Some observations about how storytelling is fundamental to creating healthcare-related content.

A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a seminar on Content Marketing for Healthcare, convened by the trade publication Medical Marketing & Media. The keynote speaker, Alison Woo, director of Social Media at Bristol-Myers Squibb, opened the seminar by describing storytelling as the essence of content marketing, the origins of which can be traced back to the Stone Age, when men would gather around the fire to share details of the hunt. As storytelling evolved, we created heroes and heroines to play the leading parts in our stories, which typically centered on the hero’s or heroine’s journey. This evolution is reflected in the epic poems of the ancient Greeks, the troubadours of Roman times, and the totem poles of the native tribes of the Pacific Northwest (a visual tradition that has its modern equivalent in Instagram!).

According to Ms. Woo, storytelling is the product of our primal urge to share what happened and who we are, an urge that is intrinsic to the human experience. As content marketers, we must balance our “need” to tell our stories against what people are willing to share. Ultimately, the most compelling content is what our customers regard as important. Ms. Woo described the “sweet spot” of content marketing as the intersection of (1) what our customers think of as shareable; (2) what’s moving within our business; and (3) what regulators will allow. The most important thing we can do — the best way to hit this sweet spot — is to LISTEN.

In the context of healthcare marketing, top-down communication is antithetical to listening, Ms. Woo noted. “We need to be OK with letting go,” she commented. “We’ve never owned the conversation.” Instead, perhaps we should view our role as connecting people to each other. She invoked the tagline made famous by the New York furniture magnate Sy Syms: “An educated consumer is our best customer.” However, education need not be branded; an unbranded educational message is often very effective in motivating consumers to ask their physicians about available treatments. “It’s not just talking about our brand, but what’s important to the consumer.”

Listening — whether conducted via patient advisory boards, market research, or social media monitoring — can inform a healthcare brand’s content strategy. It is especially important in today’s healthcare marketplace, where brands essentially function as 24-hour news channels, entities that cannot ever stop creating content. “We’re all journalists now!” Ms. Woo exclaimed. “We’re all engaged in an ongoing conversation, not a ‘campaign’ that’s over and done.” Increasingly, that conversation is taking place within a “three-screen” environment, in which  a consumer may be simultaneously viewing a tablet screen and a mobile phone screen while watching TV. “In the three-screen environment, simplicity wins.”

Simplicity is especially important in social media circles, where healthcare-related conversations are largely patient-driven. “Social media is not just a technology, but relationship-building,” Ms. Woo explained. “Brand marketing is not just conversion, but building a community.” The healthcare marketer must therefore not only track the quantity of social media conversations, but the quality of that discourse. “In a regulated industry, a corporate brand is very important,” she continued. “It allows you to talk about your company’s commitment in a way that you can’t do with a branded product. No one wants to be ‘sold.’ We need to find a space where our conversation can help bring people together while staying within regulatory bounds. But we can’t just have a conversation that’s only about what we want to talk about.” The conversation should therefore relate to the patient’s journey, from the onset of symptoms to screening and diagnosis, treatment, and follow-up. “When we have good data on patient journeys, and on where people go for information, we can develop communications to target the nexus of what is emotional to people,” counseled Ms. Woo.

In the weeks since the MM&M seminar, the concept of storytelling in healthcare marketing has come up in a number of forums. As Ron Winslow of The Wall Street Journal recently told an audience at the University of Tennessee, “The ability to find good characters to help illustrate complex stories is a skill that’s important for journalists – science journalists in particular.” Similarly, “There is something that heals us in being able to tell a story,” according to author, playwright, and Irish Times columnist Michael Harding, who recently addressed the Irish Medical Writers Spring Meeting. “It is a powerful response to mortality, a response to the constant decay of our life, our bodies, our memories and our culture. We were here… that is a very powerful thing and that to me is what story telling or writing is all about… All therapy is about stories, it is about listening to stories… the whole sense of healing is woven into being a writer, a story teller.”

I will share more stories from the MM&M Content Marketing seminar in upcoming blog posts over the next few weeks.