Are we aware yet? Time to remake the roadmap for health education

You will never see a marketing plan without the words “raising awareness” in it.  It’s the center of what we do, and there are people pulling the hours and working the relationships to bring that plan to life, masterminding every ad, news story and event. But despite carefully mapping out our path to public health nirvana, we’re not there yet. October is breast cancer awareness month, and we’re all wearing pink, but one-third of breast cancer diagnoses are made in late stages according to the CDC.

Why aren’t we aware yet?

Flavors of the month and dedicated days work great for media (National Trail Mix Day, anyone?), but we need to be high-impact communicators in order to strike a chord with consumers. Oversaturating the market with a health topic isn’t enough to get through to consumers. Less is more, if less is also more strategic. Instead of overextending news hooks, we need to find ways to be more real in engaging people: understanding where they are and how they view of our topic of interest. Ask some tough questions:

What’s even interesting about health?  (Really?)

Health education and communication can be righteous work. What we have to communicate is important. It is what people Need to Know. We have to remember, however, that “needing to know” is less powerful than wanting to know, to see, to understand, to become.

If we serve people what they need to know, we’ll find ourselves in a small circle. We try to overcome that with patient stories – then we write, pitch and advertise from an individual perspective. Too often, that slice of life is turnkey: You were healthy, then you weren’t. It was tough, so you adjusted your life or you’re back to your regular life. Print.

We have to be good reporters and better writers. Take the most interesting thing you learn about a patient, and blow it out. Break formula. Check out the Well blog feature Faces of Breast Cancer: A Global Community for inspiration and to see how people tell their own stories – some are strikingly different from how the industry tends to tell them.

What about this health issue is universal?

It’s hard to make a health issue interesting without being a fear monger: this is interesting because you or someone you love could have a serious health issue one day. Thanks for joining our club for hypochondriacs, please confirm you used the sanitizer by the door when you checked in. 

Instead of focusing on the negative, find what makes an issue universal. The David Cornfield Melanoma Fund did a great job with its “Dear 16-Year-Old Me” video, drawing over 6 million views.

This marketer never asked “how can we make a viral video for skin cancer awareness month?” Well, maybe they did – but they also asked the harder question about what about skin cancer everyone can relate to: most skin damage happens when you’re young. While the video doesn’t even get into that, the hook was enough to get people to spend more than 5 minutes to learn about skin cancer. It’s worth noting the doctor in the video was featured for less than a minute, and the brand, website and call to action are all held until the last 30 seconds of the video. This self-imposed restraint increased exposure. Be willing to make that trade-off in the work you do: four minutes of something interesting or entertaining for 30 seconds of your brand. Ultimately, it’s more impactful and more worth sharing than 10 tips to prevent skin cancer that are perfectly on message.

Who is my audience (and what are they doing today)?

Your audience is about more than DMAs and generational differences. We have the ability to hone in further and learn more about our audience than ever before, particularly in healthcare. Patients with diabetes face specific challenges, runners have a culture, cancer survivors have a community. Look for online communities related to these issues, and don’t just lurk, participate. Unfortunately, we’re leaning away from this, developing editorial calendars for social engagement that align with our awareness months. And, social platforms are making this easier for us – Twitter announced this week that advertisers can schedule tweets up to a year in advance.

A closer connection with patients and consumers is essential. Consider forming a focus group or advisory group to provide insights on an ongoing basis. You can also work with an agency to build a consumer panel for a specific health issue (call me!).

To take it even further than a patient profile or focus group, find out what’s impacting people right now, in real time. Brands have the advantage of total immersion and engagement with people via social media, and often they’re not using it to its fullest potential. Nothing replaces paying close attention.  Looking at you, Tweet-Scheduler.

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