Challenging Conventional Thinking

Recovery Unscripted banner image for episode 1

Episode #1 | January 4, 2017

Featured Guest: Lee Pepper

This episode of Recovery Unscripted features an interview with Lee Pepper, Chief Marketing Officer for Foundations Recovery Network. Lee shares his thoughts on the state of marketing in the field of addiction and mental health treatment and what's next for the industry.

Podcast Transcript

David Condos: Hello, and welcome to this episode of Recovery Unscripted. I’m your host, David Condos, and this podcast is powered by Foundations Recovery Network. Excited to be with you all today for our very first inaugural episode and I just can’t think of any better way to start things off than to talk with the chief marketing officer of Foundations Recovery Network, Mr. Lee Pepper. Lee has had a long and varied career history which we’ll get into during the interview, but most recently he’s been leading the charge to transform the overall marketing strategy of FRM and is always looking ahead to what’s next on the horizon. Things are changing fast and there is a lot to learn, let’s get started. Hi, Lee, how are you doing today?

Lee Pepper: Hey, David.

David: Welcome, welcome.

Lee: Thank you, glad to be here.

David: Tell us a little bit about your path to becoming first a marketer and now CMO here at Foundations Recovery Network.

Lee: I think the most important thing that people should realize or think about is innovation, and I feel like throughout my time as a youth in college and then my early career work on the Perot campaign and Perot systems, I was always thinking about ways to innovate. Ross had a great tagline for Perot systems that was to challenge conventional thinking and I felt like that really spoke to me. When I think about things I was doing, you know, as a kid selling baseball cards, I’ve always had that kind of, nobody could tell me no. Even on the Perot campaign when we got back after watching him speak in Little Rock, Arkansas, we said, “We’re going to start a Perot group.” We just started it, we didn’t ask permission, we just went and did it.

I feel like that is what has propelled me into the chief marketing officer role here at Foundations is that we didn’t take anything for granted, we were always challenging conventional thinking. If somebody told us no, we really want to understand why and then we wanted to keep moving. I think that’s the most important thing when it comes to marketing these days because everything is gone– is moving so quickly that you have to be open to challenging your conventional ideas and I think that that’s something that Foundations has been at the forefront with challenging the way that people approach treatment.

I think our approach to marketing fits really well with our treatment modalities. Here at Foundations, in particular, it was just an interesting opportunity because I was hired as a chief information officer. Seven, eight years ago, you were seeing the combination of technology and marketing, and I think today, to be a very good marketer you’ve also got to be a good technologist.

David: Sure, absolutely. You are telling us a little bit about your history and you could say you took a circuitous route to get here through Perot campaign, Perot systems, your technology roles. What are some things that you enjoy most about where you are right now?

Lee: I get asked this whenever I’m speaking up at a conference or– I just spoke at Belmont University last week. People were asking me, “How did you do it? How did you do it?” I think that we all want to be able to read in a book or look in a recipe and say, “Well, if I do this, this, and this, then it will get me here.” And that’s just not possible. What I encourage people to do is to be open, that you need to be open to the possibility that what you went to school for is not what you may end up doing in five years or 20 years. You have to be open to reinventing yourself, and part of doing that is that you need to be a voracious consumer of information.

That can come in a lot of different formats it can come through podcasting, it can come through reading books, it can come through reading blogs. But you have to dedicate yourself to staying in touch with trends, you have to dedicate yourself to challenging that you don’t know it all and what you’ve learned even a minute ago could have already changed. We’re in that kind of fast-paced culture that you have to just be open, that’s what I encourage everybody, just be open that your notion of where you were going to be in five, or 10, or 20 years, it’s going to change.

David: All of this varied experience that you have, how do you feel like that informs what you’re doing now?

Lee: I think a lot of this may have started inadvertently as a child because I was an Army brat, my parents, we moved around quite a bit. I think that encouraged me to just not fight, when we knew we had to move there was no arguing. I think that helped drive me to just be more open to the possibilities, to the opportunities. I think that that’s when we are looking at a month, we’re maybe sitting down reviewing some of our web traffic, I don’t get panicked if I see one of our primary sites might be down in traffic. I’m looking at trying to build a system that can be very– I’m really looking for those opportunities, I don’t just get into panic mode.

