A couple of years back, I was asked to help my hometown, big city newspaper build a health and science section on its website—an ambitious project that included recruiting numerous health experts to blog. Researchers. Scientists. Professors. Lawyers. Patients. Doctors. Lots of doctors.
We were pretty excited when we managed to bring on board the team doctors from every major sports team in the city. But the excitement eased a bit when we slammed into a painful reality: Recruiting experts to blog is one challenge. Teaching them to produce readable—even compelling—blog entries is a whole different ballgame.
In the hope of saving you similar pain, here are some tips learned the hard way on how to coax strong content from doctors and other health providers:
Add patient stories. I remember talking with an adolescent health specialist early on who wanted to write an entry about teen pregnancy. Her draft made good points, but it was only when she added a story about a confused 14-year-old patient that it came to life. Stories are how humans learn and connect. Doctors and nurses spend their days on the front lines and have great stories to share. They often shy away from them, though, to protect privacy. Yes, there are privacy concerns in naming names and providing recognizable details, and you need to take them seriously. But that shouldn’t prevent you from finding a way to use patient stories either by asking for permission or disguising specifics to protect identities.
Take the reader behind the scenes. There’s a reason why there are so many medical shows on TV. Medicine is a fascinating world, and doctors perform miracles every day. It is routine to them. It isn’t to us. Let us in on it. Share the drama. Take us into the E.R., the surgical suite, the examining room. Talk about emotions. The patient’s family was crying. The nurse was smiling. Offer those little details that bring the scene to life. Give the reader some insight, a glimpse into that world.
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Don’t limit the blog to words. Blogs are wonderfully flexible tools for communicating. Video, audio, photos—especially photos—can all work in a blog. Use them all, when appropriate. Teach your experts to think about the various assets at their disposal. We spent several hours following a therapy dog on his rounds through a local rehabilitation facility. The resulting photo essay—complete with smiling faces and wagging tails—pulled in a huge audience and told the story much more effectively than text ever could.
Add personality, even humor. Encourage your writers to provide personal details. One emergency department nurse would send dry entries about the administrative issues she dealt with. Over and over. You work in the ER, I would plead. Share that experience with me. Give me a window into that life as a way of explaining the administrative issues, which are certainly important. Tell me the kind of stories that start with “You would not believe what happened today.” Encourage your expert bloggers to use first person, to talk about themselves, their background, their family. It will strengthen the connection with the reader, which is a major part of the power of social media.
Teach them all the blogging tricks you know. We wrote a brief email for each new recruit listing all of those lessons that most PR pros already know: Use lists and bullet points because people tend to scan, illustrate your points with examples, write in first person, actively invite comments, don’t lecture—invite conversation, etc. Those tips and more like them helped nudge our fledgling blog writers toward the sort of entries we were hoping to publish.
Share the numbers. If a blog entry garners impressive traffic, make sure you let the expert bloggers know. It will energize them for next time and will keep them focused on topics that patients want to hear about. Gently let them know when an entry is a dud, as well, all in the interest of building a readership. No one wants to launch their blog entry into the silence of deep space.
Respond to comments. Let your bloggers know upfront you expect them to respond to comments, when appropriate. Readers will be more engaged if they see the doctor is paying attention to thoughtful comments. Don’t expect the experts to track the comments. That is your job. But alert them when there is something they should respond to. Thoughtful comments are the holy grail of blogging and provide a great way to keep the conversation going. One blog entry we ran on breastfeeding ended by asking readers about the most unusual place they had nursed their child. That led to more blog entries and lots of energetic discussion. A whole series prompted by reader comments.
Know when to quit. Some experts—a lot of doctors fall into this category—are either not strong writers or don’t have the time it takes to craft engaging blog copy. That’s OK. Their skill is medicine. That’s where we as patients want them focused. Make it easy for them. The best solution is often to interview them, especially if you have a tight deadline. Run it as a Q&A with an expert, a format that is often more readable and interesting than an entry written by an expert. One morning when a local baseball player was sidelined with a knee injury we tracked down our knee expert, interviewed him and had a blog entry up within an hour or two of the news, much quicker than had we waited for him to write a blog entry.
A couple of years into blogging, a patient safety expert took a chance and wrote an entry for us on a young patient who died after swallowing medication patches. It was a harrowing story and well out of the range of items he typically wrote, but it garnered the most traffic he ever received and a featured spot on the main newspaper homepage. Doctors, nurses, researchers can all provide great expert content like that. They just might need some gentle handholding to get there.
Larry Blumenthal, a content strategist at Open Road Advisors, helps hospitals and other health-related organizations create digital content that gets read.