Health Communication vs. Content Marketing

This week, I was honored to join an excellent line-up of digital health communicators at the NIH Digital Summit. I was part of a panel focusing on “reaching patients and people where they are,” where I was joined by Robert Burchard and Erik Augustson - two government health intervention designers. I had ten short minutes to make my pitch that, when it comes to providing citizens information, the field of health communications is being overshadowed by big consumer brands and their exploding interests in content marketing. Here’s a recap of my central message.

I believe that we, as digital health communicators, are in a daily tug-of-war. We’re competing with brands for attention from the same target audiences, and now we’re both using valuable content as a way to elicit a behavior. They call this “content marketing” and we call it “health communications.” And, it may come as no surprise, that brands are winning in this struggle. Specifically, I think they’re doing a better job at leveraging existing target audience behaviors, driving deeper engagement, and focusing on high-quality content. I see this as problem for those of us in public health because we’re working towards a goal loftier than product sales. We’re working towards a nation of healthier Americans. So it’s important that we find a way to enhance our efforts and do a better job competing with these brands.

While our end goals may differ, there are several things we can learn from brands and adopt into our own work. Specifically, I think we need to:

  • Get personal. Tell stories. Drive deeper engagement.
  • Focus on channels that build engagement.
  • Build a relationship with the online community.
  • Build brand affinity for our organizations.
  • Establish more public-private partnerships.
  • Continuously evolve in tiny increments.

Ultimately, we’ll do a better job competing in this ongoing tug-of-war if we remember that: It’s not about the channel. It’s about engagement. We should be putting our energy towards building a consistent, positive relationship with our target audience through meaningful engagement, regardless of the platform or channel. We may never be able to compete with the amount of money big brands spend on marketing, but we can offer a unique value proposition: as public health communicators, we are the only ones with the end goal – not of sales or profit margins – but of improving the health of the communities around us. Let’s work together to do a better job of holding our ground in this tug-of-war, of making sure that our science-based messages get heard among the brand chatter, and of working together to create meaningful engagement that will help us make progress towards our goal of a national of healthier Americans.

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