong grasp of marketing strategy and tactics.

Market analysis and segmentation 

In an effort to move on burgeoning market opportunities, the provider organization should ask itself a few basic questions. What specific consumers should be targeted?  Why is this particular population an appropriate target? What services do they need? What pricing can they afford?

To provide answers to these and other questions, some form of market analysis should be completed.  Essential to this effort will be the assessment of market needs, determination of whether there is an unmet demand for the organization’s services and the identification of product differentiators. Once  a solid grasp of the market is gained, a realistic, achievable and strategic business objective and go-to-market strategy can be developed.

Marketing behavioral health services to an entirely new consumer also requires a candid and realistic assessment of the provider’s current client base, especially if it includes complex, challenging populations.  How will prospective clients respond to encounters with existing clients, some of whom live with serious and chronic mental health issues? What benefit will the provider’s existing services offer this prospective client? What suite of services will potential consumers most need?

The key to success in promoting the organization and its services to prospective clients is to get to know them as intimately as possible. In marketing parlance, this is called market segmentation, and it is a practice in which businesses distill a larger collective of consumers into more homogenous groupings for more targeted outreach. In the context of behavioral health, this may be an uncomfortable and seemingly subjective question, but it is one that will need to be asked in order to make informed, difficult marketing decisions. These decisions will include the organization’s branding, messaging, advertising, marketing communications, public relations—even the geographic location of treatment facilities.