008 – Writing Better Healthcare Content with Betsey O’Brien of Desire Path Marketing

Is your healthcare content connecting with your audience? In this episode, Betsey O’Brien of Desire Path Marketing comes on the show to discuss mistakes nonprofits make with their website content, signs your content is falling short (and what to do about it), and how to prioritize content improvements on your site.

Betsey works with strategic planners, web developers, video producers and others to advance the communications goals of leading health care nonprofits. She has written for many c-level leaders, creating everything from op-ed pieces to keynote speeches to weekly blog posts.

Full Transcript

Spencer Brooks 00:05

Welcome to Health Nonprofit Digital Marketing podcast for nonprofit marketing and communications leaders who are using the internet to reach and engage people with health issues. I’m your host Spencer Brooks of Brooks digital, a digital agency for health nonprofits. And today I’m joined by Betsy O’Brien. Betsy is a partner at Desire Path marketing, where she specializes in strategy and storytelling for healthcare organizations with a focus on mental health. So, Betsey, first of all, thank you for coming on the show today. Would you mind starting just by giving listeners a brief overview of who you are and what you do?

Betsey O’Brien 00:41

Thank you, Spencer, I’d be delighted to first of all, I really appreciate the chance to be here, this is great. And I guess I came to this field very honestly, my parents were involved in medical research. So, I have always thought about medicine, and science and health and nutrition and all the related issues. I knew I wanted to be a writer from a very young age. And so, I decided that later in my career that I would marry the two, I mean, always your first jobs are the ones that pay the best and give you the most experience. But by the time I was about midway, through my career, I ended up at the American Cancer Society, which was very rewarding. And I was on the staff side, and I found that I love this writing, particularly loved writing about research, which makes sense, right. And so now what’s happening today, and now, of course, is that I specialize in writing for health nonprofits, because the, what they need to communicate and what they need to do is so complicated, and so human. And my job is to take things that can be fantastically complex and technical, and making them understandable, accessible. And hope inspiring.

Spencer Brooks 02:00

That’s wonderful. I am so excited to have you today, just because your specialty. And what you do, I think is so, is unique. And it’s, as you said, very relevant for the people who are going to be listening to this today. So I wanted to ask you just to kick off our conversation. When it comes to website content, what’s the most common mistake you see health nonprofits making?

Betsey O’Brien 02:27

Oh, you know, I think and I think it’s a natural one. It’s nothing anyone ever sets out to do. But I think the difficulty is that websites are the crossroads of any organization’s marketing. And so they need to do a lot, they need to speak to many audiences. The difficulty comes in, when you try to say everything to everybody all at once. And there’s crossover and confusion. And I’m really not talking about design, always. Alot of times, it’s just losing sight of something simple. Let’s say that you are a nonprofit, focused on a particular disease or disorder, let’s say its memory care something like that. You may want to immediately, let’s say your staff is made up of these incredibly, widely recognized experts and your board stuffed with pros. Very often there will be pressure to demonstrate all that expertise, boom, from the moment, the visitor comes to the website. But the truth is, someone with a memory care problem, or a loved one looking for insights, needs compassionate and reassurance, even before they need medical expertise. So, you have to take it from their point of view. And you can also of course, you can build and you can write your website so that when you need to speak to the highest level peers and professionals in your field, you can use that vocabulary. So they feel seen and included too. But it’s a matter of making sure that your primary audience is taken care of. And the human side. Tone is so important. I think a lot of people don’t think of you acts as including things like vocabulary and tone, but I do. That’s the way I see it.

Spencer Brooks 04:34

It’s a good point. And I think maybe the implicit thing that I’m hearing you saying as well, is that if the website content is written for or that it’s very complicated, right, it’s written to impress or to communicate all of this complex information that when someone the average Joe or average Jane visits the site, that it’s going to go over their head or it’s is not going to connect with them in a meaningful way. Is that kind of what you’re saying?

Betsey O’Brien 05:04

Yes, that’s kind of the core of it, I think it’s really important to remember as a whole individual and this, we struggled to do this in healthcare and in healthcare marketing. If I am newly diagnosed, or I’m about to have surgery, or a new procedure, I’m scared. I’m terrified. I’m in an emotional state. And when people are feeling frightened or emotional, they are more easily confused, it is harder for them just cognitively, this is brain science, it is more difficult for them to absorb complex information. The first thing they want to know is that you are there for them, that there are answers for many of the issues that they are facing, that they’re not alone. And that you’re going to walk them through it. And with your help, they’re going to find the best possible care, and they’re going to find enlightenment too, and resources for their family. I mean, it’s really important to recognize that medical conditions, health care issues do not happen to individuals, they happen to families, they happen to employers and friends and communities. A sick person affects a wide network of people. So, you can keep that in mind too, when you’re thinking audience.

