Skip to content

How Nonprofits Can Sidestep Content Marketing Pitfalls

Content Marketing Pitfalls | Michael Buller
Michael Buller

For the last five years, Director of Editorial & Creative Services Michael Buller has helped shape content marketing strategy at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. He’s found great ways to tiptoe around that nonprofit four-letter word (marketing), shaping a content-focused strategy for his organization. He recently told us how he overcomes the challenges of his industry.

CMI: Was Dana-Farber doing content marketing before you joined them?

Michael: No. They were doing publications, and they were producing some content but they certainly weren’t looking at it as content marketing. There’s some argument that we’re still not doing that — that we’re just publishing things. But that’s a bigger discussion.

What was the first problem that you were trying to solve with content?

We have a variety of channels for audiences with whom we already have a relationship (our patients and families, our staff, physicians, donors). But because we’re a nonprofit and a hospital (and more importantly, a cancer hospital), actively marketing to people who don’t have a relationship with us, or with cancer, is more challenging because nobody wants to come to Dana-Farber unless they have to.

We target a general consumer audience, and we talk to them through our blog and our web sites. We’re trying to build awareness of Dana-Farber if there is ever a need for them to choose a cancer center. We want them to have an understanding of who we are, what we do, and why it’s important to go to a national comprehensive cancer center.

A lot of what we’re doing with the content, starting with the blog, is reaching out to anybody who is interested in, or concerned about cancer and cancer research. We’re trying to find topics that resonate with people even if they don’t have cancer. As a result, some of the messages that resonate the most talk about myths and misperceptions about different cancers. We talk about prevention because those are things that everybody can relate to. People are interested in what we think about mammography screening, for example, or in safety tips for preventing skin cancer.

Those are things that we’re finding that resonate with people especially well, at least people who are in the general consumer population. We’re trying to engage them, draw them into our blog, link from the blog to more information that exists on our website and just build a connection so that we’re there when they need us.

Have you met any obstacles getting buy-in internally?

It’s been a long road to find the buy-in. Most people understand the importance of social media, but few people, even within the communications department, fully understand content marketing.

But the two disciplines are integrally connected, and I think there’s a growing awareness that we need to create the content so that we have the conversations on social media and drive people to this content. It’s all related.

Can you give me a quick inventory of what tactics you’re currently using? 

There are a number of tactics and channels we’re using. We have a blog called Insight for general consumers that gets about 7,000 unique visitors a month. We have eNewsletters that go out to a variety of different audiences. For instance, we have an eNewsletter for referring physicians and a general eNewsletter for anyone who has any affiliation with Dana-Farber.

Our eBulletin goes out to patients and families; that really drives the interest in a lot of our videos and SlideShares. We sent one out a couple of weeks ago and within 2 to 3 weeks we had 1,000 views on a linked SlideShare. That seems to be the one that’s working well: the combination of that eBulletin to patients and SlideShares that are targeted to patients on things about managing chemo, fighting cancer with your fork and other nutrition-oriented SlideShare content.

We’ve experimented with podcasts and audio files, but not to any great effect. We have a lot of video — anything from straight profiles of physicians to more in-depth videos; from how to tie a headscarf to symptoms of breast cancer, what to expect from your first chemo appointment, things of that nature.

We have a presence on FacebookTwitter, and a Google+. We have also dipped our toes into Pinterest and, as mentioned, we’ve had some success with SlideShare, particularly with our patient and patient-family populations.

Content marketing pitfalls | Slideshare Screenshot

Which tactics have been the most successful? Which have been the most disappointing?

Beyond our traditional social media channels (Facebook and Twitter), I think SlideShare has been the most successful. Some of our videos have really done well separately, just as YouTube videos and the videos that we link from our site.

For our research publications, we’ve created separate apps for all the various tablets. That’s been a little disappointing in terms of the number of downloads. They’re free apps, but we can’t seem to get as many interested eyeballs as I would like. I think it’s difficult, as people aren’t actively searching for this type of info. It’s not something they say: “Oh, cancer research. That would be a fun app!” So trying to get some attention to that amidst all the thousands and thousand of apps out there, and trying to drive traffic to the apps that we’ve created has been challenging for us.

Content Marketing Pitfalls | POP App

What infrastructure did you need to put in place? Tell me about your team: how it’s organized and how they play a part in the whole.

Dana-Farber is a place where we have pretty good longevity of staff. I think some of the challenges we face are that we have a variety of teams with different reporting responsibilities. It’s been difficult for some people to make the transition from print-based to web-based — not just telling narrative stories but presenting information. We don’t always have to start a story with a nice anecdotal lead. We can have bullets. They’ve done a great job in the last couple of months really starting to make more of that transition.

On my team, we have writers, editors and designers, production people, a photographer — and (as we go forward) we’re trying to add general content creators. These are people who can do video, produce PowerPoints and SlideShare presentations, and create podcasts. They don’t have to be expert video editors, but they need some ability to do that.

You mean someone who is a writer/editor but also might have video or design skills?

Exactly. They don’t need design skills but rather design sensibilities. I am looking for writers who are at least familiar enough with blog platforms and social media to understand that if you write “9 tips,” you can then take those nine tips and have nine tweets.

What are the different ways you distribute content?

We still do print. We do email distribution. We drive people to content that we have on our website through our social media properties. We haven’t done much in the way of live events but we have done a couple where our faculty will talk for staff, patients or families. It’s an internal event but we’ll record that and distribute across a variety of platforms including SlideShare, YouTube and, eventually, podcasts.

Where do you expect to go next?  What is the vision for the future?

The biggest challenge for 2013 is planning and focus. I think when we do those things, the content we create really resonates. I’d like to take some of that information and use it to plan our content better.

I want to find ways to share what we’re doing across all of our content channels with all of these content channel owners so that we can really be more efficient. If I’m doing a great blog post on lung cancer screening and I find out that we’re also having a newsletter going out to physicians focused on lung cancer, it’d be nice if we could talk together and combine resources so that the stuff we’re doing in one area gets shared across the other areas. I want to be talking about this in a 60- to 90-day planning window as opposed to “Oh, next week I’m doing this.” Or worse — talk to each other about what we did. At that point, it’s too late because we can’t capitalize on it.

Do you use any tools to manage your content marketing? 

When I came here, I worked with a team to develop a system for tracking projects that go through the entire communications department. We use QuickBase (an Intuit database product) and a customized application within QuickBase. We use it for tracking large projects that may or may not be content-based. We also have a separate application tied to tracking content — what stories we are pursuing and where they are running.

In the next 2 to 3 months, we’re going to make changes to this to really help us transform it into more of an editorial calendar tool across all of our content channels. Then, hopefully, we’ll be able to really use it as a tool to share content across different channels.

What are the most exciting examples of health care institutions performing content marketing?

The Cleveland Clinic always does a good job in all areas of their marketing and communications. The Mayo Clinic is very active and does a really good job in social media and blogging. I get their newsletters and I think they do a really good job there.

MD Anderson and Memorial Sloan Kettering are two cancer centers that have really good blogs. Boston Children’s Hospital, our partner in pediatric cancer, does a good job.

Do you want to see how other brand marketers have incorporated content into their strategy? View our series of interviews with marketers at mid-to-large B2B and B2C brands.