Advocate sees big gains from brand journalism site

Health enews draws reporters from CNN and the Chicago Tribune, and wins retweets from actress Christina Applegate. And a flood of potential patients are reading it.

Advocate Health Care had high hopes for its health enews brand journalism site when it launched last spring.

But a Twitter direct message from Fox News surely surprised even the greatest advocates of its storytelling approach.

The Downers Grove, Ill., hospital group tweeted a story on how diabetic patients treated for their disease in emergency departments better managed it with the help of daily text messages.

A reporter with Chicago’s Fox affiliate replied, “Any way we can talk to someone locally about this? We’d love to come out today.”

For a largely suburban hospital group that once struggled to get the attention of journalists clustered in downtown Chicago, Advocate considered this a victory. Less than a year into its project, the hospital group now rates its brand journalism site a major success.

Soft-launched in March, heath enews now has 90,000 email subscribers. Some 632,000 visitors have viewed 1.1 million pages. A single story on breast cancer drew 33,000 views. The site’s stories have drawn the interest of CNN, major newspapers, and local TV stations. Its stories have been tweeted to legions of followers.

“And we’re not even a year in yet,” says Stephanie Johnson, Advocate’s vice president of public affairs.

Huge physician engagement

Equally important, although communicators once wondered whether its medical staffers would embrace the concept, there has been a “huge, huge physician engagement.” More than 200 physicians and clinicians from every hospital in the system participate, Johnson says.

(Ragan Communications, which does consulting in brand journalism, worked with Advocate to create the site.)

With 35,000 employees, Advocate is a not-for-profit system affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the United Church of Christ. It operates more than 250 care sites, including 12 hospitals.

With health enews, Advocate joined other organizations in creating consumer-friendly sites to attract eyeballs and showcase their brands and industries. The approach uses an in-house staff of writers and videographers to reach reporters, employees, and consumers. Cleveland Clinic and Mayo Clinic also have invested in brand journalism sites.

At Advocate, a core staff of six, backed by communicators and medical staff from throughout the network, produces three updates a day for the site. The goal is to interest both consumers and journalists.

“If we have a really good news story, we’ll push it out as ‘trending today on health enews,'” says Johnson. “And we’ll have an expert to offer up to the media. That has worked really well for us as well.”

Advocate received an earned media value last year of $15 million, in a large part due to health enews, Johnson says. This is an increase over the previous year, although a switch in vendors makes it difficult to track precisely.

This year Advocate plans to start asking patients as they check out to provide an email address, just as Bed Bath & Beyond and other retailers do. It’s optional, but patients are told that this will allow them to get daily updates on health.

From Advocate’s perspective, this means patients will be receiving news “where Advocate experts and clinicians are weighing in,” Johnson says. And it will keep Advocate in the minds of former patients at a time when they’re no longer lying in a hospital bed.

CNN and Christina Applegate

The return on all of the media attention is high, even if Advocate isn’t tracking, say, click-throughs form a story to signups for specific procedures.

“We have not tracked dollars in terms of the site,” Johnson says. “We’ve actually tracked it more in terms of engagement with our doctors and the patients.”

Anecdotally, however, it’s clear the formula is working, she says. Patients have said they came in because they saw a particular doctor quoted on the site, and executives at hospital sites have passed along similar stories.

In media coverage, the site started off with a bang. An Advocate story on urban nurses making home visits spurred a CNN report titled “Nurses dodge bullets to provide care.” The Chicago Tribune followed Advocate’s story, “Secret agent software helps kids with autism,” with a piece of its own. Health enews’ reporting also led to a Southtown Star piece, “Baby’s miracle surgery at suburban hospital becomes storyline on TV’s Grey’s Anatomy.”

It’s not just Advocate’s professional communicators who are writing. Jeannine Canino Bieda—a cancer survivor and patient blogger for Advocate Health Care’s health enews site—blogged last fall about how an MRI saved her life. Because the blog refers to actress (and breast cancer survivor) Christina Applegate, the writer tweeted her a link.

Applegate, who has 1.4 million followers, replied, “I’m so proud of you for being pro active [sic]. Your story made me cry. I felt all those things at one time too.”

It wasn’t just the brush with celebrity that pleased Advocate’s Johnson, however. “We’re excited about stories like that, where a person who is just a regular patient becomes a blogger overnight and blogs for the site,” she says.

The site has also opened up cross-promotions with the Chicago Cubs on topics of interest. Advocate’s stories sometimes relate to the ball team, such as, “Peds patients get a surprise visit,” which tells how Chicago Cubs outfielder David DeJesus and pitcher Michael Bowden visited Advocate Children’s Hospital locations in Oak Lawn and Park Ridge. A video celebrated “Breast Cancer Survivors at Wrigley,” the Cubs’ stadium.

In the future, Advocate plans to grow online communities in the areas of pediatrics, oncology, and cardiology. Health enews will feed stories and videos of interest to group members.

The communications staff has been positive about health enews. Some initially feared it would be an increased workload, Johnson says, and they worried about whether they would be able to come up with enough fresh content for the daily feed. But every story they wrote meant one fewer press release to crank out.

“It’s actually reduced their workload,” Johnson says. “They write in a more storytelling-type way, and in a way that engages their site associates, their consumers as well as the reporters. So that’s been a huge win for the team as well.”


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