Spencer Brooks 06:26

Yeah. And I wanted to follow up a little bit on that as well. Because I know that everything that you said, it makes so much sense. And from the perspective of someone that’s newly diagnosed, for example, they are going to want to have that humanizing I think is the word that you used that humanizing experience. At the same time, let’s say, you’re a nonprofit listening to this, and you say, I’m not sure if my content meets that standard right now. How would someone be able to go look at their website? What signs maybe could they look for in their content that would indicate this might be a little complicated? And then how can they start taking steps to make that content more understandable to the average person that might be visiting?

Betsey O’Brien 07:19

Sure, well, there are lots of ways to get it that you can you can hire an outside content analyst someone like me to take a look at every element on your website and kind of evaluate it. But they’re also I mean, gosh, they’re the, you know, mechanized systems for analysis of language pitch. A lot of website creation tools include those. And very often, someone I’m writing for will reflect back to me, hey, hey, you know, you’ve, we’re right on the border of too complex with this, because we ran it through this particular filter, and you’re a little higher than the reader level of my audience. So, you can you work on that really good feedback, right? You can also do something simple, like put together a focus group of the people you’re trying to serve. And give them a sample set of web pages to read. And then ask them questions that get at their understanding not quiz time, like, did you understand what oncogenesis means? Not like that, but did you feel comfortable reading the content? Was it understandable? Was it friendly? Did it what at the end of the articles you read say…do you feel like you knew where to find more information? And did we make it easy for you? So, you’d learn a lot, right? Even five patients sitting in a room could tell you so much.

Spencer Brooks 08:53

I love that approach. And it’s funny, because it’s something that I see over and over again, as well this audience mindset that you’re talking about just how effective it is to get in the room with someone that is a member of your audience and ask them questions. It could be about content or design or anything else, but to get that feedback, because I certainly think that it’s very easy to sit in a room somewhere in the War Room of your organization or the Zoom Room and say, Okay, this is what we’re going to do and you’re going to self evaluate. I think there’s a place for that for sure. But there’s nothing like hearing words come out of someone else’s mouth, in your target audience and realizing, oh, man, I never would have been able to dream that up myself or I never would have been able to see it that way. So I really like that that perspective. I think it’s very it’s a wise piece of advice. I one thing that was that stood out to me as you were talking as well is just the fact that many organizations have a ton of content on their site. And if they’re in the process of going, how, okay, how in the world am I going to tackle this behemoth all of our content is or let’s say 75% of it is too complicated. But we have hundreds or 1000s of pages, how in the world am I going to make a dent in this? Do you have any advice for someone who might be in that position?

Betsey O’Brien 10:30

Why that would be tough, wouldn’t it? I mean, you when you think of major health, nonprofits, national ones, they do they have 1000s and 1000s of pages, I guess that you would need to think of it from the point of view of patient journey, the, it begins on the homepage, you absolutely want to think you could you could even, it’s very popular now to use persona, right? Or to say, okay, you could you could create an individual example story, I am newly diagnosed with IBS. And I’ve just gotten the news from my doctor, and I’ve come to the site, go, right, and walk it, if you have to do it in house, get people who are not involved in the writing of the website, and get them to walk the journey, give them a few sample journeys and then once you’ve got tracks like that, particularly if you’ve aligned them to the traffic you want to get, right. If you know that, for example, you want to widen your caregiving audience, you want to speak to caregivers just as much as you want to speak to patients, walk that journey, and then see how that track looks and tackle the pages that are part of that first, prioritize them, you know, rank them, stack them up, and set a, you know, a priority 1. 2. 3. 4 and work it in waves right?

Spencer Brooks 12:03

It’s great advice. I think that’s a very, but just a practical way to look at it. Because of course, you can’t tackle it all at once. And so, you do have to prioritize. And it really rings true what you said about, for example, someone who’s newly diagnosed emotionally, the ability of someone to comprehend information when they’re just at a in a heightened emotional state. It’s tougher. And so, I do think it makes a lot of sense to prioritize on the basis of the patient journey or the user journey. And look at what parts of that journey or what pages are someone going to be reading in a heightened emotional state, maybe those are the pages that we want to tackle first and prioritize first, because those are going to be the most difficult to understand based on the state that someone’s going to come to the website in.

