COVID-19 Communications: How to Balance Traditional and Evolving Healthcare Content Marketing Strategies

by | Jul 13, 2020 | Healthcare Industry Insights | 0 comments

Learn how to adapt your COVID-19 communications to market and consumer demand with advice from marketing experts at two leading national health systems.

As we all work through unseen challenges and learn to navigate the “new normal,” our role as healthcare marketers demands that we focus on satisfying the needs of the community and learn how to focus our communications techniques with COVID-19 in mind.

To put it simply, the pandemic is shifting the way we view healthcare content marketing strategy as we move into the latter half of 2020. We know that people are overwhelmingly seeking informative and up-to-date information concerning the COVID-19 pandemic. Hospitals that are taking a genuine, informative and newsworthy angle to their key communications have been embraced by their communities during the pandemic.

Ryan OwensTo find out how major health systems are pivoting their communications strategies to address this unprecedented crisis, we spoke to Megan Allen, Public Relations Manager at Navicent Health and Ryan Owens, Director of Public Relations at Methodist Health System. Find out how they are enhancing their content marketing to deliver essential information to their communities.

True North: When considering your team’s efforts during the crisis, what are you most proud of as a marketing leader?

Megan Allen: The COVID-19 pandemic presented our stakeholders with a lot of uncertainty. From the beginning, we knew it would be important for us to communicate information that was timely, accurate and useful to two key audiences–external consumers and internal teammates. In order to reach healthcare consumers, we expanded our digital strategy.

Working with True North, we began to send weekly e-blasts to our subscribers, and this decision proved to be a key win in our effort to provide Georgians with timely, accurate, relevant information. We realized we were meeting consumer needs when we reviewed the metrics. Click to open rates soared, and we added over 60 new subscribers within about a month. We were able to repurpose eblast content across Navicent Health’s social media channels to reach healthcare consumers outside of our subscriber list.

In addition, we began to rely heavily on FaceTime interviews with healthcare experts to create additional content for social media channels, and we hosted three news conferences via Facebook Live (which also allowed general viewers to join, as well as the news media). We continued to rely on our print strategy–including our printed magazine, elevate, newspaper advertising and submitted newspaper articles–in order to ensure we reached all demographics.

Ryan Owens: What I’m most proud of is that our entire department really rallied around switching our content so quickly. It became clear that all of the surgeries that we do, so many stories of all of the great services we offer, were going to come to a grinding halt for at least two months. Our PR department, like every other PR department in healthcare, switched away from trying to get people to come to the hospital when suddenly our goal was to keep them away from the hospital, to guide people to use telemedicine if they weren’t feeling well. That's an enormous pivot from what’s ingrained in all of us. We didn't hesitate to jump right in and start creating new content. Since COVID-19 is consuming all of our potential patients and their family’s lives, we had to think about what kind of content can we provide that will be of service to them.

Traffic to our Shine Online digital content hub has seen enormous jumps by hundreds of percentage points from before COVID-19. Some of the specific content I’m most proud of is unsurprisingly what’s gotten the most traffic. Specifically, we came out early on and wrote about what we’re seeing related to unusual COVID-19 symptoms such as loss of sense of smell, eye diseases, etc. I’m also proud of the hospital’s clinical trials in Remdesivir, a drug that has seen very strong results in getting people out of the hospital sooner. We used this content as a pitch to the media to inform the public about what we were doing and received coverage from local CBS, Fox and NBC affiliates. Rather than a press release, having a content hub where a reporter can go to see these posted stories allows them to easily craft a story about our progress at Methodist.

True North: What channel has been most effective for engaging consumers throughout the pandemic?

Allen: In my opinion, the addition of the e-blasts played a key role in reaching healthcare consumers. Besides reaching subscribers, we were able to leverage the content on our social media pages and other communication channels.

In order to reach healthcare providers, we worked closely with Navicent Health physician leaders to establish biweekly calls for providers, and these proved incredibly effective. Each call featured a panel of physician leaders including our president of hospitals and clinics, chief medical officers, and medical directors of infectious disease and laboratory services. Each call lasted approximately one hour and began with a presentation by the panelists, including the latest updates on the virus, its effect on the communities we serve, and Navicent Health’s response. The floor was then opened to questions, with answers provided in real time.

