By Andy McCartney published May 13, 2013

How to Build Online Engagement With Health Care Communities

online health care communitiesHealth-related research is among the top three online activities worldwide. In the United States alone, more than 100 million Americans per year will visit health-related sites such as WebMD,,, and CNN Health, among thousands of others. Within the massive ecosystem of health-related content websites, community-based sites are critical sources of trusted information for patients and caregivers. They offer a single spot for multiple stakeholders — including marketers — to interact with and contribute content to the community. And that’s where marketers need to get smart. 

To understand the issue, let’s look at one of the top disorder-focused communities. Diabetes-related content sites are among the most active online health hubs because of the staggering number of people diagnosed with the disease: more than 370 million worldwide. For big pharmaceutical companies, these sites represent a tremendous opportunity, as well as potential risk. Patients are the most wary consumers, and health care companies must build a content strategy that ensures online engagement is absolutely credible
and trustworthy.

Roche Diagnostics, maker of Accu-Chek insulin pumps and blood glucose testing devices, is extremely conscious of its position and responsibility in the diabetes community — both due to the sensitivity of working in a highly regulated industry as well as the desire to position its brand as a valued resource. Jim Lefevere, Director of Global Marketing, explains, “We must not be self-serving, but be here to provide better information, education, and value to people so that they can take better care of themselves and live better, healthier, and longer lives.”

Offering trusted content is also essential to prevent a backlash. The diabetes community — like most other socially driven online communities — is protective when it comes to inappropriate content. A contributor or vendor stating unlikely claims or being in any way promotional will be shut out of the conversation and lose respect with associated negative sentiment/reputation scores. Marketers need to be especially conscious of their role within the ecosystem, and look to influence, inspire, and educate audiences where the value is appropriate — and steer clear where their opinion isn’t warranted.

So how should marketers approach a content strategy for an online health care community and ensure that content is credible, relevant, and supportive of the organization’s objectives? Here are a couple ideas:

The customer journey of trust

Online engagement is usually modeled in relation to the customers’ journey. When creating this life cycle journey, consider your “degrees of trust” for content categories at each stage.

For example, a diabetes care provider may consider the customer life cycle to be:

  • Symptom
  • Diagnosis
  • Treatment
  • Use
  • Renewal

Now think about how these life cycle stages affect each of your target audience segments, and consider the classifications of content that each of these roles would find most beneficial at each step.

health care community life cycle chart

Now consider which content categories would be regarded as credible when submitted by your organization. (Examples of these are shaded in orange in the graphic above). A provider of diabetes insulin pumps, for example, can credibly supply usage instructions and renewal offers to sufferers and caregivers, and supply early-stage research (ideally independent) to all audience roles. This is somewhat simplified, but it starts to define trust categories of content that could be sourced directly from providers.

A layered content strategy

Many health care organizations are adept at creating, optimizing, and disseminating personalized content to specific targets. Yet, social media has changed the landscape in so many ways, and in health care, in particular, it elevates the role bloggers and other online influencers play in the information value chain.

A patient is highly influenced by these independent players when weighing treatment options and purchase decisions. While it is not entirely credible for a health care provider to provide, for example, a product comparison, a layered content strategy can enable a third party to supply information indirectly on your behalf.

Be very conscious about how to approach and engage with third parties, however. Bloggers are obliged, sometimes required, to be transparent about their associations with health care companies. (Advertisers be aware — in the United States, the Federal Trade Commission published new guidelines in March 2013 requiring clearer disclosures in digital advertising.)

Using a matrix similar to the one shown above, identify the high-value, redistributable information you can supply to bloggers and influencers. Providing industry research, market tests, treatment tips (e.g., diabetes recipes) or VIP access to in-house product experts are ways to earn the respect of influencers. Don’t forget to layer your content depending on the number of levels of direct and indirect distributors.

Bottom line: Always be cognizant of your organization’s overriding role and ability to maintain trust. This principle is never more applicable than in health care.

If you want to learn more about content marketing in the healthcare industry, join us for the Content Marketing World Health Summit on September 12 in Cleveland, Ohio.

This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free subscription to our quarterly magazine.  

Cover image via Bigstock

Author: Andy McCartney

Andy McCartney is a broadly experienced marketing strategist, practitioner and entrepreneur who has spent the last 25 years consulting and collaborating with hundreds of companies of all sizes in Europe and North America. He is the founder of iMcCMarketing and a senior contributor to Econsultancy . Connect with Andy on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter @imccmarketing.

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  • ahaval

    Great article! Thank you! Love the decision journey map.

  • Leslie Nolen

    I love decision journey maps, but this map isn’t an accurate reflection of how CONSUMERS experience it. It’s a tidily siloed view of the consumer experience through the eyes of a marketing guy at HQ.

    Moreover, I disagree w/ the article’s assertion that healthcare companies ARE particularly astute at delivering personalized content. Which is why the most valuable content in diabetes communities, for example, is that provided by PWD themselves, and never by healthcare companies.

    The tendency is to develop overly simplistic “personas” and then deliver fairly superficial content to even that persona. Unfortunately, this is a very effective way to instantly DISengage healthcare consumers.

    For example, one overused persona is “diabetes diagnosis = inactive, overweight, nutritionally ignorant.” That generally translates to ostensibly “personalized” messages targeting people with a T1 or T2 diabetes diagnosis with content that clearly assumes that every recipient is sedentary and uninformed about appropriate food choices at even the most elementary level.

    Here are two examples of how this kind of content plays out for real-world consumers:

    1) One consumer fits that persona.

    But the superficial information he gets doesn’t give him specific details on how, for example, to increase his activity level when his beta-blockers leave him wiped out at the end of the day. Or how to be more active when his oral med can result in hypoglycemia. “Consult your doctor” isn’t really a helpful response for this consumer.

    2) Another consumer doesn’t fit that persona.

    For example, many T1 folks are actually very active. They do, however, still struggle to maintain normal and healthy A1Cs because of the need to fuel before, during and after strenuous exercise to avoid severe lows–without spiking pre/post-exercise glucose levels.

    They need help, but they resent the assumption that they’re “like all those other people” and frustrated that no healthcare content ever meets their needs.

    • Andy McCartney

      Leslie – thanks for comment and you do make some very valid points. Big pharma is at least at the understanding stage of how to interact with the PWD community, but many are still lagging on strategy and execution. The companies I have worked with are at least beyond ‘spray and pray’, and somewhat beyond one way social posting. There is a plethora of data to consume and to generate insights for marketing planning, and big companies are not as agile as a PWD who can respond instantly. It will be interesting to see which companies are able to customize, interact appropriately and communicate at a suitably granular level. Thanks again! Andy

  • John Knol


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  • Williams Joseph

    You had provided nice information about health related community sites and the competition among those sites.

    Thanks & Regards,
    Primary care Naperville