Hospitals have always had fantastic stories to tell. But in the past few decades, many shifted away from telling their own stories and concentrated more of their efforts toward pitching them to the media.
Now, some of the largest hospitals and health care marketing departments are investing heavily in storytelling once again, hiring top-notch journalists, editors and photographers.
This approach to storytelling has been the driving force behind Spectrum Health Beat, a health news site launched earlier this year by Spectrum Health System. With 12 hospitals, 180 ambulatory and service sites and 1,300 physicians and providers, Spectrum Health is West Michigan’s largest employer.
Spectrum Health Beat aims to become West Michigan’s trusted health care news source while connecting patients with the physicians and services they need to keep themselves and their families healthy. It publishes news several times a day, highlighting a mix of patient stories, health trends and new technology.
Building and maintaining such a comprehensive health news site is no small feat when you consider what it takes to coordinate with busy physicians, secure approvals and obtain patient privacy releases. To find out how Spectrum Health Beat does it, I spoke with its managing editor, Cheryl Welch. When she joined Spectrum Health in December, she brought 15 years of experience as a reporter and editor for various news and health publications.
Here’s what she shared about what it takes to manage a health news site and what advice she has to other healthcare companies expanding their content marketing efforts.
Who initiated Spectrum Health Beat, and how did it evolve?
CW: Spectrum Health had a monthly email newsletter called Health Beat, but Nancy Tait, our vice president of communications and marketing, wanted to get into content marketing. Anytime you do research on content marketing ... one of the first things they say is hire a journalist. Hire a managing editor. Hire a journalist because they know content.
We know a good story when we see it, and we know how to position it in such a way that it's not a marketing spiel but an actual story that people can really rally around and be interested in, whether they're patients of Spectrum Health or not. I arrived on Dec. 1, and the mandate was to get a live website up and going by Jan. 6. They had taken some steps to make that happen, but they were emailing stories and editing them by email. It was a nightmare. Stories were getting lost. So my first order of business was to put in a content management system that worked in a workflow, so you could manage all of the content coming in and going out, and scheduling. Basically, what you would do in a newsroom. You have an (editorial) budget and you have a “ready to edit” queue. You have a “final to edit” or “ready to publish,” or “ready for photos.” Just different buckets of content where the editor can manage those things and the writers can put them directly in so it relieves the pressure of manually inputting stories into a system.
How did you determine who would contribute?
CW: Initially, they were trying to get this to be a department-wide initiative with everyone writing for it. We quickly learned that wasn't the best option because many of these people are marketers. They are trained in PR, marketing, social media or community engagement. We quickly decided we needed to narrow down our writing pool, so we narrowed it down to five writers, three which come from the PR department, but had journalism backgrounds. Another came from internal communications and also has a journalism background. Then the last one was a marketer who just happens to be a phenomenal writer. I also work with freelancers, most of whom are journalists or former journalists.
How do you determine what to cover?
CW: (With the internal writers), we have a daily desk meeting at 9 a.m. every day. We'll look at Medical Express. We'll look at Health Day. We'll look at Yahoo! News. We'll look anywhere to get an idea of what's hot now. Is there something that we need to jump on? For instance, Angelina Jolie, when she had part of her ovaries removed, we were like, ‘Oh this is going to be huge,’ because we offer genetic testing at Spectrum Health. When she had the mastectomy, we had a large increase in our volume of patients coming in saying, ‘I want to be tested for that.’ Of course they're probably going to see an uptick in people coming in because she's an advocate for women taking control of their own health. So we put out a story on the “Jolie Effect."
Another way I get stories (is) by teaming up with the marketing department. I have one-on-one meetings with who I would call a content strategist for each of the categories we have on our website. For instance, we have aging well, women's health, men's health, children's health, pregnancy and childbirth, living with chronic conditions and so forth. These are people who are working with the heads of each of these departments on a regular basis. They’re not writing the stories, but they’re helping to identify them. I work with them to try to find a news angle or a patient story we can include to make it really interesting and compelling for the reader. Then I assign those out to freelancers.
How do you manage the review and approval process, especially when you’re working with busy physicians?
CW: (Our writers) turn in their stories in the “ready to edit” bucket within a WordPress system. They put in keywords. They put in the teaser, everything. I edit the story and then put it into “ready to review,” which signals to the content strategist that it’s ready for them to review. Then the writer can create a preview of the story and share that with the doctors or providers, who can view it for 48 hours without having to log in. Once everyone signs off on it, the writer puts it in “final to edit.” That's after we've got the HIPAA forms, we've got everything. That's a signal to me that we're all good, and I can schedule it.
I'm usually scheduling out about a week or two in advance, averaging about three or four posts a day these days.
How are these stories helping you achieve your goal of not only empowering people to take control of their health, but connecting them with the right physicians and services?
CW: People look online for their health care information before they go to their doctor. That is absolutely proven to be true everywhere in the United States. People prefer to read a series of articles about their provider or about their physician prior to seeking actual health care advice from their physician. People are doing research on the best health care places to go.
We're essentially bridging that gap for people and creating stories that are compelling and interesting, and providing them with more information through their health care journey. We're not taking the place of their doctor. The idea is to get more brand loyalty, brand recognition for Spectrum Health. To drive more traffic to our physician finder pages, to our service line pages. To drive more awareness ... and it’s working. Three of our five top social posts Spectrum Health-wide last month were Health Beat stories.
Are there any metrics you can share so far? Have you seen a significant increase in traffic?
CW: We have. We're working on the tagging on the backend now to determine how many of those visits went to physician finder and how many of those visits to our service line pages are coming directly from Health Beat. But we have seen a large increase in our physician finder views and in our service line general spectrumhealth.org site.
And even though we just started to really promote ourselves this month, we were still found by a lot of people. A third was from social media, but two-thirds of the traffic was from people who just found us, which is cool.
...And our social shares are through the roof. Recently a story on siblings tackling cystic fibrosis went up to 1,000 social shares overnight. There’s another story, MSU coaches play doctor for the day, that hit 2,600 shares in no time.
What advice would you have for another health care marketing department launching a similar initiative?
CW: Hire a journalist, or many journalists. Also, give people the ability to work with a dedicated IT person. We have a vendor we use who programmed our whole site for us, and when we have an issue, we can just call him rather than having to rely on our hospital’s IT department (which has other priorities.)
Keeping your site on a separate server and having strong security is also really important; you don’t want to become a gateway for hackers.
What’s next for Spectrum Health Beat? How are you promoting the site going forward?
CW: We are starting internally and working our way out to raise awareness. We started by sending an email to our 20,000-plus employees inviting them to join, and we push our stories out via an intranet each day. We distribute our content through a weekly “top headlines” email and a monthly digest to subscribers based on their topic preferences. That way, they can choose what they’d like to see in their inbox.
We also started our own Facebook page that’s separate from the hospital so we can push our own content out to the general population. We’re also putting ads in newspapers and news websites; first in Michigan, and then nationwide as we go forward.
We're also going to have promotional material in our lobbies and in any waiting rooms...and promotions that can play in any patient room through a dedicated channel.
We're just now telling people about ourselves, but we've had something like 97,000 unique visitors. I come from newsrooms that have been around for 100 years, so they have brand recognition; they’ve been able to build their website for a long time. They have millions of page views a month, but I have no doubt we'll get there. This is information people are really craving.