 Betsey O’Brien 12:55

Right. Exactly, yeah. And there’s another suggestion that comes to mind, I’ve discovered in helping people fix or improve content for the web, you don’t always have to rewrite everything. Sometimes you can take a page that feels very technical. And just by rewriting the metadata, the headlines and the subheads, you can improve the service to the reader. So, if you decide that you’re going to adopt a friendly down style type of headline, that is kind of conversational. And you’re going to go three to four paragraphs, and you’re going to have these helpful subheads you can break up tougher content that way very quickly. It especially if you cannot afford to go and bust down 1000 pages of diagnostic or care content. And some of them you may not want to because again, those are primarily for docs for nurse practitioners, for other medical professionals. That’s fine. leave it as is don’t even touch it.

Spencer Brooks 13:56

I had another question for you as well. And I love that piece of advice as well. Because again, it it speaks from experience. If you’re working with a nonprofit, that you’re probably the everyone who’s listening doesn’t have an army of staff, you have to be able to be efficient at what you do. And you don’t have the luxury of contemplating your navel all day while you know, deciding on how exactly you’re going to rewrite this thing you got to get your hands dirty, do the work. So, I really appreciate that perspective. One of the things that that occurred to me while you were talking and this is it’s a related thing, but I didn’t consider it fully in the context of the conversation is the tone of voice that you choose to adopt. Because I would imagine that if you currently if a listeners website has a tone of voice that tends to be say clinical, or you know very academic, for example, that if you’re going through the effort to rewrite a bunch of your content, do you feel like it’s worth the exercise of agreeing on what a standardized, a unified tone of voice would be before you go through that process? Or do you think that tone is a kind of a secondary thing to actually just getting the work done on the content?

Betsey O’Brien 15:24

Oh, no tone is everything. Now, if you especially when you are going to talk about your primary pages, it is there’s no way to be reassuring, or even expert without striking the right tone. And you know, I mean, I guess what the heck is tone? It’s a lot of things, its vocabulary choices, its sentence structure and length. It’s balancing emotion with thinking points, pacing, meaning, how, how many technical terms am I dropping into a single paragraph or can I take them one at a time? You know, all of those things contribute to a tone that’s friendly, accessible, respectful, unbiased, and it what a tone like that can do at the end of the day is make the person feel seen and involved and that you can’t do better than that. Now you do, you have to actually set objective standards. For example, another huge mistake that many nonprofits make, in trying to be knowledgeable and official, they’ll write everything in the third person, when in reality, it’s really much better to call once you’ve dropped your name a couple times, then you become we, the person you’re speaking to, that’s you. Right. If you’re going to talk about doctors or physicians, it’s fine to use those terms. But or even let’s say you’re writing contents for physicians, you can say, if you are a physician, typically treating people dealing with GERD and then get rid of it go to you. That’s a point of tone. So those are things you can specify, you can actually create a really simple stylesheet. Don’t overthink it because you’ll never get it done. But just a way to do this is to find a nonprofit who you think is hitting the right tone and study what they did, and extract the points and test them out for yourself.

Spencer Brooks 17:32

Awesome advice right there. And the thing that I wanted to follow up with you on is in the middle of talking about tone, you mentioned, unbiased as one of the qualifiers for maybe good tone, or as an element of tone. And so, I wanted to ask you to maybe give the listeners an example like What do you mean by bias? And how can they guard against that in their content?

 Betsey O’Brien 18:01

Right. Well, and this is getting to be more and more important. Inclusivity is crucial DEI efforts are at an all-time zenith I think as we try to be more and more respectful. But what I really think is that bias originates from thinking that’s kind of overly broad. And this is where storytelling can come in. Let’s say that we have a study. Okay. And let’s say that we are working on health disparities, we’re looking at the role of either maybe low income or even, you know, race and ethnicity on health care outcomes. If we have a study, and we’re reporting the study. And the study results seem to point to the fact that due to lack of education or understanding a particular group may be experiencing poor outcomes. That’s fine, we need to report that objectively. But it would be really, really important to bring in and interview people to balance that out and to treat them with tremendous respect. So, let’s grab an example here. Let’s say that I am writing about individuals of color. And I’m going to interview a woman and I’m going to summarize what she says instead of going in assuming she knows nothing about nutrition or is ignorant or deficient or doesn’t know how to exercise. I want to be more like a reporter. I want to back out and be very, very objective. So instead of saying, because Jenna doesn’t understand nutrition, she doesn’t eat well, which I hope no one would ever do. It probably would be better to tell Jenna’s story. In other words, Jenna remembers her mom cooking rich foods that were generally high in calories and she says you know you can quote her saying you know, I didn’t know how to cook vegetables till I was in my 30s. So, see this, this is something that anyone could say, right? We’re not making an assumption about what anyone knows, or doesn’t know, because we can be wrong. And we’re being respectful. We’re seeing the whole person, the whole family, and we’re talking about people and families the way we would want to be spoken to and about, you know, it really does kind of come back to that.

