5 strategies for better health care writing

5 strategies for better health care writing

What’s true of medicine is true of writing. We practice to improve. We lean in to learn from each other. And in the process, the work goes from good to great, or at least from meh to clearly better-than-meh.

It’s why I recently attended the Everything: Content Digital Summit in Minneapolis. These folks are living and spreading content best practices in the pursuit of better. (If you get the chance, catch a conference.) I took home some choice tips and combined them with insights from 20 years of writing professionally, much of it in strategic health care marketing.

Here you go: Five strategies for better writing—with tactics to test, and a dose of purpose to contemplate. Let me know if it helps.

1. Listen to their language

“Knowing thy audience” is the classic, first step for writing, speaking or selling anything to anyone. How? Spend more time asking patients and colleagues how they actually talk about things. If you discover a trend, bingo!

For instance: What are people saying in the waiting room, on the bus or in social media forums? How are patients, families and colleagues talking about the topics that matter?

It bears repeating: the only way to know people is to listen to them. If that means making some strategic rounds from time to time, so be it. No matter what your role in a hospital or health system, getting out to observe is your golden ticket to relating to—and writing for—the audiences you serve.

{Aside #1: It’s why we’ve asked literally thousands of health care consumers about their experiences over the years.}

2. Make time for face time

This is vital when you’re collaborating with experts on a project or citing them as sources. Think surgeons, CEO or a researcher on the verge of concocting the next wonder drug.

“But everyone’s too busy to meet,” you say. “Doesn’t email work?” Email sucks, says Amanda Costello, content strategist and editor at the University of Minnesota, and I agree. When developing great subject matter with content experts, Costello stresses the need for face time—even if it’s on screen—whether you’re working together in a discovery, discussion or refinement phase.

Time is precious, and showing up also builds goodwill, she says. That matters for health care marketers fostering working relationships for the long haul. And for the immediate project at hand, I’d add that direct communication gives you a fuller feeling for the topic, a chance to ask follow-up questions and get to the heart of the matter much faster.

3. Use accessibility tools

This isn’t a lesson from Strunk and White. It’s about creating greater access to your wonderful content—in the digital realm and beyond.

Tools like these can help you identify easier ways for anyone to read, understand and use your communications:

Why write clearly? Why be inclusive? As strategist Amber James notes:

  • Writing with accessibility guidelines in mind makes the experience better for everyone—particularly as part of a digital strategy.
  • Accessibility is a necessity for people with disabilities, including more than 40 million Americans.
  • Avoiding the guidelines can put you in legal or PR trouble.
  • Less accessible content is less relevant, particularly for people with mobile-only or poor internet connections.

So try testing your communications with some of these tools. Invite feedback from people with disabilities. Compare the reading and listening experience on different screens and devices.

{Aside #2: This is just the tip of the iceberg for a topic that deserves more attention. How are you making accessibility a strategic priority?}

4. Invite (brutally honest) feedback

People hate reading boring crap. But we have to write it sometimes, right? Depends. One person’s stale bread is another’s sustenance. Still, the majority of your audience is usually on to something. (Yes, fresher is better.)

It’s why content specialist Alennah Westlund crowd-sources feedback—specifically from “the haters.” As an internal news manager at 3M, she recruits colleagues she’s identified as legit long form readers (not “30-second skimmers”) to review a story and then explain why they read it and whether they’re invested in the topic. She then asks them to explain the sample story’s highlights in their own words. The results: a treasure trove of interests and language she can bake into her next blog. That’s vital when you’re writing about less than scintillating topics like compliance, employee benefits or, in Westlund’s case at 3M, abrasives (sandpaper!).

Sound familiar, health care marketers? I’m guessing certain terms and topics that are magic to an administrator’s ears may be falling on deaf ones for staff in the trenches—or the people who come to you for care. Smart focus groups can move the “hate” needle closer to “like.” 

5. Remember your mission

Even the most insanely engaging topics can get stale if you’re doing the same thing, too much, in much the same way. (Yes, even writing for health care.)

If you’re questioning why you’re doing this at all, embrace a common purpose. This is about saving lives, right? If the topic is boring, consider the underlying motivation.

Maybe the idea of writing about insurance policies or employee benefits sounds terrible. Flip the focus to helping people live longer, healthier, more prosperous lives. Or imagine living in a dystopian future ruled by machines and roving packs of wolves. Whatever it takes to get the words flowing.

