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Make your hospital website an asset, not a liability

December 18th, 2012

by Andrea J. Simon

Over the past two years I served as interim senior vice president for Marketing, Branding and Culture Change at Hurley Medical Center, a 443-bed public, nonprofit, teaching medical center in Flint, Mich.

One of the major challenges was how to reimagine the medical center's content marketing and overall Internet strategy.

As in so many institutions, the website had been built around 2005 and served very much as "brochure-ware" with limited updates, few changes and certainly no strategy for brand development or community building.

[More:]

So, we began.

Knowing that Hurley was far from alone, I thought it best in this blog post to focus on where you might also begin. In future posts I will turn "where to begin" into "how to create," and then into a discussion about how to build and sustain an online community around a healthcare institution.

First, the construction of these media methods must reside in an overall marketing communications, community building and business strategy. A website, social media and Internet marketing are ways of expanding exposure and telling a brand's story using a wide range of innovative tools.

Since we are anthropologists and truly believe that telling people what you are doing is not nearly as effective as getting them involved in the process, we over-communicated and over-listened. Walking around the institution and asking different groups and specific leadership influencers what they would like in a focused, differentiating branded website became the door-opener.

Some, whether they were chairs of departments or nursing staff, had not really thought much about it. But the medical students and the young residents had lots of sharp ideas, as did new, younger physicians on staff, all of whom had grown up digital.

In many ways, Hurley's old website had become a liability. It was hard to attract medical students or new physicians to the hospital for their residencies if the hospital looked online like an archeological ruin.

It was equally difficult to convince patients that you were a highly skilled and technologically advanced medical center if you didn't look that way. People forget that the first place often seen by someone--whether patients, prospective residents or physicians, or community leaders--is the hospitals website, Facebook page, even blogs and Twitter. Search is what it's all about, and you need to be there when they are searching.

The second step was far more onerous. We had to sitemap the entire hospital: inpatient, outpatient, diagnostic services, laboratories, core service lines and peripheral ones. Might seem simple! Yet we found this to be the most taxing task.

For example, there was no women's services center or service line. Should mammograms be listed under imaging/diagnostic services only? Or should we bundle women's services into a new "virtual" center that would make mammograms easier to find by a woman searching for breast care? Were we building this for the "factory," the insiders, or for the consumer searching for something he/she needed? Needless to say, the discussion turned into a bigger hospital-wide process.

Next, we started to write. We hired two expert writers who knew how to take sophisticated medical language and make it come alive for fifth-grade reading levels. Not easy. And they had to write it from search backwards.

"It was important copy-wise to establish a tone--compassionate, informative, inviting--and stay consistent throughout the site. This was really a conversation," Observed Mary Louise Ball, one of the writers.

Then we had to get the subject matter experts, the physicians and nurses, to approve language that was technically correct but not exactly written for a technician.

Let me pause here. Next time, I will tell you how we took all the raw material and designed two websites: one for the adult hospital and one for a new children's hospital that we could see coming down the pike. I'll also expand on how we launched a social media strategy that enabled the medical center to grow its fandom quickly.

Andrea J. Simon, Ph.D. is president and CEO of Simon Associates Management Consultants. She is a corporate anthropologist, who for the past two years served as interim senior vice president for Marketing, Branding and Culture Change at Hurley Medical Center in Flint, Mich.

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