Spencer Brooks 20:29

Yeah, I’m glad that you highlighted that as well, because I can see how the influence of bias would be so subtle to creep in, especially if you were to come at it from the perspective of, I’m going to write about this through my lens of interpretation. And so I think what I hear you saying is just trying to be more of a, perhaps a conduit, if I were to rephrase that into my own words, but as a conduit, just for that story of Jenna or whoever, so that you can communicate what they said, and not necessarily, implicitly, or explicitly put your frame on to that story. And so that’s, I think that’s such great advice, and very timely as well.

Betsey O’Brien 21:19

I want to give abundant credit to people who write for websites and blogs, there is more care now to filter out bias than there ever has been before. And for a lot of us, it’s a matter of focus, we need to do constant reading and research to understand. I remember when the term BIPOC came across the transom. And I thought, wow, first of all I didn’t, I was out of the loop, I had not heard that. Staff members were way ahead of me, they explained to me. And then I went out and talk with people too, because I found there was actually a diversity of opinion on whether that’s a good term to use. So, it’s a full time job thinking about bias. But it begins with questioning your own. And that’s what really keeps you straight is thinking, Am I affording this group and this person, the same respect I would want to receive?

Spencer Brooks 22:15

That’s great advice, Betsy, and I appreciate you sharing that as well. And I think like I mentioned as well, it’s a timely thing right now. And I think probably increasingly it will be a full time job for or close to one for communicators, and people who are writing content online, especially with healthcare stuff, which oftentimes you has to include things like racial disparities, or at least address that with health outcomes and things like that. And so very relevant for our times and for our listeners. I wanted to ask you kind of moving into some of the questions that I love to ask every listener here. What’s one thing in marketing you’re working on right now that consumes a lot of brain space? And what takeaways can you share with listeners who might encounter that same challenge?

Betsey O’Brien 23:09

Oh, boy, for me, it’s the fact that health care and mental health where I really spend a great deal of my time, is constantly in a state of change, movement. There are so many voices, you really could spend half your day reading, and feeling well informed and knowing who is the leader. What I have done is to cluster together some blogs that I think are really, really good, that usually they’re written by journalists. And one example might be the New York Times Well, blog, it’s fabulous. There are certain writers who if you follow them as your feed, you’re, you’re gonna feel well informed. That helps that reduces my reading time. I’ve been toying around with the idea of putting together kind of a reading group, you know, among people that write about healthcare, and we could each cover a certain sector and then throw things out there for one another. And I also use Evernote, it saves my bacon every day, because I do read a lot. And if I clip and tag efficiently, I may remember that I came across something but I can find it instantly. And that’s super helpful especially if a client comes to me and says, Boy, this month instead of blogging twice, I want to go six times to saturate, what ideas do you have, I might have 10 minutes to come up with some content suggestions so that they can take them to a meeting and Evernote. That’s the stuff it really helps.

Spencer Brooks 24:43

I love that’s a great that’s a great piece of advice right there. And it’s true. The healthcare spaces is always in a state, it moves very fast. And it just I kind of take the perspective to certainly because the work of Brooks Digital and myself, it’s a lot around digital platforms. And because the space does move so fast, I have to think of it or I really encourage the perspective that your digital platform, it isn’t this one time project, it’s more like a product, like a digital product that you would constantly be working on over time. Because if you launched a website five years ago, or you know, whatever, that all the assumptions you made around your audience, even the features functionality, and how to effectively engage them, it’s not relevant in five years, especially in in the health space where stuff is changing so fast. So, I think that’s certainly a huge challenge that I’m glad that you identified because I think everyone is dealing with that and trying to figure out, how do you do? How do you react to that in the context of your own work? For us? It’s digital platforms for you, its content, and how do you get the tools and the systems and the strategies in place to effectively navigate that space? And that challenge? It’s very relevant. So are there any other resources that you would recommend to listeners who might want to keep up on news and trends in nonprofit marketing?