Sure, much of it gets deleted. But it’s a clear way to see what works and what doesn’t. It goes beyond AB testing your social ad content. It’s about experimenting, adapting and evolving.

Which leads us to the bonus round. Wait, what? There’s a bonus round?

BONUS: More writing, less agonizing

“More making, less planning” is what strategist Craig Pladson advised at the Digital Summit as one way to make the most of your content marketing spend. The adage applies to creating as well.

Let’s call it “More writing, less agonizing.” Sometimes you need to see what happens. Discover how it sounds. And push the limits to see what reaches other people, or just to see what it sparks in you.

The alternative can be grim. Ever started at a blank screen wondering how to begin? Ever felt stuck in the mud with a complex topic, or gone down a conceptual rabbit hole and gotten totally lost? Then you know what I’m talking about.

Don’t just sit there. Get it out. Then throw it out later and move on to the stuff that sticks. Writing can be a smooth flowing conversation. It also can be a series of fits and starts, edits and reimaginings. Getting past all that by generating more can allow you to “get there” sooner and less painfully.

So let go of fear. (Because we know where that leads, as Yoda says.) And be adventurous. Because admit it: you had no idea you liked Korean food, Zumba or carving sticks into keepsakes … until you tried it. The new flavors, the freedom of movement, the methodical crafting.  And frankly, neither did your readers. They won’t always like your experiments, but that’s what steps 1­–5 are for. This one’s all for you.

Find this useful? Terrible? Let me know in the comments section. If you ever want to talk about writing and strategic communication, please get in touch.

The Top 8 Metrics That Matter For Busy Health Care Marketers

The Top 8 Metrics That Matter For Busy Health Care Marketers

Return on Investment (ROI) matters when it comes to your social media campaign and digital presence, but how can you narrow down the numbers to measure what matters most?

It may look impressive to have a lot of “likes” on your page or website visits, but take a look at what’s happening behind the scenes to get a much clearer picture of the success of your campaign and your brand online.

Paying attention to the right data will show you how your hard work is paying off but will also allow you to make adjustments in real time to optimize your content, resulting in more clicks, more traffic, and ideally more conversions.

The Top 8 Digital Metrics You Should Be Paying Attention To Now

1. Reach

What is it?

Put simply, reach measures how many unique eyeballs landed on your content—it’s your potential audience size. Total Reach is the number of unique people who have seen any content associated with your page, including ads, during a specific duration of time. Post Reach shows the number of unique people who have seen your page posts, but not necessarily the number of times your content was seen.

Why does it matter?

On its own, reach can help you understand how far your content disseminated and how big the audience is for your message. Reach becomes very powerful when compared to other engagement metrics. Use reach as the denominator in your social media measurement equations such as calculating engagement rate (more on this in a second).

How do you measure it?

The quickest and easiest way to see the number of people who saw your post organically is to view the “saw this post” number. Otherwise, look at the insights section of the specific platform to view the reach of a given post.

2. Engagement Rate

What is it?

Engagement rate is the percentage of people who saw a social media post and engaged with it in any way. That means any like, reaction, share, comment, favorite, retweet, click, etc.

Why does it matter?

It’s more important than any page “like”—it gives an accurate picture of what’s actually happening with your content. It shows you how many people are connecting with your brand and how often, rather than only the brand follower who may never return to engage with your content. A high engagement rate shows people are interacting and talking about your brand, often in a positive way.

How do you measure it?

To put it simply, engagement rate on social media can be calculated by the total number of engagements (like/favorites, shares, comments, etc.) divided by the number of people who saw the post.

3. Conversion Rate

What is it?

The conversion rate is the percentage of users who take a predefined, desired action on your landing page. This can include completing a form, watching a video, booking an appointment, etc., but it’s based off pre-defined goals.

Why does it matter?

Conversions are one of the top metrics for showing true results because conversions are a critical step on your audience’s journey to using your services or buying your products. By paying attention to the conversion rate, you’ll be able to identify the types of content that are the top conversion drivers and either create more content like that or distribute more advertising dollars to that specific ad or to those types of ads.

How do you measure it?

Conversion rate is calculated by dividing the total number of desired actions by the number of clicks to the landing page in the same timeframe.

4. Click Through Rate (CTR)

What is it?

The click through rate (CTR) is the percentage of people who were served your content and clicked through on it to your landing page.

Action can be taken on an organic social media post, paid display ad, or any other type of placement that is intended to drive traffic to your landing page.

Why does it matter?

