Strategies & Tactics

The Art and Science of Content Marketing: How Cleveland Clinic Became an Online Health Care Destination

February 1, 2018

You’re an insomniac looking for relief and advice in the middle of the night. Where can you turn? Don’t worry — Cleveland Clinic’s “Health Essentials” has your prescription.

Launched in 2012, the blog has grown to reach more than 5 million visitors a month, and pushing out information to restless sleepers when they need it most is one of the core reasons for its phenomenal growth and pervasive influence among health care internet portals.

“That hyper-relevancy is really when you win,” says Amanda Todorovich, director of content marketing for Cleveland Clinic, which earned the No. 2 spot in U.S. News & World Report’s 2017–2018 “Best Hospitals” ranking. “That’s what we try to do all the time. And it’s a huge measure of success when people are saying, ‘Thank you; you read my mind.’ That’s when we know we’re doing it right.”

The success of “Health Essentials” reflects, and helps drive, the sea change taking place in how people search for and receive health care information.

For example, despite considering their doctor a trusted source of information, 57 percent of consumers turn to the internet first for health-related news and advice, according to Dothealth’s Consumer Health Online 2017 Research Report.

“There’s no question about it, we’re in the middle of an information-delivery revolution,” says Eileen Sheil, Cleveland Clinic’s executive director for corporate communications.

Accuracy and engagement

“Health Essentials” publishes three to five articles a day, distributing content to Cleveland Clinic’s 2 million-plus Facebook fans, 1.4 million Twitter followers and 136,000 LinkedIn followers. That article ratio hasn’t changed since the blog was launched. It’s not about quantity; it’s about quality, and “getting the right message to the right audience through the right channel at the right time,” says Todorovich.

And how do the content marketing team and corporate communications department ensure they do just that? They use data.

“Our audience has grown because we’ve gotten better and more sophisticated about our distribution strategies,” says Todorovich. “We approach content by looking at data every day. It drives everything we do.”

One measure the team uses is Atomic Reach, which provides insight and a score prior to publishing. The tool plugs into data from Cleveland Clinic’s social media channels and suggests edits that might increase engagement on specific platforms.

“It’s just one factor of many, and we continue to look at any kind of data point we can to try to understand and analyze the implications across our content strategy,” says Todorovich.

That strategy includes not scheduling posts too far in advance and staggering post times across platforms. Each channel has its own schedule and nuances. “We try to understand the best time, the best days to post topics to those individual audiences.” (See above: Insomniacs.)

Prior to publication, each piece of content is also vetted and approved by a Cleveland Clinic medical expert, usually a physician, but depending on the topic, sometimes a physical therapist, nutritionist, etc. And to help strengthen branding, every piece of content contains a quote from a Cleveland Clinic medical expert, and is typically referenced with links to in-house research.

After a post is published, the team further scrutinizes audience engagement and impact using such tools as Google Analytics, Chartbeat, social media insights and email data.

“On every platform we use, we look at those data points constantly,” says Todorovich. “For example, from the moment we make a Facebook post to the very next morning when we’re reviewing the day before, we’re constantly trying to make sure we stay ahead of algorithm changes.”

The team has logged every tweet and Facebook post they’ve created for the past five years, so they can compare and contrast specific dates and analyze seasonal trends.”

Content optimization

On the corporate communications side, data and measurement are vital elements in distributing news, and have evolved from traditional “hits” — once a signifier of communications success — to more of a focus on depth of coverage.

“Last year my chief marketing officer asked for the number of hits we received in 2016, and I said we no longer count that,” says Sheil, “so we don’t care as much about quantity as we do about quality.” (This mirrors Todorovich’s strategy on the "Health Essentials" content side.)

“We want to demonstrate the bottom line of PR coverage, and we’ve been able to track the data week-by-week and match it up to coverage over time.”

Although each has her own dedicated team, Sheil and Todorovich work closely together to help ensure optimization of their respective content and news distribution.

In addition to getting the right message to the right audience at the right time, the right format is crucial, and today it’s all about mobile devices.

“Eighty percent of the traffic for ‘Health Essentials’ is mobile,” she says.

Advertising and analytics

As “Health Essentials” has continued to grow in size and reputation, opportunities have increased to expand and monetize its content. Two years ago, the team began working with outside media company Verywell (a Dotdash brand) to sell advertising on the blog.

“The advertising story is kind of a happy accident,” says Todorovich. “We did not necessarily launch the blog with the intent of monetizing it. It happened because we were able to build an audience to scale.” Creating content requires an enormous amount of resources, and advertising is a way to offset some of the expense. But, as with traditional news organizations, there is a clear separation between editorial and sales.

“Advertising has absolutely no impact on our editorial strategy or approach to content,” she says. “The revenue that we’re generating is just a bonus to help us continue creating amazing content every day.”

As a further opportunity to extend the content’s reach, Todorovich recently announced plans to launch a “Health Essentials” podcast in 2018.

Going forward, what advice would they give to other organizations — healthcare or otherwise — who hope to duplicate their success?

“Start small, test and iterate, and think about where your content can fill a void or help solve a problem for your customers. And dig into the analytics as you go,” says Todorovich.

“Incorporate measurement as you build your strategy,” advises Sheil. “Always try to think five years ahead, focusing on what the world, and your business, will look like.”

So, it comes down to a combination of art and science: creative, engaging storytelling and content creation, matched with a continual focus on data and analytics.

“It’s an exciting time to be in health care and communications,” says Sheil. “Everything is moving so fast, and it’s really just fabulous to be a part of it.” 


Learn more from Eileen Sheil and Amanda Todorovich about Cleveland Clinic by participating in the next edition of “Case in Point,” PRSA’s interactive case study series, on April 4 (3–4:15 p.m. ET), sponsored by ContentOro. To register, visit prsa.org/pd.

Rod Granger

Rod Granger is PRSA’s director of public relations and communications. He previously served as communications editor at Pearson North America and director of corporate communications at VH1.

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