Benedict Johnson
Benedict Johnson
Lead Strategic Planner

Why Storytelling is the Best Way to Engage Health Care Audiences

Additional reporting by Nick Dutnall.

Relying on numbers at the expense of human judgment and experience, no matter how reassuringly extensive the latter, can lead to poor decision making that has far-reaching consequences (see our recent post on the limitations of “big data”). This was underlined by the Berwick Report on patient safety in the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), published this week (download the full report). Professor Don Berwick, a global authority on patient safety, found fault not with NHS staff but with a dysfunctional system of “incorrect priorities” overly focused on “naive or mechanistic targets”—a factor that contributed to the Mid Staffordshire scandal, which prompted Berwick’s review (read the Francis Report on systemic neglect and mistreatment of patients). Among the report’s key findings is its recommendation that quantitative targets be used with caution and that “such goals…should never displace the primary goal of better care.” The principal focus on patients, and by extension on the staff charged with caring for them, had been systemically degraded by a narrow focus on numbers and not people, the report found. Most worrying of all was that the voices of patients and carers, the people the institution was established to serve and support, weren’t heeded in a system structured to “hit the target and miss the point”. Despite a challenging context of flawed priorities, devolved responsibility and low staff morale, Professor Berwick’s admiration for the commitment of the NHS’s 1.3 million staff comes through clearly:

“Most impressive of all, perhaps, has been the consistent dedication to helping their patients among the vast majority of clinicians—doctors, nurses, pharmacists, allied health professionals, mental health professionals and many more—as well as non-clinical staff”.

Marketing to People, Not Numbers

In marketing as in health, it’s vital to go beyond the numbers to build a true picture of the people you’re engaging with. This means collecting and consolidating all existing research—and supplementing that with primary quantitative and qualitative research where necessary—to develop a holistic understanding of the audience, whether health-care professional, carer, buyer or patient or all. It’s key to draw on a variety of sources, from research into and data on clients (e.g., a brand tracking study); to national analyses, such as the Department of Health’s Life-stage Segmentation Model; to one-to-one conversations with employees and experts in the field. Employing complementary sources and methods, the insight-gathering process should encompass demographic attributes, key behaviours and habits, plus unmet needs, deep-seated motivations, and emotional and contextual mind-sets—all to uncover the triggers for purchase, sharing and influence. Building on journalistic best practice, planners and editors ideally will develop an intuition and empathy for the audience’s emotional and rational makeup, their drives and other contextual factors shaping who, what and why they are. This exhaustive analysis would then be employed to inform, guide and inspire the creative solution to deliver the desired impact.

Adopting Storytelling to Provoke Conversation

Experience suggests it’s impossible to develop communications and creative that have emotional gravity—work that people care about and share—without the richer, more rounded view that involves both the rational attributes and the emotional motivations of the audience. Even then, the effectiveness of the campaign will be affected if the intended approach depends on standard messaging and numbers and not stories. Stories—human beings’ primary method of communicating anything more complex than hello—are the proven means of sharing any idea or concept that is interesting, memorable and motivating. Stories win a disproportionate share of an audience’s attention, says Jonathan Mildenhall, vice president of advertising and creative at Coca-Cola (watch Coca-Cola’s 2020 Content Excellence strategy video here):

“The conversation model…begins with brand stories. These brand stories provoke conversation; then we need to act and react to those conversations 365 days a year…. Through the stories we tell, we will provoke conversations and earn a disproportionate share of popular culture”.

Given stories’ power to move, inspire and influence people, health marketing’s slow approach to adopting and using storytelling is surprising. The absence of storytelling is the more glaring considering that since the health care profession was established, stories have been the universal mode and unit of communication within it: From patient histories to case studies, information is couched in a narrative far richer than plain numbers. Where un-engaging, message-based communications dominate, marketers have an exciting opportunity to take advantage of the lack of competition and use the benefits inherent in stories to refresh their communications and re-engage their audiences. In the context of the broader current trend toward reemphasising compassion and care in health, there is genuine potential for challenging and driving the health category, as comments by Mike Farrar, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, show.

“We know that many organisations are doing great work to make sure their care meets the standards patients rightly expect and deserve. But we have not cracked the nut…. We need to reassure the public that we are working hard to build a compassionate culture right throughout the health service”.

Getting Health Care’s Story Straight

Using rich insight to drive emotive and effective communications is just one small way we can make our contribution to reemphasising the true purpose of health care—healing people—and supporting those best placed to deliver this mission: the professionals dedicated to improving people’s lives. If the Berwick Report’s ambition to make patient safety the priority is to be delivered, we must alter our mind-set to refocus on people—patients, clinicians and carers—not numbers. Then we will once again be on the path to placing compassion and care at the heart of health care.

  • Paul Saunders

    Benedict, i love the detail and the focus you have here, but what are you asking people to change? What should industry do differently?

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  • Benedict Johnson

    Good question, Paul.

    From an industry perspective, it’s a now familiar call to put audience insight at the heart of strategic planning.

    From a public sector perspective, it’s about returning health care providers to the core purpose of concentrating on patient ends and outcomes. This means listening to patient and healthcare professionals’ (HCPs) stories to facilitate better care. What’s been lost in the rush to data is the central truth of all healthcare anywhere – it’s (about) the patient stupid. HCPs learn through case studies, research and patient stories. The role of technology and data is to enable us to test these stories to identify truths and trends. We need to use technology for what it’s best at – mass data collation and analysis that then can be interrogated in a human context for human ends.

    In both cases we have to put people – patient, professional, buyer – first. To do this effectively, you must develop and use of a rich, multi-faceted audience understanding encompassing rational and emotional aspects plus needs, motivations and mindsets among others to form the basis of strategic development. Gathering this insight involves developing an insight capability internally or selecting and briefing a suitable partner – in terms of experience, capability and ethos – to analyse and generate insight on your behalf.

    Thanks for your question, Benedict

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  • Kevin Cuccaro

    Storytelling isn’t just vital to healthcare marketing… it’s vital to healthcare.

    Most of the diseases seen now in healthcare are chronic diseases (aka “lifestyle diseases”).

    The treatment of these is behavior change-not more pills, procedures, or surgeries.

    People don’t change behavior because of information. If they did everyone would be exercising daily, eating right, watching their weight etc.

    Instead people change behavior when they have meaning and/or reason to.

    Story can help this.

    Story provides context. Story provides connection. Stories communicate.

    It would be interesting to see healthcare marketing campaigns with engaging story lines. THEN continue these story lines through the patient visit and subsequent care.

    Patients with newly diagnosed chronic diseases (diabetes, hypertension, etc.) could identify with “similar people” from these stories. They could also learn from these stories (and use them to help their family understand their disease).

    We’ve used story for thousands of years to teach our “tribes” how to survive. Now we need to use them to help keep our “tribes” well.

  • Stuart Davidson

    Storytelling to engage readers is a great tactic for any industry. I’ve used it to good effect in a few industries that some might deem to be ‘boring’ or ‘hard to write for’. If you can engage the reader, you’ve won half the battle.