Case Study: Health Beat

Posted by: Brion Eriksen

How being their own publisher helps Spectrum Health tell its stories from the “inside out.”

Elexicon is proud to have helped Spectrum Health plan, design, and build their news and information web site, Health Beat. Produced and managed by editor in chief Cheryl Welch and her talented team, Health Beat is actually much more than a “news site.” Spectrum Health’s marketing communications leadership intentionally took a brand journalism approach when we helped develop the content strategy in 2015, taking the writing, reporting, photography and video to a higher level of professionalism and storytelling. Health Beat serves as a trusted platform for Spectrum Health’s voices: Their leadership, their doctors and caregivers, and (especially) the stories of patients.

Storytelling from the inside out

Every day, Health Beat delivers expertly written and photographed stories about what is happening at Spectrum Health, including medical breakthroughs and health and wellness information. Many of these stories are driven by the latest health-related national and global headlines, providing Spectrum Health’s expert insights, and reporting on local impacts. However, that core mission—its gift—is its genuinely authentic, this-is-real-life approach to telling patient stories. Many of the articles have joyful happy endings, but others capture an ongoing fight for life, or a raw, emotional struggle for which the outcome is still undetermined. Health Beat’s storytellers passionately craft words and pictures to represent these lives with dignity and beauty.

A highlights video Elexicon produced for Health Beat that captures it essence, with several article highlights from 2018.

One example that truly touched our team a few years ago still stands out. There was a series of Health Beat articles written about a young husband and father who was battling terminal brain cancer. Each article documented a stage of his journey, from participating in an experimental drug trial to taking a last vacation, then finally a reflection and photo tribute after his passing. His family asked the Health Beat team to provide printouts of all the articles so they could be displayed and shared at his funeral. We don’t often find ourselves getting emotional over an e-mail request from a client to help with some web-to-pdf formatting.

Photo credit: Chris Clark, Spectrum Health Beat

That story captures the beauty of Health Beat: Going deeper than surface-level branding, marketing, advertising and P.R., and into storytelling that enables empathy, captures humanity, and delivers inspiration. Some readers may have a loved one suffering from a particular condition, and through Google-search they find a Health Beat article about a patient with the same condition. The journalistic storytelling provides another helpful layer of information, about what it’s like, what to expect, and how to manage it both physically and emotionally. Other readers may just be having a bad day and click on a social media link to a Health Beat article, and be inspired and uplifted (and entertained!) by someone like the beautiful Candus Jones.

Jones tears up after she decided to challenge herself to walk the length of the hall without stopping to sit down. It was more than twice the distance she had walked in the past 2 1/2 weeks. (Photo credit: Taylor Ballek, Spectrum Health Beat.)

Earning, building and embodying trust

If you were not familiar with Health Beat before, one of your first questions at this point might be: What about privacy? The subjects of these stories, the patients and their families, are often in the midst the most vulnerable moments of their lives when Health Beat produces a story about them!

That’s where trust comes into play. The patients and families trust their doctors and Spectrum Health, and Health Beat has become a trusted extension of the institution: Trusted by Spectrum Health leadership, by the health system’s medical experts, and by the patients.

The Health Beat team has earned this trust in several ways:

  • Professionalism Cheryl is a seasoned professional journalist with a deep experience leading a traditional newsroom; and the team also includes fellow professionals, writer Sue Thoms and photographer Chris Clark. Given this background and award-winning talent, the team conducts their work at the highest level of ethics and discretion that you would expect.
  • Passion The Health Beat team’s passion for their journalistic craft is apparent in everything they do, from their respectful interactions with patients and families to their unyielding reliance on medical expert approval before any story gets published. Patients and families are treated like the amazing stars of these stories that they are.
  • Quality Tied directly to the team’s professionalism and passion, the quality of the content output is professional-grade stuff: Spend some time browsing Health Beat and you’ll feel like you’re reading a major publication with spectacular photography and heartfelt storytelling.

The bottom line: This isn’t advertising or promotion. Doctors, patients and families can trust that their story will be told with respect and dignity. Health Beat writers and photographers are even invited all the way into operating and recovery rooms to chronicle the breadth and depth of the story. The families do this for the greater good of educating and inspiring their community—but it also feels good to have you story told sometimes, doesn’t it? Especially by such pros?

David Spaulding meets his great-great grandson Grayson David Fandrich. As Grayson entered the world, David was fighting to survive a near-fatal heart attack. (Photo credit: Chris Clark, Spectrum Health Beat.)

Something special

The embodiment of the trust that a thoughtful brand journalism strategy can build is Health Beat’s “Special Series.” While the majority of patient stories are stand-alone profiles, some families’ journeys cannot be wrapped up in a single article. Instead, some families trust Health Beat to document their entire journey. We saw it earlier in the request for all that young man’s Health Beat articles to be part of his life tribute.

We also see it in “Life for Lilly,” a series that chronicled the story of Lilly Vanden Bosch, a 10-year-old girl with a rare autoimmune disorder known as aplastic anemia. For any family and child who might also have this or a similar condition come into their lives, Health Beat and the VandenBosch family documented an informative and inspiring story for them to experience: The radiation treatments, the bone marrow transplants, how there will be tears and sometimes danger, but also how much fun and joy and laughter can remain part of the process.

