A Rice Business Professor shows how tailored, personalized health care marketing works better to convince at-risk patients to get screening for liver cancer. Photo via Getty Images

Amazon is famous for targeted marketing that approaches customers based on their unique needs. Like other successful businesses, such as Netflix, the company taps into machine learning, which uses customer data to understand their behavior.

Hospitals and medical centers rely on marketing too, investing heavily in direct-to-patient outreach to urge at-risk people to get regular screenings. Johns Hopkins Hospital's cancer center, for example, uses emails, letters, seminars and community events to encourage patients to get screened for potential cancer. The high cost of cancer treatment makes this effort worth it: research shows regular screenings help with early detection, leading to more cost-effective treatments and better prognoses.

But hospitals can – and must – improve their outcomes much more, by melding this essential outreach with individually tailored communications based on machine-learning insights.

In an award-winning paper, Rice Business Professor Vikas Mittal and colleagues developed new algorithms indicating that targeted, personalized outreach can increase screenings among at-risk patients. "Outreach marketing" – including sending informational letters and talking to patients about potential barriers to screening – was indeed a powerful motivator for patients to get screened, ultimately lowering health care costs for patient and hospital. But patients with different characteristics, Mittal's team found, responded differently to marketing interventions. When it came to marketing campaigns for cancer screening prevention, one-size-fits-all outreach efforts were neither effective nor economical. Personalized marketing works better for preventing cancer.

To conduct their research, the researchers randomly divided 1,800 patients at UT Southwestern Medical System at risk for hepatocellular carcinoma – the most common type of primary liver cancer – into three groups – usual care, outreach alone, and patient navigation, which includes help such as follow-up calls, motivational messages and assistance spotting specific barriers. They followed each group to see if patients scheduled an MRI or CT scan within six months, from 6-12 months and from 12-18 months.

The first group was asked to receive a screening during their doctors' visits and wasn't contacted after that. The second group received a one-page letter in the mail, then staff called patients who didn't schedule a screening. The third group receiving patient navigation got the same treatment as the second group supplemented with phone calls designed to identify potential barriers, which they used to give customized motivational messages encourage coming in for a screening.

The researchers used patient data from medical records, including patients' age, gender, ethnicity, income, commute time, health status, how often they received healthcare services, whether or not they had insurance and how populated their neighborhoods were.

Following traditional methods, Mittal's team found that the patients who got a letter and call were 10-20% more likely to complete a screening, while those who got the customized motivational messages were 13-24% more likely to schedule their screening. But this is where traditional medical research stops, without asking a crucial question: Within each group, such as those of the 600 patients receiving patient navigation, could screening rates differ based on patients' individual characteristics?

In past research, everyone receiving the same stimulus is presumed to respond the same way. There was no statistical technique to separately estimate the responsiveness of patients with different characteristics. Mittal's team solved this problem by using a machine learning technique called causal forests.

By using "causal forests" to quantify how each of the three marketing approaches could be applied to different patients, Mittal's team found, improved returns on the traditional approach by a remarkable 74-96% – or by $1.6 million to $2 million.

Using traditional methods, physicians would have concluded that every patient should get patient navigation because it was a more intensive marketing approach. The causal forest method showed otherwise: there are small groups of patients with unique characteristics who respond best to specific types of overtures. Minority women in good health who had insurance, visited the doctor often and lived close to clinics in more populated neighborhoods responded especially well to all three types of outreach interventions. Younger patients with long commutes who live in neighborhoods with more public insurance coverage embraced the second type of intervention, outreach alone. And older patients in higher-income neighborhoods favored the patient-navigation approach.

The stakes for common marketing practices like "AB testing" could not be higher. In AB testing, marketers run randomized experiments such as showing ads to some people and not to others. If those seeing an ad, on average, buy more, the conclusion is to blanket the market with ads. But AB testing ignores the fundamental idea that customers exposed to an ad might buy differently in response to an ad based on their individual characteristics. In fact, research shows, many customers seeing a non-tailored ad will buy less than those not seeing an ad.

Personalized marketing can uncover these differences and substantially increase the return on marketing investments in many settings such as retail and ecommerce, services marketing, business-to-business marketing and brand management. Healthcare companies should consider dedicating more resources to machine learning, which can power data-driven patient-centric outreach programs. Because individual health is a civic good, policy makers and organizations need to support these personalized outreach programs.

As for patients themselves, giving detailed personal data to a doctor or receiving highly personalized, unsolicited phone calls legitimately can seem like an invasion of privacy. But Mittal's research shows, it measurably has the potential to save your life.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Vikas Mittal, the J. Hugh Liedtke Professor of Marketing at the Jones Graduate School of Business.

