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Content with a Mission: Q&A with Gina Czark, Vice President, Content Management at Northwell Health

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Spanning 23 hospitals and hundreds of outpatient clinics, Northwell Health is the largest health system in New York, despite being a relatively new name on the scene. The healthcare enterprise, formerly known as North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System, launched a rebrand in 2015 as part of a broader plan to distinguish itself in the highly competitive New York hospital space. Along with a name change, Northwell reimagined its approach to its brand and marketing, with the aim of uniting its 66,000+ employees under one sophisticated, patient-centered vision.
Developing a content marketing strategy was a key component of realizing that vision and remains one today. Gina Czark, a former journalist and veteran of the New York City hospital scene, joined Northwell in 2016 as the Associate Vice President of Content, working under CMO Ramon Soto. We sat down with Gina, who is now Vice President of Content Management, to discuss how Northwell’s content marketing strategy — including its centerpiece hub, The Well — has helped connect the enterprise with a new generation of patients who are increasingly turning to the digital space to learn about their health, share their experiences, and connect with providers.
The Well just launched this year, but you were leading content strategy since you arrived at Northwell. How did you approach publishing before The Well?
Before we had The Well, we relied pretty heavily on experimentation and telling stories through social media. We did some testing and learning, playing around with different formats and different mediums, always with the goal of not doing your standard physician bio or testimonial and instead focused on emotional storytelling. All in all, we did about eight months’ worth of testing of content that we knew we would eventually want on a content hub. We were finding that our existing websites maybe didn’t have the right template or weren’t the right venue for the stories we were telling, so we leveraged our social media accounts, as well as Medium to initially share stories.
How did you measure success for your content at that time?
Our initiatives on social media were the first attempts at an integrated distribution plan. We supported key service lines and set KPIs and benchmarks — whether it be read rates on Medium or completion rates on videos, and then for social media, not just likes, but also comments and overall engagement with the content.
Along those lines, one of the first content series we launched, which is now a series on The Well, was “So you’re getting a fill-in-the-blank-procedure,” that describes common medical procedures. One of our writers volunteered to write about her upcoming colonoscopy. We A/B tested different images and headlines, and then put a little paid boost behind it. From that, we found that our audience started sharing their own experiences and also tagging their friends and loved ones to get them to read about it, which was a great indicator of success. We had these very germane, organic interactions with the content that really helped form the strategy for The Well. It was one of our most-engaged social media posts, and we had the realization that we had to move away from talking about ourselves and put the patient’s needs and wants at the center of our content strategy.
The idea of not talking about yourself is counter-intuitive for many marketers, especially in the healthcare space. Was it a challenge to sell the idea internally that Northwell should get away from talking about itself?
Initially yes, but when we looked at the competitive landscape we were able to clearly see what was missing. It was an opportunity to expand on one of our innovation pillars of “We see healthcare differently,” and create it in the digital and content space. There was a lot of education of what we needed to build, as many people perceived content as only a blog, newsroom, or opportunity to share awards or milestones about our institution. I pride myself on being a change agent and pushed for the right experience and was fortunate to work for a very progressive CMO and CEO who are willing to take risks and be innovative. Northwell Health is not overtly front and center on the site, so I’m not sure this project would happen at many other [healthcare] institutions.
For us, Northwell will be mentioned in minor ways [in our content]. We try to quote Northwell doctors for a lot of stories, but at the same time, we’ll feature patients who are not Northwell patients. We’ll do that because, at the end of the day, the hospital is agnostic to the experience the patient is going through. The messaging isn’t “I chose this hospital because they have the best care in the world.” Patients are going to find rankings and awards on Google, sure. But patients are looking for an example of what an experience is going to be like, and what are they going to feel as they battle cancer or another condition. As a patient, you’re looking for anyone who can give you advice or guide you through this journey at a time when you are probably feeling overwhelmed. As a healthcare organization, shouldn’t it be our mission to quell their anxiety and provide them with trusted advice that provides them the confidence to feel more capable on their healthcare journey?
So it really goes back to what your audience is looking for…
We saw an opportunity to think about the impact we wanted to make and how we could be strategically different by providing a raw and honest accounting of healthcare experiences. What we are doing is partnering with patients at each stage in their life journey. Whether it’s going to the gynecologist for the first time as a teenager, becoming a new mom, getting your first mammogram, or dealing with aging parents, we have content that’s segmented across each audience.
We know we’re making an impact as the content is resonating with our audience. Paid social is the main driver of our distribution plan, and our highest click-through rate on Facebook has been 6.6 percent compared to healthcare industry average of 0.83 and our cost-per-click averages about 25 cents, well below the industry average of $1.32. Our e-newsletter, which we recently launched also has been effective, with an open rate of nearly 34 percent (healthcare industry average is 21 percent).
Looking more at operations, how did Northwell go about building a content marketing team?
Prior to Ramon [Soto, Chief Marketing Officer] joining Northwell, content lived in many different places — the Marketing department, PR, the web team, etc. He realized that we need an actual content team that is focused on enterprise content across all 23+ hospitals and our affiliate clinics and partners. My mandate was to build a world-class team, so we reorganized into a modern content department rooted in emotional storytelling with a focus on distribution and keen awareness of the analytics that drive our distribution strategy.
Our team is 20 people, focused on content strategy, audience insights, audience development, social media strategy and multimedia, including videography and photography. The idea was to shift the entire team to become a self-sufficient mini-marketing operation that was not reliant on external agencies. So if we’re doing paid social media, even advertising is a part of it. We also commission original journalism and personal essays from award-winning professional journalists who have written for The New York Times, Vogue, USA Today, etc. It’s gratifying because we’re actually hearing from them that they’d rather work with us than traditional media outlets because we’re committed to doing real journalism and can support them as they go after these stories.
Your organization went through a massive rebrand just three years ago. Do you see the creation of The Well as an extension of that? 
The Well is definitely part of that rebrand. We have hospitals in Westchester County, Connecticut, and affiliations that are all over the world, so North Shore-Long Island Jewish really told such a limited story. The Northwell name helped solidify who we really are, and obviously, The Well is a play-off of the Northwell name.
The Well will support our key strategic priorities and clinical focus areas, but we also really focus on the news cycle and trending topics, which aren’t always tied to broader Northwell initiatives. We already have a bunch of content ready for back to school season. In fact, we have a whole parenting vertical on The Well because we’ve found that it resonates with our target audience. Frankly, we look at what’s going on in our own lives and think about what we would want to read that would help us out in our lives.
Aside from competition from other hospitals, you also have to compete with other publishers. How does The Well distinguish itself as a publisher? 
If “The Well” has an editorial heart, it has a CRM brain. We’ve worked with our Customer Insights and Analytics team to build out marketing automation, including artificial intelligence, throughout the site to personalize content for our readers and strengthen our one-to-one engagements.
In addition, when we were developing this content experience, one thing we considered is that healthcare is the most personal thing people go through. A lot of what we saw in the marketplace is health library content that might be very cold fact-based, stress-driven (think “symptom checker”) or fear-based. When you think about what a person going through a major health event needs, that’s the exact opposite of what they are looking for and last thing they need. We found that what people are looking for is emotional storytelling and information that will make them feel more confident and capable in their medical journey. Rather than stressing people out when they are going through a major health event, we want to help them through it.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Dan Weiman is a Content Strategist with NewsCred’s healthcare vertical.

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