This is more common when measuring paid digital, but it can be measured on anything where the main objective is to drive traffic to a landing page. It allows you to get a good picture of how your content is performing and will help you identify if a change is needed in order to optimize your content.

How do you measure it?

As long as you can capture the amount of impressions and clicks, you can calculate CTR. The CTR is calculated by taking the number of clicks and dividing it by the number of impressions.

5. Site Visits

What is it?

Site visits are the number of sessions on your website during any given time. Unlike “pageviews,” it gives you a better picture of the number of users that came to your site and interacted with your content.

Why does it matter?

This metric, coupled with others, can help show the success of your efforts. You’ll be able to see an increase, ideally, over time and be able to attribute the increase in site traffic to your paid and organic efforts.

How do you measure it?

Google Analytics. But you likely already have that set up on your website. If you have Google Analytics and are ready to graduate to the next level, Google Tag Manager is a great next step. More on that soon!

6. Impressions

What is it?

Impressions refers to the number of times a post or ad was displayed—whether or not the post is clicked. It differs from reach in that a single person may be counted several times within impressions. In other words, a single person may represent multiple impressions for any given post or ad.

Why does it matter?

When you’re planning awareness campaigns, impressions can be a very valuable metric since you want to get your content in front of as many eyeballs as possible (and you want them to see it several times). Some channels also allow you to make your buy, by purchasing those impressions through a set CPM (cost per 1,000 impressions) which can help you budget for that channel, and forecast how much extra traffic you can expect to drive to your landing page. For example, you make a purchase for $7 CPM and anticipate a CTR (see #4) of 2.5%. So, to get at least 2,500 people to the site you’ll need to purchase 100,000 impressions and pay around $700.

How do you measure it?

Measuring impressions will vary from platform to platform so it’s important to familiarize yourself with each. This is a more common feature of paid digital (and traditional) media as opposed to organic channels, but measure where you can.

7. Bounce Rate

What is it?

Bounce rate refers to the percentage of people who come to land on your site, poke around on the page they landed, but then close out or exit your site without viewing any other pages. For example, someone clicks on a Twitter or Facebook post that links to your blog. They then read your blog and decide to close their browser/session without viewing anything else on your site. That would be considered a bounce.

Why does it matter?

If there is a higher than normal bounce rate, which can be benchmarked by industry, that would indicate an issue with the user experience or how you ask for additional engagement on your landing page. For example if someone lands on the page they thought they were going to get to and when they arrive it’s confusing or not representative of what they clicked on, they’ll likely just exit.

How do you measure it?

Measure bounce rate with Google Analytics. At the highest level look at bounce rate on your overall site. To really get the most out of the metric, though, drill down to calculate the bounce rate by landing pages or service line pages as well as by referring network: how the bounce rate compares to visitors coming from social networks vs. those coming from organic search vs. those coming from paid means. A bounce rate between 40–60% sitewide is considered healthy.

8. Video View Rate (VVR)

What is it?

Video view rate, as we prefer to define it, is the number of 3–10 second views of your video divided by the number of impressions of that video. You take the “viewed to X% completion” rates and get a good idea for when people dropped off.

Why does it matter?

VVR gives you a better gauge of the performance of your video than strictly looking at total views or views to a certain percentage. You’re able to see how engaging your video is and how people respond to it but this will also help gauge when you should be branding your video (early on vs. later on) based on when the majority of people dropped off.

How do you measure it?

You can calculate the video view rate natively on many ad platforms; however, it’s easy to take the number of 3–10 second views divided by the number of impressions or people who were served your video.

Each of these metrics alone helps provide ROI for efforts health care marketers are undertaking, but how much weight they hold to your individual campaign really depends on the goal of the campaign (how you define the success of it) and how it supports the overall business goals.

How are you attributing digital efforts (both paid and organic)? Let us know in the comments below.

Why Video Helps Health Care Marketers Attract More Patients

Why Video Helps Health Care Marketers Attract More Patients

When patients say they want to spend more time with their care providers, it’s not necessarily because they want to discuss the exciting twists and turns of the human lymphatic system. What they really want is to figure out how their care provider operates as a fellow human being traveling with them on the same planet:

  • Are they friendly?
  • Do they have a sense of humor?
  • Were they driven to work in health care because of a great family tragedy or a greater sense of duty to the human race?

Unfortunately, the average amount of time a new provider gets to spend with a patient is only 8 minutes. Patients demand more than that. Which is why 44% of them go online to research their care providers. Of course, they’re not looking for professional resumes. They’re looking for faces. Our brains are hard-wired to make judgments about people based on their faces.