Betsey O’Brien 26:13

Right, and I’m sure there are 1000s. But this is something that I, when I first got to the American Cancer Society, I noticed and I was really kind of surprised, I would go into meetings with examples of what other nonprofits were doing. And people would kind of blink at me, like what, and I don’t know, whether it’s because they felt like they didn’t have time to look at others. And then I also noticed that if I use the word competition, a lot of pushback, because there’s an idea, oh, hey, if we’re working on Alzheimer’s, or cancer, or, you know, disparities, we’re all in this together, we’re not competing, well, that’s not true. We are never not competing with someone for attention for dollars, for respect. So it’s important. So the resource I would recommend, is looking at what other nonprofits are doing and identifying nonprofits you admire. Maybe they’re not even in your space, you could pick a nonprofit whose style you like, whose website is beautiful, whose video approach is spot on or, or something they’re doing, it’s just awesome. They’ve got a great YouTube channel, or they’ve got Insta, they’ve got it going on, follow them and do it without being jealous. Do it regularly, make it an assignment, make it an assignment on your team, and bring those insights into meetings, and you’re not going to be copying anybody, you’re going to be learning from them. And I think what you can learn directly is very often better than what you can learn in seminars, because it’s self teaching. It’s your point of view, blending with what you’re seeing out there. So that’s that to me, that’s the best resource.

Spencer Brooks 28:09

Love it. Yeah. Thank you for that for that recommendation. Great advice. Betsey. I wanted to close by just giving you a chance to share with listeners how they can get in touch with you. Say I’d like to learn more about your work. And I know as well, you’re working. I understand on something pretty big around annual reports. So, you can feel free to share that as well if you’d like.

Betsey O’Brien 28:31

Yeah, absolutely. So, I have a design partner, Pamela Krikorian, and she is an absolute genius. I’ve never seen anybody who could take data and lists and pictures of board members and make them look so beautiful. And a lot of nonprofits feel that an annual report is a check the box procedure is something they have to do. It has to be published by a certain time to meet a compliance deadline. And they suffer through it. And they invest hundreds and hundreds of staff hours and 1000s and 1000s of dollars on the project. And then it just sort of gets thrown into the proverbial closet of the website and it’s dead. And so Pamela and I are trying to retool the way people think about annual reports, because the content that you would put in them can be made live. You can excerpt from your own annual report and multiply the value of what you’re doing and use it throughout the year and there are ways to do this. It also doesn’t have to be as arduous on the staff side as it sometimes gets. We have ideas for making review easier, editing easier, setting standards that save time, how to work with crappy photos, things like that will save nonprofits time and money and you know that’s what I’ve found is the name of the game time-money, money-time. That’s why people hire me. It’s because they may not have the staff bandwidth, or the time or even the perspective to do what needs to be done in a short amount of time. And so, anyone who wants to find me or learn more, of course, can find me on LinkedIn. I’m also on Twitter. My handle is mind health life. And, of course, there’s the desire path website, which is sorely neglected, because I’m always working on somebody else’s website, but we are there. And I’m hoping to when this breaks, we’re hoping to put together what we think might be a podcast series, a simple one, probably a short, you know, like, what you would think of as a limited series on how to make your annual report, a more meaningful, valuable exercise. I’ll let you know, Pamela and I are, we’re in the think stages but should be exciting.

Spencer Brooks 30:56

Wonderful. Yeah, well, I’ll make sure to number one, get all those links in the show notes for listeners as well. And if you would like to, to keep up on what Betsy is doing, or when that resource comes out, make sure to connect with her. So, you can see that. So that wraps up our show today. We’re a new podcast, so please consider just rating and reviewing us on Apple podcasts or whatever platform you listen to. It’d be a huge help for us to connect with other listeners who might find this content valuable. The show is also part of the thought education of Brooks Digital. We’re a digital agency for health nonprofits, and we help organizations create better health outcomes by treating their digital platform, like a product, not a one time project. If you go to our website at brooks.digital, you can find more of our insights, download our free report on digital benchmarks for health nonprofits. So, with all that housekeeping out of the way, Betsy, thanks again for coming on the show today.

Betsey O’Brien 31:53

Thank you Spencer. I had a great time and I’m learning a lot from you too. Thank you.

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