David: And being open to change.

Lee: Right, absolutely.

David: Speaking of that, how would you say the field of marketing both in general and specific to addiction mental health industry has changed in the last eight or so years that you’ve been working?

Lee: I think there’s a couple, I think there’s some technical changes that are fairly obvious. When I got here at Foundations eight years ago, the company was heavily dependent on yellow page advertising which we didn’t discover was not working. I think you got the technical challenges of people that were more traditional marketers, doing Yellow Pages, doing print, doing commercial television, that has shifted. That cheese has been moved and is not coming back. I think if you were not open to changing, to learning about digital, to learning about podcasting, to learning about virtual reality and YouTube, you’ve been left behind.

Then the second thing I believe is that we have an interesting paradigm shift in the agency versus kind of in-house relationship. I think with all the technology changes, it’s allowed companies like us, like Foundations to take on more of that reporting, more of that responsibility that we used to give out to agencies, we now can do it in house. I think that that’s been one of the great successes for us is that we quickly identified what our key performance indicators were and we were able to manage not only the reporting but also the buying of the advertising, and then we own the creative. Not everybody’s going to be able to do that but we only were able to do that because all these different tools that now are available to us as a small company. I think that’s been a fundamental shift giving us the confidence that we can do it.

David: Right, and giving you more control.

Lee: Right, absolutely. We’ve always felt that the quality– there are a lot of good agencies out there but at the end of the day, we felt like the people that were sitting shoulder to shoulder with us here in the office, that were working, they had invested interest in the success of the advertising. I think I’m pretty well-known around the office for if I see something not working, I don’t get mad, I know that, hey, at least we did something and we got a result, we know that’s not the result we want, let’s change.

But I think sometimes when you can be in an agency relationship, it is like you defend the creative, or you defend the add to the death, it’s like, we’re not like that. If we do something and it doesn’t work, great, we note it and we move on. We’re not so dependent on, “Well, I invested a whole lot of effort and money and my reputation in this one creative piece or this one idea of marketing and it didn’t work.” I think that gives us a distinct advantage.

David: Sure, and it allows you probably to build your culture within your team and so you don’t have to worry so much about what this agency is like and kind of what their vision is, you can just build that out kind of naturally.

Lee: Yes, absolutely. And I think that– this is going to be interesting to see over the next few years, especially in larger health systems. Because a lot of health systems seem to be very decentralized, they may own a series of facilities but each facility kind of has their own voice or working with their own small agency. We don’t really come from that background, we’ve centralized everything here with our foundation’s marketing team. We’re able to share common resources, we’re able to share best practices and be able to leverage. It’s going to be interesting to see if other facilities adopt that kind of more centralized model.

David: Sure. Speaking of the healthcare industry, when you’re working with treatment, and patients, and people who are in need, how do you make sure that your marketing practices are held to these high ethical standards to safeguard those people?

Lee: We created a couple years ago a marketing ethics statement which we have on our website, I think that was critical because when it comes to our particular area of health care, behavioral health care, there are a lot of potential pitfalls, so we had to put a stake in the ground and say, “This is who we are and we are only going to work with companies that abide by these similar type of ethical statements.” Because if we as an industry will adopt these, we can put the bad players out of business. But, of course, we had to have the guts to do that and I think because we had a robust marketing platform, not only when it comes to digital, but also we had a very robust platform with our business development team and with our alumni team that we could take that on.

David: Cool, and then the research team, as well. That is something where you know you can trust these statistics that are being created.

Lee: I think that for probably a lot of smaller companies just starting out, research is nice to have. We didn’t approach it that way. Rob was very instrumental early on in instituting that we were going to have a very robust research team. We’ve participated in many federally-funded studies when we were nonprofit, and then we switched to the for-profit world.

There’s probably a struggle, are we going to keep doing research, and I’m glad that we did because that’s maintained our standards and it’s allowed us not only to communicate in a marketing way, the efficacy of our treatment practices, but it’s also communicated to our clinical team, what practices are working or not working. Kind of like how we do a lot of A/B testing in marketing. They’re allowed to get feedback. There’s that clinical feedback that comes from research that’s so important. I’m really proud that we have kept that team and are growing that team as we add more facilities.