Customer satisfaction directly influences a company's sales, margins, and earnings, and companies that track and measure customer satisfaction have a leg up on competition. Getty Images

Tracking customer satisfaction is essential to business success, Rice University research finds

Houston voices

Back when people flew nonchalantly for business, an unabashed fan of Great Reputation Airline took a flight where almost everything went wrong. First there was a weather delay. Then there was a mechanical issue. The crew was surly, the pretzels stale. Finally, after landing, when she finally made it to baggage claim, her suitcase was MIA.

But instead of complaining on social media, Great Reputation's passenger wrote off the problems to a rare bad day for the airline – which showered her with drink coupons and later delivered her luggage to her hotel.

GRA's response exemplifies customer satisfaction principles outlined in a paper by Rice Business professor Vikas Mittal and former Rice Business doctoral student Carly Frennea. Summarizing the major research about customer satisfaction, the coauthors codified their findings into a checklist for managers.

While most people understand the general concept of customer satisfaction, in business it's a specific term summarizing a consumer's post-use evaluation of the extent to which a product or service met their expectations. Satisfied customers are more likely to buy again, buy more, recommend a business to others and cost less to serve in the future. A satisfied customer doesn't just cut customer-acquisition costs. She can also help a business attract the right customers through online recommendations.

But the most compelling reason to chase customer satisfaction, say Mittal and Frennea, comes from the University of Michigan's American Customer Satisfaction Index, which tracks customer satisfaction ratings of public companies. Decades of studies based on this data show that customer satisfaction and financial performance go hand-in-hand. While the strength of this association can vary, the link is indisputable. "Nowhere else in marketing has the impact of a customer-based metric on a firm's financial performance been so clearly and consistently established," Mittal and Frennea write.

To help make that satisfaction/revenue link a felicitous one, the researchers recommend the five kinds of data managers should collect.

  • Overall customer satisfaction: A summary evaluation of an overall experience.
  • Behavioral intentions: "Loyalty metrics" that measure the likelihood of buying again, recommending to others and intent to complain.
  • Attribute-level perceptions: Evaluating specific product or service features. For a doctor, this may include time spent waiting in the office, quality of care and explanation of diagnosis. For an oilfield services company, this may include product quality, safety, ongoing service and support, billing and pricing.
  • Contextual information: Comparisons to earlier experiences with a firm and against those with competitors.
  • Customer background variables: Includes gender, age and use of competitors' products and services.

Once these data are collected, the researchers say, managers should use statistical analysis that includes all relevant variables (a method known as multiple regression). This allows companies to figure out which variables have the largest association with overall satisfaction, and which have none. For example, a multiple regression might show that the bad effect of dashing customer expectations is stronger than the good effect of exceeding those expectations. The analysis may also reveal that this effect is stronger for ongoing service and support, say, than for pricing and billing. Conclusion: The company should fix problems with ongoing service and support before tinkering with its pricing and billing strategy.

Companies should also share such customer satisfaction insights with employees and incentivize them to make customer satisfaction a top priority, the researchers write.

To achieve this, executives need to see customer satisfaction as a strategic tool, not just a "good-to-have" afterthought. For this:

  • Treat customer satisfaction as a strategic investment and integrate it into the strategic planning process.
  • Don't skimp on the science. Use the most advanced multiple regression models, and now machine-learning technologies, to distinguish the important from the unimportant, and prioritize the important.
  • Using statistical science, link customer-loyalty patterns to actual behaviors such as repurchasing and repeat sales.
  • Remember that your front-line employees are vital and motivate them by linking their performance to the right customer satisfaction metrics.
  • Don't just maximize customer satisfaction. Balance decreasing and increasing returns on satisfaction initiatives. For this, don't rely on "voice-of-customer" based on casual interviews and discussions. Use rigorously designed customer studies that can be statistically linked to financial results.
  • Share! Summarize satisfaction findings in understandable terms and train employees to act on them. Smart companies use this approach to derive their customer-value proposition and focus the company's strategy.

The formula, after all, is a simple one. If customers are a primary source of your company's cash flow, the first variable in your strategy needs to be making them happy.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom. It's based on research from Vikas Mittal, the J. Hugh Liedtke Professor of Marketing at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University, and Carly Frennea, now an executive at Nike, who received her M.B.A. and Ph.D. at Jones Graduate School of Business.

Men are more prone to take risks for personal financial gain than women, and women are more likely than men to take risks to protect themselves from financial loss. Pexels

Rice University research finds that gender does matter when taking risks in business

Houston voices

When motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel leapt over cars, vans and fountains, it was little surprise that the person pulling those stunts was a man. That's not to say women never partake in high-risk behavior (Danica Patrick, anyone?). But decades of research confirm that men really are more inclined to take risks.