This was a wonderful opportunity for all physicians and advanced care providers across the enterprise to receive up to date information. Physicians were able to join by phone or through Microsoft Teams, and each session was recorded and distributed for later playback.

Owens: Our most successful channels are social media. We feared “COVID-19 fatigue” would cause eye-rolls among our readers as we continued to push content, but I could have not been more incorrect. At least right now, people are sitting at home, on their phones and looking for information about COVID-19.

Even if the content has nothing to do with COVID-19, it still needs to meet consumers where they are. We had a story about better sleep habits and acknowledged at the top that no one is sleeping well right now, that it’s a scary time for all kinds of reasons. Another example is that at Methodist Dallas (our flagship hospital), we have a Level 1 Trauma Center. So, we posted amazing stories about people who were in awful car wrecks or had been shot. Those stories had nothing to do with COVID, but we tried to put some language in there that said something to the effect of “traumas don’t stop during a pandemic. Our Level 1 Trauma Center is still open and serving people.” By doing so, the content feels fresh and relevant because we make it relevant.

True North: Which metrics are you focused on in your COVID-19 related communications strategies?

Allen: It’s important for us to engage with healthcare consumers as a calm and reassuring voice. As mentioned above, we want to ensure the content we are providing is relevant and useful. With that in mind, we’re closely monitoring social media engagement across multiple platforms (including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn) and tailoring our messaging towards those topics that seem to resonate.

For the digital products we have with True North (the weekly eblasts and monthly digital newsletter), we’re closely monitoring click-to-open rates. Two eblasts in particular had CTO rates that soared, and we examined that content closely to look for common denominators. For example, it appears that consumers are seeking information on proper mask use, which is in line with what we’ve seen on social media.

Owens: We’re focused on Google Analytics metrics, such as overall users on the site and site traffic, because we saw tremendous growth and spikes in those numbers. I was also very interested in time on page and how long people are spending on each piece of content, and it was remarkable. You could tell for some of these stories, people were really going through with a fine-toothed comb, spending 15 minutes on one story and then sharing it with their friends on social or emailing it out. Any kind of interaction like that on a particular article means that you’re doing something right.

One thing that happened right around the beginning of COVID was that our bounce rate dropped around 40 percent. I think that was a clear indication that people were coming to the site to read one COVID-19 story, then everything we had about COVID-19 (and hopefully some other content as well). I’m not sure how realistic it is for us to think our bounce rate will stay there, but it sure has been great while it lasted and we’re going to continue to try to capitalize on that while we can.

True North: How has your True North team helped you respond to the situation and plan your rebound and recovery strategies?

Allen: We were in the middle of completing the summer issue of our print magazine, elevate, when the virus made its way to the United States, and then to the Southeast. The initial draft of our summer issue included information on summer camps, swimming lessons, general summer safety, elective surgery options and tips for parents whose kids were out of school. As events were cancelled, elective cases were cancelled and schools closed early, we realized we were working on an issue that was no longer relevant.

Working closely with our True North team, we moved quickly to reformat the issue into what has become known as “The COVID Issue.” Our calendar of events was replaced by a COVID-19 family guide and four pages of content to assist parents with children of all ages. The article on surgical options was replaced with COVID-related content, while articles on eye safety, asthma management and stress relief were edited to include information specific to COVID-19. Our True North team moved quickly to make these changes, ensuring we stayed on our production schedule, and suggested ideas that made the transition very smooth.

Our account manager also suggested the weekly e-blasts that became a key part of our digital strategy. Because of the rapidly evolving situation, we didn’t always have a lot of lead time to prepare content. Typically, our Navicent Health team would draft the content and submit it to True North. True North would then design the e-blast, send the draft for our review, then distribute the eblast to our subscribers. The entire process usually took less than 48 hours, but on a few occasions, we completed and distributed the e-blast within one workday. Our team is incredibly appreciative of True North’s speed and flexibility!