That’s why we love yearbooks. And trashy magazines. And, of course, Facebook. By staring at somebody’s face, our brains gather the information we need to assess trust and believability. And if that face is featured in a video? People are three times more likely to engage with it.

Anyone who’s watched that YouTube video of a porcupine squealing with delight as it devours a pumpkin knows that when we watch a video, we can become immersed in its world, creating an instant empathetic connection with the events unfolding on-screen. Video can tug at all of our emotions, sometimes simultaneously, making us feel empathy, comfort, passion, hope, joy and understanding.

At this point, you’re probably wondering to yourself, “Why am I reading so many words about videos? Can I please just see some?” Sorry about that. Here are some provider profile videos we shot for one of our favorite clients:



Bonus Round!

The beauty of these videos is that they don’t have to live only on your website under each care provider’s profile. They can be repurposed across all of your social media for some major eyeball action. By posting videos of their birth center nurses talking about their jobs, HSHS St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin saw the following impressive results:

  • 262,537 video views
  • 72,143 unique views
  • 37,543 minutes viewed


The miracle of video!

It engages patients, amplifies your communications, empowers front-line hospital employees to speak from the heart and creates lasting human connections.

You can request a colorful and educational infographic with all this information (and much more) right here.

Now, enjoy this porcupine eating a pumpkin.

Using Digital to Improve Traditional Media Buys for Health Care Brands

Using Digital to Improve Traditional Media Buys for Health Care Brands

One of the major health care marketing trends we’re excited about is how digital media networks improve the performance of traditional media buys.

Here are three quick examples of what I mean.

Example 1: Increase in  Brand Lift

When our clients run a branding campaign using traditional channels like broadcast television and newspaper, we use our digital buying and planning tools to measure “brand lift”: put simply, this means the spike in organic searches to our clients’ web properties. This allows us to more easily quantify the increased awareness that traditional branding and advertising campaigns have always sought to drive.

Example 2: Optimizing Channel Performance

We can create custom landing pages as calls-to-action for traditional channels (like direct response and radio) to compare how the campaigns perform by channel. For example, direct response and radio get different URLs for the call-to-action. This way we can measure radio’s impact over direct response. If we want to get really serious about tracking and optimization, we can create custom landing pages for different ads in each channel (like radio) to see which message drives the most conversions. This allows us to test, improve, and utilize top performing landing pages for a given campaign.

Example 3: Evaluating Social Engagement

Prior to a client’s campaign being in market, we utilize social listening tools to measure a benchmark of the amount of existing conversation and engagement surrounding the brand and/or key message(s). Following a campaign launch we’re then able to continue tracking those key conversations and campaign hashtags to measure those important increases in engagement levels. We listen for what is being said and shared, how it’s being said (the sentiment)  and how the campaign is impacting awareness, interest and engagement with our client’s brand.

The Shift In Thinking

Leveraging digital to enhance traditional media buys is a welcome change from the last several years, where media buyers and planners seemed stuck in one of two camps.

One camp seemed resistant to change and wanted to dismiss digital as being too narrow and inferior for delivering emotionally-driven messages—especially branding messages.

The other camp was all-in for digital only. Any dollar spent in traditional was seen as a waste.

Of course these perspectives were too polarizing and too narrow-minded.

Today’s health care audiences are omnichannel consumers. Sure, they may spend a lot of time on Facebook. But what if your audience just wants to scroll their Facebook feed to get updates on grandkids and doesn’t want to think about health care topics like prostate health? Or suppose you’re trying to reach millennials. Maybe they don’t want to see your health care ad on Instagram encouraging them to get their annual exam when their main goal is only to see what the latest celebrity gossip or fitness blogger is up to.

Some health care messages don’t fit into the restricted, handful of characters for a paid search result. Sometimes your audience would prefer you mail them information they can digest over time instead of being made to sit through a pre-roll ad on YouTube.

That’s why we love this shift to leveraging digital to improve the effectiveness of traditional buys. Media channels don’t “die,” they just evolve. Today’s health care consumers have more and more media choices to be entertained, informed and engaged.

It’s our job to appreciate our health care audiences by engaging them with meaningful, relevant content, exceptional storytelling, and to ensure every media dollar we spend is making a difference.