Snake River Canyon and the Indy 500 aside, economic life offers plenty of risks as well. When these risks involve investing, men under certain circumstances are more likely than women to take dangerous leaps, but why?

Rice Businesses professor Vikas Mittal joined Xin He of the University of Florida and J. Jeffrey Inman of the University of Pittsburgh in three studies to examine why men and women engage in risky business. Specifically, the team wanted to test whether each gender's risk-taking was moderated by a trait called issue capability: a decision-makers' belief that he or she can solve an issue.

The team grounded their work in agency-communion theory. This posits that men are more driven by goals that further self-interest ("agentic" goals) and women are more driven by goals that further coexistence ("communion" goals).

Based on this theory, the researchers hypothesized that men making investment decisions would take greater risks as their issue capability rose. This would occur because men, who are more focused on maximizing gains, would become more risk-seeking as their self-capability perceptions increased.

Conversely, the researchers theorized, women who faced similar investment decisions would focus on avoiding loss — even when their issue capability rose. This fundamental difference in investing perspective — men trying to maximize any gain versus women trying to minimize any loss – would be at the heart of a diametrically opposite stance on financial risk-taking.

All three studies proved the theory to be correct.

In the first study, the researchers asked men and women to wager money on Daily Double questions in "Jeopardy!" The male contestants with higher issue capability (i.e. demonstrated knowledge of the category) took the biggest risks. The women contestants showed equal levels of betting behavior regardless of whether they had high issue capability or not.

In the second study, the researchers dove into the psychology underlying gender and issue capability. First, the researchers primed male and female participants to believe they had either good or bad track records with risky investment decisions. Then they asked both groups to imagine they could invest $20,000 at varying levels of risk.

When it came to investing for gains, the researchers found, the women's beliefs about their issue capability made no real difference in their financial choices. Even after they had been primed to think they were highly capable investors, the women participants were less prone than the men to focus on the upside potential

And the men? Those who believed they were "capable" made the riskiest investment decisions. They also reported the highest number of thoughts about the positive potential of the various investment scenarios. Statistical analysis proved that these gain-maximization thoughts egged them on in their risk-taking.

On the other hand, those male participants who weren't primed to feel capable showed risk-taking patterns identical to that of the female participants. The results, in other words, suggest that the key difference between men and women's risk-taking is not innate — but stems from their self-conviction in investment competence.

The third study examined these processes in yet another way, by giving female and male participants the chance to maximize gains through making investments in stocks, or to minimize losses through buying insurance. Once again, the men primed to see themselves as ace investors made the riskiest investments. The women who felt themselves especially capable kept their risk-taking steady.

The women's behavior only changed when they thought they were subpar investors. When both women and men were told they were stock market duds, the women were more likely than the men to buy insurance — in other words, to take traditional measures to defend against loss.

Risk-taking choices, in other words, can no longer be written off as just boys being boys or girls being girls. More accurately, boys will be boys when a male investor thinks he is especially capable and that taking a risk will benefit him personally. That's not always a good thing. A female investor, who will typically focus on minimizing potential loss, can contribute a lot to investing decisions. Taking a big risk, as many an investor knows, isn't always the best move.

Mittal's findings inspire a list of possibilities for future research. What will happen to these behaviors as more women assume leadership jobs and more men get to show their skill as caregivers? Should senior management teams have both male and female representation to balance out the upsides and downsides of investment decisions? What about at home: would household decisions change for the better if both the man and the woman contributed their perspective?

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom.

Vikas Mittal is the J. Hugh Liedtke Professor of Marketing at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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Impact-driven Houston fintech startup emerges to streamline international remittance

money transfer tech

Africans living abroad send over $40 billion back to their home country annually — yet the process continues to be expensive, fraud-ridden, and complicated. A new Houston-area startup has a solution.

AiDEMONEY, based in Katy, has launched a money transfer app for mobile devices. The app enables digital transfers from the United States to five African countries: Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, and Nigeria

"International remittance has always been about people living in diaspora wanting to share their success with people back home," says Uzoma Eze, AiDEMONEY co-founder and CEO, in a news release. "By replacing profit as the point of the spear, we're helping Africans fund Africa and, ultimately, rewriting our motherland's story."

Eze co-founded the company with Felix Akompi, a fellow member of Houston's African diaspora community and the company's COO

The app, which is already available on the App Store and Google Play, focuses on blockchain-powered security and instant transfers. The company also designed the platform with a "give back" model that builds a stronger Africa.

