From Utah, a case study in brand journalism

University of Utah Health Care illustrates that the core of good online marketing is good content. Bolstering engagement and monitoring ROI are just two pieces of the puzzle.

When University of Utah Health Care wanted to create a new way to share content about the “amazing science” going on at the university, it ditched traditional press releases and embraced brand journalism.

With its news site HealthFeed and online radio station The Scope, it’s building content that drives patient engagement and boosts the health system’s national reputation.

HealthFeed—which launched in September—is a consumer-oriented news site providing health care information that drives local and regional referrals to the health care system. Latest posts include “Movember-Hairy Faces for Men’s Health” and “Are High-Intensity Workouts Healthy for Pregnant Women?”

The Scope, a radio site launched as a partner to HealthFeed, has a broader mission.

The Scope supports brand journalism and drives national attention to the amazing work going on at U of U,” says Christopher Nelson, assistant vice president of public affairs at University of Utah Health Care. “There is patient content, but there is also science content that features our researchers and guest lecturers. It is a combination of NPR, commercial radio, and brand journalism.”

Scope topics range from basic health topics such as cholesterol and cold sores to regular features from UUHC physicians. “From the front lines” includes broadcasts from Dr. Troy Madsen, an emergency medicine physician. He discusses ways patients can avoid visits to the emergency room, with shows such as “What to do if you’re bitten by a vampire” and “10 reasons hunters end up in the emergency room.”

Why a radio site?

The idea for an online radio station came from UUHC’s new chief executive. She wanted to launch something similar to the Sirius XM station Doctor Radio. “We didn’t know how to launch a 24-hour radio station, so we decided to start small and launch an online station along with HealthFeed,” says Nelson.

UUHC’s brand journalism efforts arose from a desire to bring good strategy and focus to the work of public affairs, clinical marketing, and digital marketing.

The teams from each department were receiving requests to increase patient referrals, to improve the university’s rankings in U.S. News and World Report, and to send out press releases about the academic awards that faculty and staff were receiving.

“These were all legitimate requests,” says Nelson. “So we decided to integrate all content with a brand journalism site to address these requests.”

Nelson warned that introducing the concept of brand journalism can be tough: “If you do it well, the brand is secondary. This is difficult for the senior leadership team to understand. … We had to help them understand that good marketing is good content.”

Another challenge was demonstrating the ROI of brand journalism efforts. “We talked about this at every single meeting, and we still do,” Nelson says. “We addressed it by building in metrics.”

Because the communications team had no baseline to measure the success of The Scope, it will track listenership for the first year. Gauging ROI for HealthFeed will be more sophisticated. The team will need to tie readership of the site to patient visits. “But our systems aren’t centralized. We can track to the appointment request,” says Nelson. ROI will be continually evaluated as they move forward.

Nelson’s team also considered how brand journalism would fit in with its traditional PR efforts. “How much do we become the media? We still do aggressive media relations. But now we try to tell these stories in a compelling way. We are trying to get to interesting,” says Nelson.

Nelson stressed that the key to success has been to start slowly. The team is launching The Scope in phases. By the end of November, it will be broadcasting live shows and will eventually get to five hours of live programming per week. “We have a grand vision for The Scope, but we are not there yet,” Nelson says.

Nelson offers guidance to any organization beginning to build a brand journalism site. “Our CEO and leadership have been willing to give us some rope. That is the advice I would give other CEOs. Give your communication folks some flexibility. Make them accountable, but turn them loose,” he says.

For communicators who need to persuade leadership to turn them loose, Nelson says: “The best way to convince them is by doing it. Show them proof of concept. Show them results. They can’t argue with results.”

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