Owens: The main thing has been True North’s flexibility, rolling with the punches and understanding that when you’re trying to respond to consumer interests in real time, you have to ditch the content calendar. You have to respond to what you're seeing. You have to have a vendor and a partner that will roll with the punches with you based on metrics and feedback. At a time like this, when so many people are on their phones and social media, you have to listen to them in real time. You have to have a partner that is willing to pivot with you. True North has been really great about that. You also sent us some content to fill in the blanks that we weren’t thinking about, such as a COVID-19 dictionary, most used terms that people may hear on the news but not know what they mean.

In terms of reintegrating “normal” content, we’re working to follow the updates in our health system to guide our content decisions. As we restart non-essential surgeries and reopen all of our procedures (with COVID-19 guidelines and caveats in place), we’ve begun covering stories about cancer screenings, heart surgeries, things that people could use us to access services for. Moving forward, we will be focusing on an integration of COVID content and more traditional, non-COVID content that appeals to general health topics.

True North: Looking ahead, what are your top priorities as you shift into rebound/recovery mode?

Allen: We want to ensure healthcare consumers continue to practice COVID-19 safety as our state reopens and people return to a more normal lifestyle. We’re continuing to emphasize the importance of masking, hand hygiene and social distancing. It’s also important for us to ensure consumers feel safe coming to our practices, clinics and hospitals. We began our “COVID Safe” marketing campaign in early June, emphasizing the steps Navicent Health is taking to protect consumers who rely on us for care, and reiterating what consumers can do to protect themselves. True North has already played a key role in helping us distribute “COVID Safe” content.

Owens: The key word here is balance. Let's continue to recognize what we are living with and dealing with, but let’s also remind people of the important services our hospitals and doctors provide every day. One thing that's scary are the reports and studies about people dying at home. They’re having heart attacks and strokes but are too afraid to go to the emergency room. It's not just about providing content about our services. It’s also making sure that people know it’s safe to access medical care and to get those underlying health conditions taken care of and feeling safe to do that.

In terms of the COVID-19 content that we will continue to produce, I think it’s really more about listening to what people are asking about, the things that they continue to be interested in. For example, a topic that came up among our team relates to our readers. We’re in Texas, it’s hot. People want to know; can they go in their pool? Does chlorine kill COVID-19? That’s a very timely issue that was actually sparked by conversations some of our neighbors were having. So I think it’s about addressing the lingering questions about the new normal that we can continue to answer, while at the same time providing the inspiring patient stories and the compelling surgeries and all of the other types of content that we want people to consume from Methodist Health System.

True North: Is there anything else you want to share related to the pandemic's impacts on healthcare marketing as a whole?

Allen: At the end of the day, our business is about people. We are here to serve Georgians with the highest quality care when they need it, but we would prefer they remain healthy and at home! While our overall goal hasn’t changed, a global pandemic clearly presents challenges to achieving that goal.

We’ve known for a long time that audiences are fractured, and we need a number of communication tools in our arsenal in order to reach our intended audiences. But now, the stakes are quite a bit higher. The content we distribute could have an immediate impact on an individual’s health. It will continue to be important for healthcare marketers to explore new modes of communication – new methods and new programs or platforms – to ensure we reach those we serve with timely, accurate and useful information.

Owens: As we move forward, what we're hoping to communicate is that our hospitals are a safe place to get the medical care and services that you need. We all know COVID-19 is out there and we’re all dealing with it, but we are here to keep you safe. We want to be a source of accurate information, but we also want to tell you about the other remarkable things we do here every day. I think the big message is about balance. Yes, we will be here treating COVID-19 patients. But we can also treat consumers safely during a scary time.

We need to remember who we serve: the people who will someday be patients and their families. It’s critical to adapt, especially when consumers are not responding to traditional marketing messages. Google Analytics is not just for entertainment. Technology gives us so many tools to listen to our consumers. One thing that differentiates us from other marketing teams is that almost everyone in our department is a former journalist. That informs many of the decisions we make. We are used to telling stories, and making those stories appeal to and be of interest to a general audience. With a typical newsroom culture, they are used to rolling with the punches, scraping ideas and doing something totally different. I think it helps explain our success.

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