Building an Award-Winning Content Marketing Strategy

By Morgan Karas, Tag Strategies

 

A couple of months ago, Healthline crowned its Best Palliative Care Blogs of the Year. Much to our delight, we found that our incredible client Crossroads Hospice & Palliative Care was featured as one of the best blogs.

Our delight was not in passing – it was with intent. In it, we found a bit of justification and reward for a decade of working with Crossroads to build its brand, establish itself as an industry influencer in the digital space and, of course, help strategize and execute this noteworthy blog.

We couldn’t have done it all alone. In fact, an integral part of this process was assembling an integrated marketing team of specialists in branding, public relations, social media and SEO to create a sophisticated content marketing strategy. Here’s how it went down. 

How it all started.

When Tag got involved with Crossroads in 2007, we were presented with a hospice stuck in what we lovingly refer to as the sea of sameness.

“Without distinction, there is no differentiation and without differentiation you have a sea of sameness,” said brand strategist and Tag President Michelle Taglialatela. “We were faced with the challenge of learning the ins and outs of Crossroads, what makes them stand out from the rest, and aligning that with their mission and vision to develop a strong and cohesive brand, both internally and externally.”

Since 2007, digital marketing has evolved tremendously. It’s enabled the Tag team, along with our incredibly talented partners, to grow Crossroads’ marketing efforts into a very sophisticated program.

“We are the architects of the brand, the marketing plan and its execution,” said Michelle. “We assembled a team of professionals capable of creating a program of this scale and composure. For earned media, we looped in our existing partner SPRYTE Communications.”

Public Relations: SPRYTE Communications

“Public relations and earned media were a brand-new spoke on the integrated marketing wheel for Crossroads when we got involved in 2007,” said Lisa Simon, CEO of SPRYTE. “Educating the client on earned media implementation and what type of information we needed to be successful with this program was crucial to getting it up and running.”

Since then, SPRYTE has contributed heavily with their special talent to writing for the healthcare professional audience, Crossroads’ primary referral source.

At this point in time, social wasn’t even on the radar screen of most marketers, but we knew it was something Crossroads needed to get involved in. For social media expertise, strategy and content development, we tapped into ChatterBlast Media in 2013.

Social Media: ChatterBlast Media

“We worked with Tag to develop the initial strategy for blog content and social engagement. We were even involved in picking Crossroads’ social guru to lead the internal charge” says Matthew Ray, creative director and co-founder of ChatterBlast. “When we started, there was no blog, no social, no digital engagement – so we had a clean slate. I think our biggest challenges were understanding a very complicated and nuanced industry, and then finding the right mix of content to populate the blog.”

That mix turned out to be a success balance of both internal and external thought leaders, as well as collaboration between multiple stakeholders.

“Crossroads continues to be a leader in hospice and palliative care, and they continue to be a leader digitally as well. 5 years ago, there was no blog – now they have one of the best blogs,” said Matthew of the evolution of Crossroads’ content marketing program. “We’ve taken risks with ideas, we have pushed comfort zones, and we have given people hope, compassion, and understanding when there was none of that on the web.  Oh, and I think we were the first organization EVER to use social advertising to market hospice care.”

That’s being ahead of the curve.

We very quickly learned that integrating SEO into our content development process would be necessary to help push Crossroads’ blog even further – and to get it in front of the right people. In comes Arc Intermedia, a digital marketing shop focusing on customer acquisition.

SEO: Arc Intermedia

“Our first task was to learn about Crossroads, understand the different audiences, understand the marketing and web presence as it stood and then devise an integrated plan that married a strong web presence with support from digital tactics such as SEO, SEM, display advertising and retargeting,” said David Sonn, president and director of strategy at Arc, of their start with Crossroads in 2014. “SEO should always have a strong influence on the organization of content, what type of content you’re developing and how it’s delivered to the consumer.”

It was important for the established team of people working on the Crossroads content to start weaving SEO into their writing and understanding its positive impact on the blog.

“We’ve been very involved with getting all teams on board and helping everyone understand the balance between what the user wants and what the search engine wants. That balance is the key to growing the blog’s reach organically,” says Patrick Coyne, SEO and social strategy manager at Arc. “Tighter collaboration between the different shops has really been the biggest evolvement for the Crossroads social program. If social or PR is doing something that could benefit from SEO, we want to be a part of it.”