David: Yes. That’s a really good point. The research is not just so that we can hand it to the marketing team or business development and say, “Hey, look at our great statistics.” It’s so you can actually look at what’s working for the people who are in the clinical setting.

Lee: There are so many– there’s a lot of buzz words that come when you go to a health care website and it’s not just behavioral, it’s probably all types of healthcare, but ‘evidence-based’ is one of the ones that drive me nuts because you’ll see that so many places, “We’re evidence-based, we’re evidence-based.” “Do you have research?” “No.” “Well, where are you getting your evidence? And can you show me the changes that you may have made?” If we can educate more consumers, they’ve got to demand to see the evidence, and it can only come to you from research.

David: Back to marketing strategies. What are some strategies that you have found success with here?

Lee: I think that you have to be in alignment with the major search engines. For us, it’s been focused primarily around content, and over the years has changed. Their search engine algorithm probably wasn’t as robust as it is now. The content was all keyword based. Now, they’re able to really understand more contextually the article that’s being written. They understand who the author is, they understand the voice when they’re calling your site. We have changed to be– we don’t write as many articles today as we used to a couple years ago. We’ve tried to improve the quality and so far we’ve been very successful. It used to be, you would have to keyword stuff and post 30 times a month on a website to try to get it to rank for a keyword and that’s changed quite dramatically.

I think that they’re also– you have to be in alignment with the consumer. It’s not enough just to write a research-based article and post it, you also have to figure out how are you promoting that, how is that article being shared, because you need to have a community that’s going to consume that content and they’re going to want to share it and that is all helping, we believe, helping our articles and our website rank well. Nobody will ever know what is completely in any of those search engine algorithms but I think you need to be aligned with the direction they’re going. Your content is king right now.

David: Right. So for content, you’re really, you could say, writing it for two audiences. You’re writing it for these SEO algorithms and you want to perform well there but you also want to perform well for the readers. When it actually gets to people, you want them to stay there and read it and think it’s meaningful.

Lee: That’s a great point, David. When you look at articles today, we have to structure it on that page design-wise, so that, do we have a photo that is related to the topic? Do we have call outs within the body of the article? Different quotes in the article that make sense? Do we have it laid out? There’s a lot of technical things that you have to do but then you also have to have that conversion piece.

You got to do the technical things for the algorithm but then you’ve also got to make sure that, “Okay, if I’m going to pull out this quote, that’s the most important–” That’s something that the search engine doesn’t necessarily care about as much as the consumer who is reading it, so you’re absolutely right, you have to be doing this together. It can’t just be done in a vacuum. I hear that all the time. As we were going around and visiting other like-minded businesses, folks would say, “What, I’m just going to have my nephew do my website. I’m going to have the IT guy do my website.” And that’s where they’re missing. They might get one piece of that, they might get the technical piece or they might get the conversion piece but they never bring it together.

David: Yes, and success. We touched on a little bit in terms of the research department, but how as a marketing department do you measure your success?

Lee: Well, obviously, the first thing we measure is, are we getting patients in treatment. That’s the number one thing. We will not exist if we cannot reach consumers. I think that’s another important factor is that a lot of times we will do something and we’ll have one of our staff members say, “Well, I don’t like the way this is worded.” Or, “Why are we promoting this?” Well, I’m not as concerned about the staff’s reaction to something, as I am about the consumer’s reaction. And I think a lot of times when you write a website people think, “Okay. Well, I need to focus on this or this.” Listen, we spend a lot of time trying to understand what is the consumer? What is the potential patient? How are they finding us? That’s the most important thing and I’ll give you a great example.

Years ago, we were known for dual diagnosis treatment, and that’s a very old term. That’s a term that was coined back in the mid-’90s but it has stuck. Well, over the years we’ve tried to move that term as an industry. Talk about co-occurring disorders and then more recently, integrated treatment. We had a lot of pressure. “Well, why does this still say dual diagnosis? That’s an old term. Why don’t you say integrated treatment?” Well, the reason is because nobody searches the word ‘integrated treatment’. They search the word ‘dual diagnosis’, so we have to embrace that we want to move and integrated treatment is what we do, but the consumer is searching the word ‘dual diagnosis’ in our case. It does me no good to remove the word dual diagnosis. That’s something that, I think, we’ve done a very good job in educating our staff and the companies that we partnered with over the years on how you really have to understand that consumer dynamic first.

