Last month, MM+M hosted “Investing in Health Users’ Needs: 4 Keys to Connection,” a closed door roundtable, sponsored by Verywell, that brought together pharma marketers and digital leaders in the healthcare space. The discussion was based on learnings from Verywell’s online survey of more than 2,000 adults with a chronic health condition, a follow-up to a study by research firm KR&I, commissioned by Verywell that shined light on four factors that shape positive online health experiences: relevance, ease, empathy and credibility.

MM+M’s executive editor and moderator Larry Dobrow kicked off the day’s discussion by prompting Craig Haines, chief revenue officer at Verywell, to share a bit about why these pillars are important to the company, their current status in the field and why it’s worth it for brands to invest in them.

“When it comes to patients and consumers searching for health information online, we wanted to know if the content, environment and overall experience they have makes a difference in their likelihood to take action,” relayed Haines.

What they found, he shared, was that users were much more likely to take a positive health action — call their doctor to schedule an appointment, start an exercise program or do additional research on therapeutic options, for example — when they encountered credible, empathetic, easy-to-navigate, relevant content.

“The target audience is speaking to us, saying that if we meet their needs in the following ways, it will improve them emotionally, help minimize their anxiety and encourage them to take a health-related action,” Haines said. “That’s valuable for everyone.”

Amy Turnquist, EVP, Digital, eHealthcare Solutions, shared that she could relate to the heightened anxiety associated with searching for answers to health questions online, noting it can be a “very scary” experience.

“In regards to emotion, it’s important to recognize not just the emotional state when somebody comes to that content, but also recognize that we often make decisions based on emotions, or how the content makes us feel,” she said. “And while I definitely think the publishing community has made inroads with that, I do think it’s still a challenge for brands to speak in a very authentic way and be able to pivot quickly when necessary.”

Haines agreed, noting that for publishers, trying to find the balance between providing clinical information that is accurate and credible, but also taking into account the emotion driving people’s search habits, can be a challenging task.

“We really try to ensure that we’re reaching people with varying levels of knowledge about their condition,” he said. “It’s just as important to make an article easy to understand as it is to make it clinically accurate. Striking that balance to avoid intimidating your audience — that in itself is a form of empathy.”

Turnquist echoed those sentiments, sharing they were very much in line with what she was hearing from her own clients, specifically in relation to empathy and credibility, qualities she cited as being paramount to making a true connection with your consumer.

“We’re way beyond ‘clicks’ when it comes to measuring the effectiveness of content,” she said. “It’s no longer just a question of finding the right audience or getting them to your content, it’s ensuring that they have a positive experience with that content, and that stems from making yourself more relatable by speaking ‘human,’ not ‘medicine,’ and finding ways to solidify your credibility.”

She continued, saying, “My own daughter will ask me, ‘Mom is this site credible?’ as she’s searching for information, so you have more consumers than ever before looking beyond the paid search results just to make sure what they are reading is from a credible source of content.”

Jane Sarasohn-Kahn, health economist and founder of THINK-health and the Health Populi blog, added that while these issues of trust and credibility are often attributed to mostly younger generations, who were, according to the survey findings, much more likely to question the content they were receiving, the surge of misinformation at the start of the COVID-19 crisis has made older generations more skeptical and less likely to trust science as well — a sentiment she noted can serve as a potential opportunity for publishers to tap into a previously underserved audience.

“The pandemic has forced many companies and people to become digitally transformed,” she said. “And while the older generation may not be entirely on board with telehealth yet, they are certainly dabbling more than ever before, which leaves the door open for platforms to develop on ramps and content designed specifically for this audience, which could be an exciting challenge for healthcare companies.”

This notion of meeting the patient where they are helped the group to illustrate the pillar of ease, which Amanda Phraner, director public relations and social media at Horizon, noted is the first step in building trust and making a meaningful impact for patients.

“By putting ease to the forefront, versus worrying, ‘is the creative good?’ or ‘what is our campaign?’ or ‘are we on the right channels?’ we are simultaneously putting a lens on empathy,” she said. “If we’re helping people understand at a level they need to be, not just where we are in wanting to talk about things, then we are showing them we care. And the more we build that into each interaction, the more likely a patient is to feel confident to proceed and move forward with managing their health and ultimately having the best possible outcome.”

Louis Naimoli, director, programmatic sales and business development, Haylo, agreed, but cautioned that while empathy is certainly a crucial element for a successful campaign, it only works well when companies take the time to ensure that they’re leaning into the stories behind their campaigns in a real and authentic way, and are truly connecting with consumers at a time that really matters to them; noting that without that air of authenticity, campaigns often fall flat.

“The great thing for pharma and healthcare this year has been a lot of solid creative folks coming together from both the brand and agency sides to help tell the patient story,” he said, referencing “Tackle Can Wait” a collaboration between the Concussion Legacy Foundation and Fingerpaint to showcase the danger and lasting impact of sports related head injuries. “As someone who suffered many concussions from playing sports, that really hit home for me.”

For Sarasohn-Kahn, that same storytelling sweet spot came from recent campaigns in the HIV space. “They’re just telling these truly authentic, very lovely stories about living life fully on their own terms,” she said. “It’s a perfect example of empathy in advertising.”

Haines agreed, noting that he, too, has been amazed at the recent evolution in that space, and with the genuine tone the ad spots have struck in that market. But he added that in some condition spaces, such as HIV, an empathetic tone may translate universally, but in others it can vary greatly between audiences. One example he referenced was how differently certain skin conditions present themselves from a white person to a black person and the importance of understanding and reflecting that in your content and messaging.

“This is where the concept of relevance comes in,” Haines said. “People seek incredibly specific information in their moment of need, and if you’re not giving them exactly what they want, they’re bouncing off your site and going elsewhere.”

“When you look at race, gender and how the world has evolved, you realize you can’t just write blanket condition content,” he continued. “And if you don’t recognize that as you write to your specific audiences, then that empathy is now lost too, because you’ve just ignored someone at a very unique part of their journey. We have to make sure that we’re creating content that’s helpful for everyone at the individual level.” 

The group agreed that there is a real opportunity to impact health outcomes when brands keep in mind the pillars of relevance, ease, empathy and credibility, which shape more helpful and positive online experiences for their audiences.