Each team is focused on the continuing growth of this very sophisticated model of content marketing. There a lot of moving parts and areas of expertise that continue to drive the evolution of Crossroads’ award-winning blog.

“We know content is king. We expect to continue to generate great story ideas and deliver upon them with outstanding content to maintain an award-winning blog for Crossroads,” said Lisa of the SPRYTE team.

“We are always talking about how we can begin to address the needs of different audiences,” says Matthew of ChatterBlast. “We want our content to evolve so that it engages our current audience, and also speaks to those who don’t know they need Crossroads’ help yet. I really love this team and organization and think that the Crossroads experience is an important story to tell.”

“The goal is to continue to evolve and keep providing exceptional content for healthcare professionals and consumers,” says Michelle of the Tag team.

Patrick of Arc agrees – “We always want to develop the best possible content that we know people want to read in a time of need. Always keeping an eye on what people expect from Crossroads and delivering on that expectation is what helps to keep our content exceptional.”

When a Patient Becomes a Cause

Chart a Course of Compassion, Professionalism

The recent, heartbreaking story of Charlie Gard, the U.K. infant whose parents battled to keep him on life support and seek experimental treatment for his genetic disorder in the U.S., over the objection of his doctors, highlights an issue that all healthcare organizations need to think about.

“What happens when our patient becomes a cause célèbre?”

Wikipedia defines “cause célèbre” as “an issue or incident arousing widespread controversy, outside campaigning, and heated public debate. The term is particularly used in connection with celebrated legal cases.” Sometimes, the célèbre part becomes literal, with celebrities voicing opinions on one side or the other.

In the case of little Charlie, everyone from Donald Trump to Cher to Pope Francis weighed in to either offer assistance to the family or implore the hospital to bend to the wishes of the parents. There was massive public pressure on an institution that sincerely believed they were making the best medical decision given the circumstances – and which was no doubt concerned about their legal liability should the baby die when removed from their premises.

This kind of wellspring of sentiment, public opinion and media coverage is, fortunately, rare. But even stories that don’t generate words from world leaders or pop icons can become maelstroms at the local or regional level should word get out that a patient or their family is being “denied” free will or certain rights by a hospital, particularly where end-of-life is concerned. And usually, it’s the family – or one member – purposely trying to support their cause when they clash with the hospital or another relative. Telling your tale of perceived oppression to a TV reporter can be a powerful way to influence public opinion…and exert pressure on the other party.

When the “Correct” Thing isn’t the Popular Thing

When this happens, healthcare organizations need to tread lightly. Aside from navigating HIPAA rules on patient confidentiality, communications staff must deal with the natural human belief that we all have final authority over our personal health, or that of our children. Then there’s the legal aspect: doing the morally “correct” thing may be in opposition to legal requirements. For example, the compassionate move may be to take a patient who is virtually brain dead off life support, but the patient may have an advance directive prohibiting it, or in the absence of one, family advocates opposing it.

In the case of Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman who was in a persistent vegetative state, her husband and legal guardian sought to remove her from life support while her parents fought to prolong her life artificially. Prolonged legal battles, with the hospital and Schiavo’s doctors as key witnesses, caused a seven-year delay before her feeding tube was ultimately removed in 2005. Her name remains a flash point for patient and spousal rights.

The Eye of the Storm

So what to do when there’s a clash among family, or between family and hospital that becomes public? While each case will be different, here are some basics to bear in mind:

  • Designate a single spokesperson for the hospital or organization, but be careful in your choice. An executive might come off as more concerned with preserving reputation than the good of the patient or family, while the treating physician can credibly fall back on what’s best clinically in the circumstances. Think long and hard before trotting out a lawyer to speak for the organization.
  • Remember HIPAA. Talking specifics of a particular patient’s care is a no-no, even if the family is going in front of every reporter they can find. Limit comments to policy, protocol, and information already published elsewhere.
  • Expect fallout, and be ready for it. One of the best ways to defend your organization amid a public hue and cry is to demonstrate that you are adhering to standard procedures and protocols, and there’s nothing different or personal in the case at hand. The public needs to see that your organization acts legally and professionally, even if they disagree with your stance.
  • Be available. Despite the heat, offer opportunities for the media to have their questions answered, either one-on-one or during a press conference. Don’t bury your head in the sand.
  • Stay off social media. There’s little to be gained, and much to lose with a misstep, by posting or tweeting in a sensitive situation. However do share any public statements you’ve issued after you’ve disseminated them by other, more traditional means.
  • Know when to fold ‘em. Sometimes, a story will wane after a news cycle or two, or when the public gets consumed by something else. Don’t proactively reignite it through unsolicited statements. If courts are involved, don’t go out with news of even favorable rulings, but be prepared with a statement if the media seek you out.

Things can get highly charged when a controversial patient comes through your door or emotion clashes with clinical care. No institution wants to be in a volatile situation, but if a patient does become a cause, level heads and a reliance on existing protocols will keep you on the high ground.

Earning Backlinks with Earned Media

Quick question: Do you remember who the coolest kids in your high school were? More importantly, do you remember who got to decide who the coolest kids in school were?

Sometimes it seems we’re never going to stop getting asked such questions – especially for those of us who do earned media and content marketing for a living.

The modern day version of that first question is: How do you know if your website is popular? The answer is simple: Because Google says so.

That’s only a slight exaggeration. Since its founding in 1998, when Google introduced the notion of using ranked backlinks to determine a website’s importance (as opposed to the then-predominant method of counting how many times a search term appeared on a given page) the importance of backlinks has continued to guide Google’s approach to website rankings and search engine optimization (SEO).

The Example of Earned Media

An underlying tenet of an effective earned media strategy is that gaining independent recognition and/or support for your company, product or service provides stronger and more effective validation than paid advertising. Who are you more likely to believe – an unaffiliated third-party who says positive things about a company, or a paid company spokesperson?

An effective backlink strategy starts from the same premise. Over the years, Google has developed and refined its algorithms so sites that utilize artificial SEO enhancement strategies (paying for backlinks, stacking keywords) are identified and penalized in Google rankings.

In short, backlinks must be earned – just like earned news media. In order to earn backlinks, your website needs to provide organic content that is good enough to earn backlinks. Without legitimate content, third parties have nothing to link to.

Even if your company has earned media recognition in a news story or posting, gaining the additional enhancement of a backlink to your website isn’t guaranteed.

What the News Media Wants

Policies concerning whether or not news entities will link to the websites of companies cited in articles vary from organization to organization. Generally speaking, news organizations tend to take a conservative approach. There are several reasons:

Financial: News organizations have been undergoing financial challenges for many years. Many have instituted strict paywalls that require readers to subscribe before accessing news from their sites. Unless/until such company links can be monetized, news entities may consider such links as “free advertising.”
Independence/Ethics: Providing links to companies’ websites may be viewed as implying an unwarranted relationship between the news source and the news outlet.
Technical/Time Constraints: Often decisions to include such links are at the discretion of the reporter (depending on the outlet’s policy). However, the actual creation of the link is done by the outlet’s technological team. Busy and harried reporters often don’t have the time to follow-up on such details.

Differing Approaches

Recently SPRYTE Communications surveyed a range of national, regional and local news entities to ascertain editorial policies about providing backlinks to company websites.

Among national news entities we surveyed, the predominant policy was that if a company appeared in a news story, then there may be links to other stories featuring the company or the main issue involved, but not back to the company website.

Regional news entities offered something of a mixed bag. Many followed the guideline noted above – by linking to other stories the news entity wrote about the company or the issue on which the article focused. In addition, it was noted that company backlinks potentially might be viewed as a form of (unpaid) advertising for the company covered – thereby casting suspicion on editorial independence or risking the wraith of paying advertisers.

Other regional news entities will link to specific information on a company’s website if it provides additional information that is directly relevant to the story. For example, a large Midwest city paper ran an online story about a volunteer recruiting effort by one of our clients, a national hospice provider. It included a link to a volunteer sign-up page on our client’s site, and one to the page of a national hospice nonprofit information group that described Medicare regulations concerning the percentage of hospice care that must be provided by volunteers.