Because of her weakened immune system, Lilly and her mom will be relatively isolated from friends. She won’t be able to attend school or eat certain foods. (Photo credit: Chris Clark, Spectrum Health Beat.)

A foundational communication channel

Since launching, Health Beat has been a best-practices standard-bearer for brand journalism in health care. The publication has won over 125 content marketing and P.R. awards for excellence, within the health care industry and beyond. (In fact, in 2018 Health Beat topped Microsoft’s Story Lab brand journalism effort for P.R. Daily’s Content Marketing Awards “best of show” web site!) In addition, the site has grown its audience exponentially over the years, and has developed a loyal following through e-mail subscribers and social media followers. Health Beat has become a trusted institution in Spectrum Health’s home region of West Michigan, and has also extended its significant reach to a national and worldwide audience.

As critical institutions of their communities, every health care system needs a communications mix of of media relations and community relations, of brand advertising and earned media, and of course crisis communications, especially in times like we’re seeing in 2020. But Health Beat proves that brand journalism should be an important communication channel in health care content strategy as well—In fact, a brand journalism channel can drive the content strategy. You see, Health Beat has become more and more trusted and popular year after year, for many of the reasons we already mentioned above: A commitment to the highest standards for telling stories of real life struggles and triumphs. Brand journalism can serve as an effective vanguard for flowing all of your other channels of communication into your digital ecosystem. (It doesn’t hurt that Health Beat has seen 1.2 million visitors in the past 12 months.)

A ‘mighty’ impact

No profile of Health Beat would be complete without the story of ‘Mighty Boy’ Elijah. A Google search by Elijah’s parents found a Health Beat article, setting off a series of events that saved the child’s life.

Powerful stuff, and a great example of what’s possible with brand journalism, especially in the health care space, where there are not only so many inspiring stories to tell, but also such a wellspring of important information that needs to be communicated in a professional, trusted forum.

Hey … was this supposed to be an Elexicon case study?

Well, thank you for asking 🙂 We’re such big fans of Health Beat here at Elexicon, we really like to focus most of the credit for its success to its editorial team and the doctors and leadership teams that support it. But if you must know, we’re also pretty proud of the work we put into Health Beat, as well:

  • Content Strategy We helped Spectrum Health develop the content strategy framework for their web site and digital asset management system, that laid the groundwork for what content assets could comprise this new “Content Hub,” as they initially called Health Beat. Props to Jill Seidelman, Health Beat’s digital marketing manager, for working alongside us during those months to make Health Beat come to life.
  • Design We designed the brand creative and user experience of the initial site that was launched in 2015 and the 2018 re-design. Our designers established Health Beat’s user-friendly, inviting aesthetic across all devices. 75% of Health Beat’s traffic arrives via mobile phones and tablets. Our creatives have also designed many of the infographics featured on Health Beat.
  • Development We built a completely custom, enterprise-class WordPress platform that enables a robust editorial workflow on par with many far more complex and expensive content management systems. Editors and writers can obtain reviews and approvals from patients’ physicians and other health experts, and ensure the content is securely and completely vetted without causing any backlogs or bottlenecks.
  • Third-party Integration We made building weekly, monthly, and special-edition SalesForce e-mails from the content easy, and the system can also pull stories out of the content management system and display selections of them throughout the hospital system facilities on their digital signage.
  • Social Media Engagement was a priority, so we build our own custom engagement-counter plug-in to display how many likes, shares and comments each story is receiving.
  • Web Site Maintenance We built a rock-solid web site platform that, in the words of the old Timex slogan, “takes a licking and keeps on ticking.” The Health Beat team drives multiple story drafts, story reviews, story publications, photo galleries, videos, comments, and content feeds through the system on a daily basis. We continue to maintain the security and performance of the site, while the Health Beat team goes about all this business without needing much help from us. That’s the way we think it should be.

A growing trend over the past decade, whose time has now truly come

A brand journalism approach is an excellent strategy for maximizing the ROI of all your company’s content, by boosting visitor traffic, driving engagement, and supercharging the goodwill of your brand. As Health Beat has demonstrated, this is especially true for health care organizations, whose communications are so critical to the community, and there are so many awesome stories to tell. Also consider:

  • Health-related internet use has become one of the Top 3 online activities in the world. More than 100 million Americans visit health-related sites regularly, according to eConsultancy, and these figures were derived well before COVID-19. Think about how you want your stories to be front and center in these searches and activities, especially with your local community and consumers.
  • 77% of patients Google information about a health care provider before making an appointment at that provider, according to Content Marketing Institute. A brand journalism site like Health Beat can provide a deep and broad picture of your services, expertise, and patient experience that basic brochure-ware web content never could.
  • According to Social Media Today, 80% of decision-makers prefer to access company information via a series of articles rather than advertisements, and 70% said content marketing made them feel closer to the brand. A well-told story provides more long-term brand value than even a well-placed ad.

Interested in Brand Journalism? We can help, with proven strategies and technical platforms. Contact us for a free 30-minute consultation today.

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