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.

Let’s Connect on Your COVID-19 Communications Plan

Our team of health­care con­tent mar­ket­ing experts can share proven strate­gies and prac­ti­cal advice for effec­tive COVID-19 communications.

Sign up for updates!

Sign up for updates!

Get marketing tips delivered straight to your inbox.

You have Successfully Subscribed!