Local news entities likewise offered mixed reactions. One local TV station in the Midwest noted that when possible, stories posted online will contain links to organizations and companies that feature prominently in their stories, particularly if it’s a local “good news” story. Other TV outlets, particularly in larger metropolitan markets, rotate their stories so quickly that incorporating backlinks would be too difficult and time-consuming.

Conclusion

Many news organizations are wary that providing a backlink to a company featured in a news story might appear to provide an undue commercial endorsement. At a time when many news organizations are facing serious financial challenges just to stay in business, it’s a consideration that can’t be ignored.

However, you can increase your chances of getting a backlink if you can point to content on your website that provides important additional information or details that enhance the earned media story that features your company.

If your content is worthy enough, a reporter may recognize its value and provide a sought-after backlink to that relevant information, thereby gaining the much-desired enhanced SEO creds.

Understanding and supplying what news outlets are looking for are routine tasks for experienced earned media professionals. Developing content that effectively balances what the media want while promoting the interests of our clients is where we earn our keep.

When Employees Behave Badly

Avert Crisis with Preparedness

There’s an old saying that the only things that are absolutely certain are death and taxes.

Close behind is the reality that forms the basis for Murphy’s Law: sooner or later, despite our best efforts, something is going to go wrong, and we’ll have to answer for it, or at least explain it in a satisfactory manner.

Bad online reviews can dampen business, and should be dealt with promptly (as covered in a previous blog) to mitigate the ill effects. A significant error or lawsuit can become a major news story, depending on the circumstances.

Then there’s the human factor. Employees saying things they shouldn’t under the auspices of the organization, or worse, physicians or employees behaving badly. Whether it’s a misguided social media post, a verbal smack-down or physical altercation caught on camera, or a criminal act, you need to act quickly to minimize the impact on the organization and move toward mending public perception.

People Behaving Badly

Take the case of a national home care agency, with thousands of employees offering wonderful, compassionate care to their clients and making a difference in thousands of lives each day. Alas, like every industry, there are a few employees who shouldn’t be in their roles, who lack integrity, or don’t respect the trust they’ve been given.

When news broke that an employee – or in this case an independent contractor working as a caregiver – had stolen cash and jewelry from a client’s home, SPRYTE had to dust off the crisis communications playbook. The arrest, including perp walk, made local television news in the city where it occurred, and had the potential to spread beyond, as negative news often does. The franchise office which contracted the caregiver was facing blowback, and even other nearby franchises that had nothing to do with the incident were fielding calls of concern from clients and were asking for help.

Have a Plan, Then Work It

Every organization should have a crisis communications plan, with some basic steps. Of course, these will evolve or change with specific circumstances, but generally, you’ll want to designate a single spokesperson, develop talking points, and establish a means of providing timely, accurate information to those affected and other contingencies. Here are some specific steps to think about when the crisis involves the actions of an employee:

  • Assess the situation. See how it is being reported, and how widely. Is it a one-and-done story or does it have “legs” to carry it through more than a single news cycle? Are other outlets picking it up? Is the incident ranking high in online searches of the company name? In our sample case, we learned one television station ran the story on air and on its website, and that was the extent of it. It appeared near the top of a Google News search, but was several pages down on a general Google search.
  • Create talking points for various audiences. Limit this to the facts you know, and include mitigating information if there is any. SPRYTE learned that the victim of the theft didn’t even want to report her suspicions to the police because she liked the caregiver so much, and that it was the agency itself that encouraged her to contact the authorities. This kind of proactivity shows the company is ethical and trustworthy, even if the employee wasn’t. Also, we included the point that this was a 1099 contractor, not a regular employee, while acknowledging that to the public and clients, that distinction is meaningless.
  • Empower your managers. Since this was a local-level story, we briefed the franchise owner on how to answer questions that might come up, from either the media or clients’ families. Essentially, she was prepped to be the front-line representative for the company. We also shared separate talking points with neighboring offices.
  • Brainstorm all scenarios. Come up with a list of “what-ifs” addressing all eventualities so you or your front-line staff are ready for them. In this case, we created a table with the headings “If this happens” and “We’ll do this” and listed potential issues and how to react. Sometimes, the response was as simple as “refer the reporter to the corporate office, which will respond per the talking points.”

