At Healthline Media the concept of health is constantly evolving. In the company’s session “Health Authenticity is the New Health Literacy,” held at Digital Pharma East on Oct. 16 in Philadelphia, Dante Gaudio, SVP of ad sales, outlined how in the process of making Healthline’s health content more “authentic,” his team uncovered an approach that would have wide-ranging applications to its broader audience.

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“It’s something that’s impacting the way we think about health, the way we gauge health, and the education around health,” Gaudio told the audience.

Gaudio said that to gather intelligence into what truly drives engagement, he and his team had to dig deep into what “authentic” means to different audiences at different times. They concluded that in order to establish brand credibility and consumer trust, health content has to not only be accessible and approachable but ‘real’.”

Millennials view brands as authentic when they take the time to get to know their customers’ preferences, and brands that are adapting, are succeeding. Examples of these include flagship companies changing their product mixes to appeal to new food and beverage consumption habits and fitness companies creating communities to ensure members feel a true connection to the brand.

Gaudio said the same is true of the health sector.

“There’s some research in which respondents were asked, ‘What are the most important aspects of the concept of health?’ Millennials said one of the top ones for them was ‘happiness,’” he said. “That’s a change from respondents from previous generations who said it was ‘being free from illness.’

“It’s really interesting that the very meaning of the word ‘health’ is evolving for the largest segment of our population,” he continued. “But while millennials may be the change-makers, this shift is impacting everything we do, and every generation.”

The impact on Healthline’s content was profound.

“We found that our audience wanted content that felt more authentic and positive, yet retained our standards of accuracy and credibility,” Gaudio said. “We needed to portray ourselves as experts but not as the ultimate authority. In other words, give people the information they need to make their own choices, not tell them what to do. Health is no longer about being told what to do,” he continued. “People want a trusted ally, and the moments and subjects to feel genuine and believable, like a realistic look at what it’s like to live with diabetes while going through menopause, or pregnancy tips from women living with MS.”

Applying these insights, the company also altered the tone of its articles to appeal to a broader audience and expanded its content to include a wider range of topics, such as nutrition.

According to Gaudio, from September 2017 to September 2018, Healthline’s nutrition-related content saw a 157% increase in overall traffic, equating to 25.6 million more impressions per month. At first, the company attributed these spikes to the buzz that typically builds around new and popular diets, like Paleo or Keto, but Healthline found that this audience’s interest in nutrition was part of a larger trend.

Gaudio outlined some best practices for creating authentic content that appeals to a broad audience:

  1. Address the whole person
  2. Remember that tone and language matter
  3. Employ a user- and human-centric approach
  4. Use genuine imagery that connects
  5. Move from transactional to meaningful

“It’s not just about medical information or the physical effects ― it has to be about the emotional side of things as well,” Gaudio said. “You have to speak to what the expectations are, and you have to be truly genuine. We find that when content is honest and transparent, it sparks conversation and drives customer engagement.”

Gaudio made it clear that authenticity is a moving target that must take a person’s gender, generation, condition, and patient journey into consideration. He said his team goes beyond demographics to provide a user-centric approach.

“By focusing on the nuance of an individual’s experience ― whether by creating lifestyle-based condition content to connect with people in a social channel or delivering on their health seeker search query ― tone and language should align with their educational or inspirational needs,” he said.

To extend this authentic approach to all its content, Healthline created an empathy framework, which helps guide writers to use language that is respectful in reporting on certain health conditions. When HIV activists communicated their concerns about the use of the word ‘infected’ that had been used in several of Healthline’s HIV-related articles, the framework proved helpful.

“We decided our first step was to listen, so we gathered influencers, advocates, caregivers, public health officials, and we asked, ‘What’s wrong?’ ‘What’s going on?’ ” Gaudio said. “They said that although the content was medically accurate and reflected the latest CDC guidelines, the specific words we were using in our content were offensive.”

Taking into account the group’s concerns, Healthline revamped more than 400 pieces of content. The company collaborated with advocates who helped rewrite existing content and advise on future content ideas. They also removed the word “infected” from the content entirely, to help eliminate the stigma associated with HIV and to offer a more welcoming environment for the HIV community.

As a result of these changes, Healthline saw a 32% growth in this audience, and the session duration jumped to just over four minutes.

The organization has had success by adopting a more holistic approach to creating content. Instead of the traditional process, during which a piece of content moved from writer to editor, to medical editor, to SEO and social, the whole team now works together, and health community and advocacy groups are included in an effort to embrace the company’s “whole-person authenticity” approach to health.

“The expectation today, and as we look ahead, is that content consumed by all generations is going to mean something to them, because they will connect to it in some way,” Gaudio said. “Healthline knows that health is equal parts physical and emotional, so we address the whole person, with articles like ‘11 Ways to Tai Chi Benefit Your Health’ or ‘Cancer, Depression, and Anxiety: Caring for Your Physical and Mental Health.’”

After implementing these changes and applying its new approach to content, Healthline has seen phenomenal results ― including a 249% increase in site traffic since January 2015. The U.S. site is now a top 50 website and reaches approximately 50 million people each month.

“We’ve gained some incredible takeaways from this analysis,” Gaudio said. “We’ve found that tonality matters, voice matters. Thinking about how you’re going to execute content and remain relevant to the patient population requires a very different approach. But if you make an investment and take that risk, in my experience, the results can be very important.”