David: Sure. How do you find out what consumers are searching for? What they want. Is there– what’s the most proactive way to get ahead of that?

Lee: Google’s got some tools in their AdWords Keyword Generator. They look at what everybody is searching, so we review that. We also are very active at the conferences. We put on four conferences a year so we are listening to what people are presenting, but the real technical detail is that we can understand what the search volume is by keyword so we are reviewing that. A great example is when Michael Jackson passed away years ago, nobody had heard a propofol, and all of a sudden propofol became a common word that’s not unusual today.

That’s something, we have to stay on top of those kinds of trends when things happen like that, that we’re there, that we’ve got content ready to write or cue up to address a new term that’s popped up, and it happens very regularly, especially in our business. There’s always a new drug, there’s always a new treatment modality popping up, and we have to assess that and determine, is it worth us spending the time to write content on it? Is it going to be enough search volume for that?

David: I know you’ve told us a little bit about the progression of the marketing strategies that you’ve gone through from yellow pages, TV, SEO. How do you decide when to move on to a new thing? Maybe not necessarily leave the current strategy behind completely, but when and how do you decide to try something new?

Lee: That’s a great question, David. I think the most important thing that I can get across to people, listen, this is it. They should always have some part of their budget that is allowing for testing, for piloting. A great example is virtual reality. We came back about a year ago, this time from a Google conference in New York and there they had demoed for me a couple companies that were getting into the VR world and I immediately came back and sat with Caleb and the team and said, “We need to pilot this quickly.” We were able to rent the equipment we needed. We did a test and it was successful. Then we went ahead and just moved on but– I think the most important thing is you have to have some dollars set aside that’s in your budget.

That you know that when something comes up that you’re ready to go and do a test, and the test has to be quantitative. It can’t just be, “I think it looks good.” Or, “This feels right.” I mean, you’ve got to have some kind of quantitative metrics that’s going to tell you does this make sense financially because a lot of times you’re dealing with larger companies or private equity firms. It’s not good enough to say– and social media is a great example of this, it’s not good enough just to say, “Well, everybody else is doing it.” You have to put some metrics behind it. I think that’s the real opportunity for marketing folks today is that they have to understand what their costs are. For us, it’s a cost per admission is one of the first things that we look at.

Everybody can do this no matter what industry they’re in. They have to be able to embrace that they’re going to be responsible for a profit and loss statement and that they have to demonstrate that they can show value in whatever they’re doing. We’ve got money set aside for pilots. If they work, great, we roll on. If they don’t work, it’s okay. It’s not going to break our budget but we’re constantly investing in these new ideas.

David: Sure. You mentioned the virtual reality a couple of times. How have you used that so far?

Lee: We rolled it out. We’ve completed two sites, two facilities that we’ve done towards Nashville and the Oaks. I think we just did the Canyon also so I think we’re up to three now. Where we’re seeing the value in that is the consumer engagement. If you look at on top percentage of your website, when somebody is taking a virtual tour, that will, video, tend to raise the engagement on the site.

We’re using it also in our admissions center. It’s another level of instead of just having the photo gallery of the facility. The facility, the people here in Nashville who are doing the admissions, they can actually get the potential patient or the patient’s family on the site and walk them through what they’re going to be seeing when they land because a lot of our patients travel from great distances to come in for treatment. I think that when you’re dealing with psychiatric issues, when you’re dealing with chemical dependency substance abuse issues, it’s a very scary thing not knowing where your loved one is going to be or what to expect.

We’re hopefully using virtual reality to remove some of that anxiety. Because if the patient or the family members can go there and they can feel like they’re walking through the doors of the facility, they’re walking the campus, they’re seeing the kitchen, they’re seeing where they’ll eat lunch, or seeing where they’ll be doing group therapy, or they’re going out and seeing the ropes course, I think it really takes your anxiety level down because you’re there. Virtual reality has, I think, got a lot of great opportunities for us and it’s going to continue to grow. They haven’t even really rolled search yet into virtual reality but it’s coming. At some point, you’re going to start seeing virtual reality tours show up in search. It’s going to be an important aspect of, I think, all businesses.

