How’d You Make That Flipping Awesome Content for Northwell Health

Northwell Health diagnosed a multi-symptom problem in 2017.

“We were undergoing a crisis of trust. Amid misinformation and manipulative messages, expertise had never been needed more, especially in the world of health and wellness,” says Julie Shapiro of Northwell Health, New York’s largest health care provider.

Sound familiar? As it turned out, Northwell’s prescription for the trust crisis positioned it well to address the global health crisis that struck a few years later.

The Well by Northwell Health launched in 2017 as a digital publication on a mission to deliver expert guidance and empathy at moments of truth in people’s lives through documentary video series, advice columns, first-person essays, and magazine-style reported features.

“Our audience was frustrated with the health information they were finding. Publishers were monetizing anxiety, and other health systems were trying to sanitize it through cold, clinical information, delivered dispassionately,” as The Well and its agency partner Revmade explained in their Content Marketing Award (CMA) submission.

From the start, the publication’s content performed well and earned awards (including a 2019 Content Marketing Award for Best Content Strategy).

Then came the pandemic. Traffic exploded while quality remained high.

The site won 2021 CMAs for Best Content Marketing Strategy and Best Overall Editorial – Digital and earned finalist nods for Best Content Marketing Program and Best Content Marketing Program in Health Care. For her work as editor-in-chief, Julie earned a spot as a finalist for 2021 B2C Content Marketer of The Year.

Trusted content helps readers and brand

In January 2020, The Well team developed its first content on the novel coronavirus (they didn’t yet call it COVID-19) and published it in February. In March, the impact reached the United States.

“Our page views exploded because people were just starting to hear about this novel virus and were desperate for information,” Julie says.

Engagements on The Well sourced to 3.6 million for the year, about triple the previous year. As Julie explains (and most of us remember), people felt terrified and struggled to find information they could trust. Many found it hard to believe or understand the evolving advice.

“We took the opportunity to figure out specifically what do people need to know and what are they searching for? And then we provided them with it,” Julie says.

Focusing on reader concerns helped the publication get more results from a smaller investment. “We’ve decreased budget every year,” Julie says, “but we were increasing our engagements because we had figured out what people wanted.”

You read that right – as The Well did better than well, its budget got smaller. “There’s a reason for that (budget reduction). We are really data driven in everything we create now,” Julie says.

This year, The Well expects to earn more organic traffic than paid. “We’ve refined this process so much that we can count on it, and we don’t need as much money,” she explains.

As data-driven #content performed better, @NorthwellHealth could spend less on paid promotion and still see soaring engagement, says #JulieShapiro via @AnnGynn @CMIContent. #CMWorld Click To Tweet

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A data-driven content development process

Julia shares the process The Well developed for its data-driven approach. It starts with an idea form that anyone at Northwell can submit. The form asks:

  • What’s the idea? What are you looking to do?
  • Who’s the audience?
  • How will people find the content?

The Well team reviews the submitted ideas in a monthly editorial planning meeting with its Revmade consultants. The Revmade team gathers the submitted ideas, adds their own, and does the related search research. They present their findings in a pitch memo.

Each idea gets a single slide that includes the following information:

  • Detailed idea and concept
  • Search volume for targeted keywords
  • Search engine ranking prediction
  • Recommended writers
  • Suggested subject matter experts
  • Proposal to “FLOOD the MARKET” – doing multiple pieces or series – or treat as a one-and-done piece

Julie and managing editor Meghan Holmgren then go through the pitch memos, refine them, and assign the content.

From there, the process goes like this:

  • Meghan works with the writers and interviewees and gets everything approved by the subject matter experts.
  • Julie reviews the final product.
  • The creative team handles the imagery.
  • The development team builds the pages.
  • The quality assurance team makes sure everything works properly.
  • After a final review by a proofreader, the content goes live.

“We used to have a very large dedicated team, and it got whittled away. Now those people are dedicated to other things,” Julie explains. Now she and Megan are the only full-time employees dedicated to The Well, and they tap into other internal teams for assistance. If they don’t have the capacity to write a piece, they contract with freelance writers.

“It’s always an ongoing discussion about how much content we can create. It depends not just on how much money, but how many people we can have to make it happen. It truly takes a village,” Julie says.

How much #content The Well can create depends on how much money and how many people are available to make it happen, says #JulieShapiro via @AnnGynn @CMIContent. #CMWorld Click To Tweet

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Handling exceptions and breaking news

That all sounds well organized and strategic. But health content can’t always be planned months ahead. Sometimes, the process goes out the window because certain stories can’t wait for monthly editorial meetings or in-depth research.

When “breaking news” interrupts the standard process, Julie says, the managing editor takes the lead on content development.

For example, when the FDA approved COVID-19 vaccination boosters and vaccinations for children ages five to 11, the managing editor reached out immediately to internal writers. If internal writers aren’t available to handle breaking news, she relies on a core group of freelancers who can do quick turnarounds.

“All the other teams that this project touches know that this is a priority, and everybody does it quickly,” Julia says. “We’re not built to [be a news organization]but we do the best we can.”

Delivering big results

As detailed in their CMA nomination, The Well’s mission is clear: “Become a trusted partner; be there for them during life-altering diagnoses, to correct misinformation, and most recently, to guide them through a pandemic that changed everything overnight.

“We answer questions and address anxieties with expert opinion and advice, through empathetic stories and by delivering ‘I-feel-seen’ editorial. In simpler terms: We tell the truth about health and tell it well.”

How well does The Well do in accomplishing that mission? The team details three measurement areas that evaluated both audience and business impact:

  • Brand trust: Through before-after benchmarking studies, they seek to improve trust in Northwell’s brand and experts.
  • Audience engagement: Relationships with their target community are evaluated based on how their audiences spent time online (eg, search, social, publications).
  • Business referrals: Clicks to the main site, Northwell.edu, serve as the metric for moving from awareness to activation.

The outcomes indicate the Well works as an effective treatment for building trust in Northwell’s health care system:

  • New York residents’ likelihood to seek care at Northwell increased by a 44-point margin after engaging with The Well’s content. The same study found a significant increase in Northwell’s trustworthiness among the community.
  • Coverage of The Well’s content skyrocketed brand awareness, reaching audiences on Today.com, ABC 7, Apple News, and even top positions on Reddit’s coronavirus subreddit several times.
  • The Well surpassed 2 million sessions in a year for the first time and nearly doubled its rate of new subscribers.
  • The Well content generated 20% more direct referrals over the previous year.
  • Referrals from The Well to Northwell.edu were more cost-efficient than other marketing activities as measured by site engagement and appointments generated.
  • Media-spend efficiency set records, achieving a cost-per-landing-page visit of 21 cents, five times better than published benchmarks.

@NorthwellHealth’s #ContentMarketing site, The Well, works as an effective treatment for building trust in its health care, says Ann Gynn via @CMIContent. #CMWorld Click To Tweet

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Go for data- and fact-based content

No universal cure exists for health-related misinformation and distrust of health care experts. Yet The Well has gone a long way toward rectifying the symptoms for their New York communities with a blend of fact-based and empathetic content.

Data allow the team behind The Well to understand and deliver the content their audience wants and needs. That content inspires trust in Northwell Health’s expertise. And its success means the organization can spend less while getting more.

That sounds like an ideal prescription for all content marketers.

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Is your work award-worthy? You’ll never know unless you enter. Visit the Content Marketing Awards website to review the rules, study past winners, and sign up to get a reminder when the call for entries opens on March 7.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

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