 

As Gene Kranz, the NASA flight director immortalized in Apollo 13, memorably said, “Let’s work the problem. Let’s not make things worse by guessing.” Take the time to gather all the relevant information, then monitor the situation and respond with facts, not conjecture. By being transparent, and addressing the concerns of your publics in a timely and accurate manner, you’ll go a long way toward minimizing the damage to your organization’s reputation.

Weekend Tennis Wipe Out

Urgent Care Brand Battle

I started playing tennis well over age 40 and for the last six years I’ve been on a United States Tennis Association (USTA) ladies doubles tennis team that travels to outdoor public courts for a 10-week season in late spring.

With a variety of different partners, I’ve only won a couple of matches overall but last year in my very first set of the season, at a local high school court, running backwards to win a point, I slipped and broke my fall with my left wrist.

One of my opponents was a physician.  While accepting our forfeit, she shared her ice packs, asked me a few questions and determined that my wrist was likely broken.  She then strongly suggested that I go to an urgent care center rather than a hospital emergency room because it would be “cheaper” and “faster.”

Through the nausea and pain, that made sense.  But has this ever happened to you?  On a normal day when you’re driving around it seems like there’s an urgent care center on every corner but then, when you really need one, you can’t remember where they are and you can’t decide which one to go to.

Netting Profit in Urgent Care

I’m a healthcare communicator who’s keenly aware of the multitude of competing players so I was actually having an urgent care brand battle in my pain-dulled brain.

As I drove my Jeep out of the high school parking lot with one arm, I seemed to be predisposed against several out-of-town-owned urgent care center brands with generic names and highly evolved signage.  Clearly they weren’t the only choices in our highly populated, competitive region.  There are many urgent care options to choose from.

Should I go to the urgent care center run by the major regional academic medical center with the highest level of trauma care?  Or the Catholic health system’s beautiful new centrally located one?  What about the highly regarded local community health system’s urgent care centers, they have a few? Before they opened four more with closer locations, it was further away but attached to an imaging center.  I was probably going to need X-rays.  At the time, I didn’t even know that the dominant 250-doctor regional multi-location orthopedic practice had a specialty orthopedic urgent care center just 10 minutes away.

Acing Patients’ Needs

At healthcare provider marketing conferences, I always attend the sessions on ambulatory care strategies. There is so much pressure for health systems to turn their focus away from filling hospital beds to providing care where and how consumers want it.

As we all know, that has spurred massive growth in the urgent care category.  Here are some points to consider if your organization is expanding into new communities:

  • The Magic of Location: We promoted shopping centers for more than 20 years and learned that there’s nothing more magical than the perfect location for maximum traffic, visibility, choice and convenience for consumers.  There’s a lot of land grabbing in affluent suburban zip codes.  Do key corners get the business?  Time will tell who the survivors are.

 

  • Brand Signage:   It matters.  I was driving yesterday in a different state and noticed several major health system urgent care centers in brand new strip malls or free-standing buildings.  They had little signs with small logos devoid of enthusiasm.  It looked like a bean counter cut the sign budget, which I understand considering how many TV ads and billboards they’re paying for.  But this underwhelming brand presentation, the main driver of where people will go with their healthcare dollars, is inconsistent with the healthcare provider’s brand advertising.  And it looks weak compared with competitors who understand location branding.

 

  • Consumerism: When the doctor came in with my X-ray results at the urgent care center, he confirmed that my wrist was broken and gave me the card of an orthopedic practice also owned by the same health system and told me to call for an appointment after the weekend.  I thought that was a really smart “feeder” strategy until I looked at the card and saw the practice was in another county 30 minutes away.  So I tapped my social media networks over the weekend asking for orthopedist referrals and ended up with a much more convenient and more highly credentialed choice.  How about if the urgent care center makes your follow-up appointment the next week at a location convenient to your home or work before you leave?  Then, you just have to show up and they’ve already heard about you.

My wrist healed beautifully and this year’s season just ended.  The Volley Girls are already looking ahead to next year.  I finally won a set but not a match.

– Lisa Simon, SPRYTE CEO