When Big Data Meets Great Storytelling: athenahealth’s Content Evolution
John Fox is the executive director of content for athenahealth, a brand that has been a Contently client for years. As his team prepared to hit a milestone, he offered to share some of his most helpful insights with the TCS audience.
In content marketing, anniversaries are precious. Initiatives can be short-lived, subject to the predations of budget czars and the shifting sands of strategy. I don’t want to jinx anything, but I’ve had the pleasure of leading an exciting content initiative at athenahealth, and we just hit our two-year mark. (I’m warding off malevolent forces by knocking on wood as I write this.)
A few years ago, our company realized we were sitting on a treasure trove of data about healthcare in the U.S. We decided to invest in building a robust research team to capture and serve up insights to our B2B clients in medical groups and hospitals. With data flowing daily across our national network—we’ve tracked and reported on the flu and Lyme disease in near-real-time (faster than the CDC) as they hit patients and medical practices across the country. In “Moneyball” fashion, we’ve also used our network data to identify top-performing medical groups and distill their secrets to success.
As a cloud-based service provider competing against legacy software vendors, our network data and insights offer compelling differentiators. So the next question became: How do we mine this marketing advantage and make sure it drives our business goals?
After a period of occasionally blogging about our findings, we launched athenaInsight in 2016 as a data-fueled news hub to get serious about our content marketing. Today, we publish three or four stories per week and have roughly 25,000 unique visitors a month, with an average attention time of three minutes and 35 seconds, which is more than double our industry average. Our content is integrated into marketing campaigns, featured at industry events, and woven into employee orientation. We even got a shout-out in a recent stock analyst report as a “major contributor” to the company’s product portfolio.
We’re still learning, improving, and evolving every day to stay relevant to readers while proving value to our business. But here are some lessons learned over the past two years that might be useful for other B2B content marketers.
Don’t skimp on storytelling
I may be accused of oversimplifying, but I think content marketing is really just great storytelling aligned to explicit business outcomes. Yet, too many companies don’t invest sufficiently in content or regard it as a cheap commodity to pour into their marketing campaigns. They do so at their own risk.
If you trade in run-of-the-mill content, you may score some SEO points at first, but you’ll never break through the noise and connect meaningfully with your audience. For athenaInsight, we hire field-tested reporters who have a nose for great stories and aren’t shy about tackling complex topics or parsing data. With this approach, we’ve reported with original data on trending topics like the opioid crisis, Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, and the rush of IUD visits following the last presidential election. Our in-house designers are visual storytellers who can take in a data dump on chronic health conditions in the U.S. and turn out an interactive tool that demands exploration.
My takeaway: Hire for storytelling chops, train for marketing savvy.
Let the message guide the format
With proprietary network data as the tip of our content spear, we invest as much in visual storytelling as we do in basic written content. Charts play a supporting role in most of our stories, which makes for easy repurposing to social content. Infographics consistently rank among our top performing content because they help translate complex health data into simpler narratives. One recent infographic series explained an important government program by following a fictional doctor as she navigates its painfully byzantine rules.
E-books, we’ve found, work best for sharing tactical, step-by-step guidance—like how practices can better engage their patients. Rich data sets, meanwhile, on topics like health trends over time are best explored via interactive visualizations and dashboards.
As for article formats, we’ve had success with “3-minute case studies” that provide quick how-tos and “expert forums” that invite influencers to discuss and debate controversial data. Formalizing and templatizing story formats like this simplifies the production process and yields better data on what resonates with readers.
Earn your audience’s trust (and don’t squander it)
Let’s be honest, branded content isn’t always trustworthy. As a vendor in the business of selling services to healthcare providers, we knew we needed to earn the trust of smart, skeptical physicians and executives. This meant drawing a sharp “church/state” line with athenaInsight and avoiding direct promotion of our company and products.
Drawing such a line in an organization weaned on traditional drive-to-the-demo marketing was tricky, and it called fora cultural shift. It helped our cause that healthcare IT was evolving as well, from a hot market where we just had to capture lookers to a soft market that required pulling in buyers. By leading with our network insights, we were able to build positive brand awareness, start strategic conversations, and entice reluctant prospects into the sales funnel.
With quality content that adds differentiating value, we’ve managed to earn the trust of our audience and the media at large. Over time, athenaInsight emerged as a go-to source of objective insight on important healthcare topics. Our ongoing series on trends and challenges in opioid prescribing, for example, not only performed well but attracted national news outlets interested in our coverage of this important topic.
Enlist, involve, infuse, embed
Defending your line between church and state doesn’t mean content can or should be produced in a bubble. We meet monthly with all of our internal stakeholders—segment marketing, PR, social, and others—to review upcoming editorial, get feedback on how prior content performed, and take requests for future topics and themes.
Social listening helps us keep a pulse on trending topics while input from marketing leads lets us tailor content to address specific issues and pain points for certain segments of our audience. For example, to reach leaders of small community hospitals, we’ve published a steady stream of stories celebrating these often unsung heroes who provide critical care to some of the most remote rural areas.
As a companion to account-based marketing efforts, when we’re looking to feature a thought leader on an industry topic, we’ll often tap the sales team to see if any of our clients or prospects fit the bill. For a recent article on improving the customer experience for patients, we profiled a medical group in active sales discussions that also happened to be driving innovation in personalized marketing. Co-creating thought leadership content offers a creative way to engage enterprise level accounts over long sales cycles.
Prepare to rethink KPIs regularly
When we launched athenaInsight, we (naturally) obsessed over growth metrics like unique visitors and newsletter sign-ups. As our audience grew to a healthy size, we started to care more about factors like pageviews per visit and visits per reader—metrics that suggested our content was building loyalty over time. Then a funny thing happened.
As we collaborated with our marketing teams, they began featuring athenaInsight regularly in campaigns. The desire to push our content out in print campaigns compelled us to create a quarterly print edition of the pub. It soon became clear that measuring the effectiveness of our content required measuring more than engagement stats. Now, we’re starting to capture data in SalesForce to track response rates for campaigns that feature our content. The lesson? Be agile and adjust your KPIs to keep pace with how and where your content gets distributed.
If it sounds like we have it all figured out … we don’t. The more places we activate content, the harder it is to figure out how to measure and define success. We’ve found ways to engage buyers at the top of the funnel, so now our main challenge is figuring out how to bridge our editorial publication to our company’s web storefront in a way that respects our editorial vision.
Once we’ve turned readers into subscribers and earned their trust, how can we thoughtfully guide them to consideration of our products without turning them off? These challenges, and an ever-growing mass of data from our network, should keep us busy and learning for years to come.