Which media strategy is best for achieving business results? Digital or traditional? It turns out that the answer is BOTH. Learn the “Handshake Media Method” for using digital enhance and track traditional media strategies.

Now It’s Your Turn

What’s your biggest media strategy challenge right now? Leave a comment and let us know.

Where Health Care Brands Are Headed

Where Health Care Brands Are Headed

If you’re in the business of health care marketing and strategy, you can do all the right things and still lose. You can work from your health system’s strategic plan. You can focus on your hospital’s key priorities. You can nail your KPIs and business metrics.

And still come up short.

Because the entire health care landscape is changing. Fast. Every day there’s a new headline about a mega-merger. Traditionally non-health-care brands like Amazon are poised to disrupt the way we buy pharmaceuticals. And the rapid fire policy changes in D.C. impact every facet of health care brands.

To be sure, there will be winners and losers. Your brand’s future comes down to recognizing the patterns of change and responding accordingly.

We’re living in a time of 0 to 1 changes in the health care landscape. Meaning, we’re not experiencing gradual, incremental changes. We’re seeing sharp, distinct, profound, and intense changes that impact everyone.

Here are three “0 to 1” health care shifts:

The shift from local to national health care brands

It used to be that small community hospitals competed with other local hospitals. Every region had its own flavor of health care brands and providers. Now with the mega-merger headlines about Ascension and Aetna and the speculation that Amazon will be getting into the pharmacy business, we are now in an era of national health care brands.

The shift from supply-driven to demand-driven health care

The strategy to drive new patient volume in the past had been to put an Open sign in front of the new hospital or clinic or MRI suite and patients would show up. Back in the day we called it the “Field of Dreams” strategy, based on the film’s rejoinder, “If you build it, they will come.”

Health strategy consultant Candace Quinn says that today’s health care consumerism has shifted the power from the companies and health systems over to the consumers. Now, consumers shop for the best health care quality and cost.

The shift from hospital to home

One of our clients told us that in a few years, if a patient has to come inside one of their hospitals for care, then they’ve failed the patient.

Population Health is no longer a wistful thought. Health care is transforming itself such that I could now be writing this to you in a coffee shop on a Friday afternoon while hundreds of miles away technicians are monitoring my vitals and physiological response to medication. In just a few minutes I could be looking my doctor in the eyes via my smartphone, to let her know I’m feeling great, while enjoying my Chai Tea.

No need to take off work. No need to hunt for a parking spot. No need for an expensive MRI. As the title goes of the book by brilliant thinker Eric Topol, “The patient will see you now.”


These 0 to 1 shifts point to a future that’s both exciting and terrifying for brands. A future where there are only winners and losers. And how you read these patterns—and respond—will determine what future you’re building.

In fact, the future for your brand comes down to one of two decisions:

Will your brand try to buy or try to earn its way to the top?

You can try to buy your way to market dominance. You can be the only game in town, the health system that has the contract with the biggest insurance provider. You can force your consumers to use your services because they have no other choice. And because they have no other choice you have no incentive to make their experiences exceptional, remarkable, transformative. Why bother? They have to use you. Until something happens and they have a choice. Then they will leave your brand forever.

You can try and earn your way to market dominance. Be the brand that cares the deepest. That goes the extra mile. That remembers every patient is unique. That this could be the most traumatic day of your customer’s life so you’ll give them dignity. Or you might tell your employees that the customer might be having the most stressful day ever so let’s make giving her what she needs radically easy—so much so that she’s likely to rave about you to friends.

Soon there will only be two distinct positions for health brands: commodities that customers could take or leave (and will always, inevitably, leave) or brands that hold sacred trust with the customer, in which the customer will buy whatever you sell, and return to you again and again because you make their life better, easier, healthier.

Commodity or Sacred Trust: which brand positioning is your organization moving to?

In later posts this year and in special resources (make sure to sign up below), we’ll share strategies for building sacred trust with your patients and customers.

In the meantime, here is one question to help your organization choose its future.

Who is my “Ground Zero” customer, the most important person I need to champion, support and design our entire organization around?

Brands like Amazon win because they keep their customer top of mind with every decision they make. But many health brands are different, aren’t they? Leaders of health brands often make decisions for shareholders and other audiences long before they arrive at what’s best for their Ground Zero customer.

Health brands that earn their way to the top champion their customers. And health brands that try to earn their way to the top champion other interests.

And if you’re working for and with brands that don’t put the customer first, no amount of slick marketing will disguise what your customers know to be true: that they won’t be customers for much longer.