With every transaction fee, users are funding progress in Africa. A portion of customer transaction fees to nonprofits in education and literacy, women's empowerment, and healthcare. Currently, AiDEMONEY partners with the Lagos Food Bank Initiative, Shalom Sickle Cell Foundation, Sharing Smiles Initiative, and Jenny Uzo Foundation.

"We're creating a superhighway for tens of billions in USD to flow from one part of the world to another," Eze says. "When you have the right people with the right vision, that capital tills the ground—tilling out profit, social advancement and a stronger Africa."

Doing Money Remittance Better | AiDEMONEY, The African Diaspora's Money Transfer App www.youtube.com

New Pearland healthcare training center will raise the bar for nursing in Houston

Training for More

As if those in the healthcare field needed another reason to relocate to Pearland: the HCA Healthcare Center for Clinical Advancement opened its doors on July 27.

Located at the Pearland Town Center at 11200 Broadway St., building 200, the two-story, 48,400-square-foot training center houses hospital simulation labs, virtually-connected classrooms, and debriefing rooms.

The center provides ongoing education for HCA Houston Healthcare's 7,000 nurses and will help standardize training across the system's 13 Greater Houston-area hospitals, outpatient surgery centers, emergency centers, and imaging facilities.

The utilization of simulcast technology will also facilitate education and training opportunities for colleagues working in locations across the HCA Healthcare Gulf Coast Division, which includes facilities in Corpus Christi and South Texas.

"The HCA Healthcare Center for Clinical Advancement is a significant part of our strategic nursing plan to support and grow our nurses as the differentiator at our hospitals and other facilities," says Kelli Nations, chief nurse executive at HCA Houston Healthcare, one of the city's largest healthcare systems. "It certainly helps us raise the bar for nursing care in Houston."

The first floor is designated for nurse training, which can last up to 22 weeks, depending on their specialty. Additional classroom and conference room space on the second floor will serve as a hub for new-hire orientations and the system's leadership and organizational development training for up to 250 employees at a time.

"Bringing the latest teaching technologies under one roof in a new, advanced facility is a major step in preparing our nurses to provide the highest level of care," says Nations.

Additional facility features include a simulated hospital supply room, a large break room, a mother's room for employees who are nursing, and several lounge areas.

Upcoming energy conference adds innovation focus for Houston-based event

innovating energy

The World Petroleum Congress, which plans to return to in-person status in December, is adding a new wrinkle — a pitch competition — to this year's event.

On August 4, the World Petroleum Congress announced the launch this year of the Innovation Zone, which will enable energy pioneers to showcase their offerings. The 2021 World Petroleum Congress — hosted in Houston this time around — is set for December 5-9 at the George R. Brown Convention Center.

Houston-based energy giant ConocoPhillips is sponsoring the Innovation Zone.

"For more than a century, innovation has enabled our industry to keep pace with the growing demand for safe and reliable energy," Bill Bullock, executive vice president and chief financial officer of ConocoPhillips, says in a news release. He adds that the Innovation Zone will highlight "innovations that can propel our industry's purposeful journey through the energy transition and into the future."

In all, 32 startups and individuals will pitch their products or practices on the World Petroleum Congress stage. One winner will be honored with the inaugural Energy Innovator Award.

The Innovation Zone is open to energy companies, private entities, and individuals working as independent contractors. Proposals will be evaluated on seven criteria:

  • Innovation
  • Creativity
  • Potential or actual technical or business success
  • Environmental impact
  • Stakeholder impact
  • Scalability
  • Broad-based uses

Applications for the Innovation Zone are due Aug. 20. To obtain an application, visit the World Petroleum Congress website. Representatives of ConocoPhillips and the World Petroleum Congress will sift through the applications and pick 32 finalists, who will be notified in early September.

"Startups, with their innovative business models, will play a decisive role in shaping a sustainable energy future, and for participating companies, this is a good opportunity to present and forge new links with key stakeholders and investors," says Serafina Lalany, interim executive director of entrepreneurship and innovation nonprofit Houston Exponential.

Aside from ConocoPhillips, sponsors of this year's World Petroleum Congress include Chevron, Halliburton, Accenture, Hess, ExxonMobil, BP, Qatar Petroleum, Baker Hughes, and Saudi Aramco.

The 23rd World Petroleum Congress was supposed to happen last year in Houston but was shifted to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 10,000 people are expected to attend this year's event. It's been estimated that the World Petroleum Congress will pump $60 million to $80 million into the Houston economy.

Staged by the World Petroleum Council, the event hasn't been held in North America since 1987, when Houston hosted it. It's known as the "Olympics" of the oil and gas sector.

The 24th World Petroleum Congress will be held in 2023 in Calgary, Canada. The event traditionally takes place every three years.