Brand Strategy

A conversation with the CMO of the Cleveland Clinic

The health system’s top marketer oversaw one of its biggest campaigns to date.
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Paul Matsen

· 5 min read

As anyone in marketing knows, change is constant.

From print to digital—and now AI-generated ads—the methods and madness behind campaigns are constantly evolving. For healthcare marketers like Paul Matsen, chief marketing and communications officer at the Cleveland Clinic, the last few years have been about keeping up with industry trends while also navigating marketing in the pandemic.

“Over the last three years, everybody’s world changed in healthcare,” Matsen told Marketing Brew. “Our team has had to be extremely nimble and responsive to the changing landscape.”

Matsen has weathered the transformation across both marketing and healthcare while overseeing some of the health system’s largest projects to date, including its centennial campaign in 2021. He said the key has been to “embrace the change.”

From hospitality to hospitals

In his role, Matsen oversees an international team of 250 people spread out across Cleveland Clinic’s 22 hospitals in Ohio, Florida, Nevada, Canada, London, and Abu Dhabi. Since his team is so spread out, Matsen said one of his primary responsibilities is fostering a sense of connection.

Prior to joining Cleveland Clinic in 2006, Matsen spent 12 years as CMO of Delta Airlines, a role he said prepared him to lead the health systems’ marketing team because the airline industry was early on the push toward digital.

“When I joined Delta Airlines, we were just moving into the era of online booking,” Matsen said. “Now, of course, you do everything online and you don’t give it a second thought…It’s pretty revolutionary when it all works well, and healthcare is moving slowly down that path.”

More employees and patients are able to complete tasks virtually these days. At Cleveland Clinic, patients can book and complete their appointments online, and use their electronic health records to order medications and see test results.

“Digital in both industries plays a huge role,” Matsen said.

Getting the message out

While Matsen said marketing in the airline industry was more about conveying “perks and benefits,” healthcare is about “building a trusted relationship and providing trusted content to patients.” To do so, he said Cleveland Clinic’s main marketing strategy is content development, writing SEO-friendly articles and investing in paid search to ensure it’s reaching the right patients, Matsen said.

“We have over 100 campaigns for specific diseases and conditions that we target into geographies where we know patients are likely to need that care and want to travel to Cleveland Clinic,” he said.

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This year, he anticipates its website will reach more than 1.2 billion visits, adding that it’s “been growing at a very rapid pace” due to interest in the clinic’s health library and Health Essentials content, which helps people understand topics ranging from sugar substitutes to gender identity.

On top of that, Matsen said his team is “very active” on social media and in podcasting, while also investing in its newsroom team to put out “earned media stories about research, innovation, [and] patient care stories,” that then “get covered around the world.”

Looking ahead, he said he, like many other marketers, is keeping an eye on the possibilities that generative AI could unlock, not just in search algorithms but also in content creation.

“We’re working on a roadmap, because you don’t want to grab every hot idea that comes along,” he said, adding that his team is looking at things like, “Where can generative AI help us the most? Is it in creating and editing podcasts? Is it creating social posts? Is it in drafting press releases? Where can it make the biggest impact on the business?”

Breaking the mold

One of the challenges of being a healthcare marketer, according to Matsen, is breaking away from some of the conventions that have become standard in the industry.

“In the healthcare space, a lot of the advertising looks identical,” he said. “It’s often been referred to as a sea of sameness.”

Matsen cited Cleveland Clinic’s “unadorned facts” campaign from 2011 as one that broke the mold using line drawings, bold colors, and facts about the Cleveland Clinic, like how at the time the health system was conducting one lung transplant every three days.

More recently, Matsen said he’s proud of the work his team did on the hospital system’s centennial campaign in 2021, which they started planning pre-Covid.

The campaign included a print, digital, and audio book about the Cleveland Clinic’s history, a partnership with CNN’s brand studio, Courageous Studios, on a series of documentary films, as well as a photo book, virtual events, and an interactive history wall visible at the hospital system’s main campus.

“We’ve created a lot of incredibly valuable assets that will keep the Cleveland Clinic history alive and vibrant, we’ve made it more accessible and digital, and connected a whole new generation of caregivers to the clinic history,” he said.

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