Effective Customer Engagement Strategies in Health Care: The Role of Stigma

Martin Mende, Colleen M. Harmeling, Maura L. Scott, and Robert W. Palmatier, 2017, 17-105

Firms in many large industries such as healthcare and financial services serve customers who are associated with stigmatizing attributes such as disease, addiction, disability, or poverty. This presents a hurdle to customer engagement marketing: engagement marketing requires some degree of self-disclosure and encounters with others, and stigmatized customers may see social encounters as a risk to their self and well-being.

In this report, Martin Mende, Colleen Harmeling, Maura Scott, and Robert Palmatier seek to enhance the effectiveness of marketing strategies by understanding the mechanisms and effects of stigma in customer engagement marketing.

Employing four experiments, including two field experiments with actual patients (e.g., suffering from HIV, cancer), they examine stigma’s impact on the effectiveness of two core aspects of engagement marketing initiatives: the appeal type and message source used to promote the engagement initiative (here, an online health community).

They find that for stigmatized customers, engagement initiatives that use social (vs. informational) appeals and that are promoted by a peer (vs. an expert) increase both immediate engagement behaviors (click-throughs) and long-term engagement behaviors (likes, comments, posts). For example, promoting the online community with the proposed approach tailored to stigmatized customers increased the click-through rate among the target group by 74%.

The authors also show that the effects are enhanced when the peer who promotes the engagement initiative is associated with a disease-specific (vs. generic) group, and that these effects are mediated by anticipated customer well-being. They show that the interplay between appeal type and message source can create a “sanctuary effect,” enhancing customers’ feelings of well-being such as optimism, self-respect, and competency.

Taken together, the results demonstrate actionable engagement configurations as a function of appeal type (social vs. information) and message source (peer vs. expert; disease-specific vs. generic group) that help marketers in better engaging stigmatized customer groups, both in the short term and long term.

For managers in the healthcare sector and other industries such as financial services and public policy domains, this research suggests that engagement strategies should be adapted in light of the effects of stigmatization. Accordingly, marketers should understand that living with a stigmatizing attribute influences how their target customers engage socially. However, by tailoring their engagement initiatives to bolster consumer well-being, managers can achieve considerable lifts compared with traditional marketing approaches.

Martin Mende is Associate Professor of Marketing, Colleen M. Harmeling is Assistant Professor of Marketing, and Maura L. Scott is Associate Professor of Marketing, all at Florida State University. Robert W. Palmatier is Professor of Marketing and John C. Narver Chair of Business Administration, University of Washington.

Related links

Group Marketing
Colleen M. Harmeling, Eric Fang, Robert W. Palmatier, and Dianwen Wang (2016)[Report]

Consequences of Customer Engagement: How Customer Engagement Alters the Effects of Habit-, Dependence-, and Relationship-Based Intrinsic Loyalty
Conor M. Henderson, Lena Steinhoff, and Robert W. Palmatier (2014) [Report]


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