David: That’s a great point because for someone to make this call is very hard, can be terrifying. There are a lot of barriers already so if you can use this technology to maybe remove a barrier, that seems like a great way to use it.

Lee: Even just thinking about family members because we have a lot of family members that are invested and their loved one getting help. If they can also participate using virtual reality to tour the property and get a sense of the place and the healing that’s going to go on, it’s going to help them maintain that connection while the patient’s in treatment.

David: Right, because I think there is a little bit of a stigma with some people against rehab centers because you may have this image in your mind of someone– you’re sending off your loved one and they show up, and it’s not what you thought it was or it’s not certified in the same way as a regular hospital, so it seems like that that would help ease some concerns.

Lee: That’s a great point, David. When you think about treatment centers in there, I think there’s, the latest figure I read was 66,000 treatment center beds in America. There’s a lot of treatment centers that are not JCAHO accredited like ours, our facilities are. And so the virtual reality will help almost in a sense raise our level of competition because we will be able to really demonstrate, “Oh, no. This is exactly what our patient rooms look and feel like.” We’re excited about the technology.

David: I think that’s the cool thing to remember with marketing for addiction and mental health treatment is that it’s so much more than just making the sale. It’s making these people’s lives better and anything to make them feel comfortable to take that step.

Lee: It’s one of these things when I’m talking with folks that are my peers, a lot of them– sometimes they feel like this is– they don’t understand the financial dynamics of some of the marketing that we do. I think they think social media and virtual reality, that it’s exciting and sexy but is it really helping? I think that everything that we’re out there in the marketplace doing and demonstrating, it’s help pushing that technology to be adopted into a lot of other health care settings.

David: Back to the marketing strategies. What’s next question, do you have any tips for anyone out there who’s wanting to find out what’s next for marketing?

Lee: I spoke in Chicago a couple of weeks ago to our business development team and I had a similar question. They have got to stay in touch with what’s going on. When they see their children or their grandchildren using Twitter or Snapchat, they have to get involved in, at least understand it. They don’t have to like it. I think that’s the other thing, too, is that we feel like that if you’re going to do these things, you have to like it. No, you need to understand it. It may not be your favorite. It may not be your go-to but you need to understand it. I think that that’s the challenge that a lot of people have in reinventing themselves that are my generation or older is that there’s that struggle.

Another thing that I will say when I was speaking to the Belmont class last week is that there are no experts in a lot of these fields. A lot of these fields are very new. Don’t be afraid to hire the young person out of college who just graduated because they’re going to– if you hire the values, they’re gonna learn that skill because everybody’s learning it at the same time. I don’t feel like I’m at a deficit when new technology is coming on board because I’m learning it right next to the person who might be 23 or 24 is learning it. I think you have to adopt that kind of mindset. You have to be willing to invest a little bit of your personal time to understand these new technologies. We certainly don’t move big dollars into things as they’re emerging. We want to understand it and see if it’s adaptable for our marketing purposes but you have to be there.

David: That’s a great point is that things are moving so quickly. Everything is new that like there really are no experts for this stuff, so everybody’s on the same playing field.

Lee: Absolutely. When I graduated high school in 1987, I got a typewriter as my graduation gift. I don’t think my boys have ever typed on a typewriter or seen a typewriter. It was the best one out there. It had the auto correction fluid built into it, the tape. It was amazing. Then when I graduated college, the internet wasn’t around. It wasn’t until we joined the Perot campaign, that we were just starting to see some of the early websites and Internet Relay Chat we were working in. It was just– you just have to be open to the possibilities.

David: Awesome. That’s it for today.

Lee: Great. Thank you so much, David, for putting this together. I’m excited to talk with you and I look forward to hearing more of these podcasts.

David: All right. Thanks for your time, Lee.

Lee: Thank you, David.

David: This has been the Recovery Unscripted podcast. Today, we’ve heard from Lee Pepper, the chief marketing officer of Foundations Recovery Network. FRN has residential and outpatient integrated treatment facilities across the US and also puts on four nationwide conferences each year for the addiction and mental health treatment industry. If you’d like to learn more, please visit Thank you for listening. Please share this podcast. Give us a rating on iTunes and stay tuned for more episodes. See you next time.

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