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The Super, Amazing, Incredible Value of Storytelling as the Key to Hospital Marketing, Part 1

August 13, 2015
Healthcare Marketing, Hospital Marketing, Storytelling

There’s been a lot of talk about storytelling these days.  Why? Because storytelling is possibly the most effective tool hospital marketers can wield. The good news is you’re likely already using it to some extent. In this first installment, I’ll cover how to tell the stories of the people on the front lines: the patients, and the nurses, doctors, technologists and associates who care for them. 

Why Is Storytelling So Effective?

Storytelling is the most basic, primal way that humans communicate. We make sense of the world by explaining what we witness and experience in temporal narratives. We make plans by forming stories of what we expect will happen. We create fantasies of what we want or fear. Our ancient ancestors created myths that described the workings of the universe. Our major religions are built around stories. Historians have always used stories to recount the deeds of mankind. Our social interactions are centered around stories. We even dream in story form.

Consumers can’t connect with statistics about your outcomes.  Dry numbers out of context don’t have a big impact and are easily forgotten. Because storytelling comes naturally to the human brain, we remember stories better than those piles of facts and figures. Stories entertain us rather than lecture us.  They produce emotional reactions in us and create empathy with the characters.

Therefore, rather than merely talking about your hospital’s great outcomes, telling an emotional story about one example of your outcomes – a patient your hospital healed – brings the abstract concept to life, because it’s a story of a real person with whom viewers can empathize. Or rather than bragging about a new piece of technology, tell the story of the physician who lobbied tirelessly to bring the technology there and how it gave a specific patient a second chance in life.

Put simply, communication in a story form is more compelling, memorable and persuasive. That’s why storytelling should be at the core of all your marketing. 

The Emotional Power of Patient Stories

Perhaps no other industry is better suited to using stories to explain itself than healthcare.  After all, healthcare is about people’s lives, and all lives are stories. And really, in what other category can you find stories as emotionally moving as the life-and-death sagas taking place in hospitals?

While there are various archetypical story arcs, the most basic structure is: Hero has a Purpose, meets an Obstacle and must overcome it. The Hero achieves victory and emerges transformed and wiser.

In patient stories, the Heroes are the patients, the Purpose is living a healthy, productive life and being there for family members, the Obstacle is an illness or injury which they must overcome with the help of your hospital. And, of course, they do – with gratitude to their doctors and a greater appreciation of life. Here’s one such story we told recently: Barney’s Story.

This kind of storytelling is especially relevant and powerful in healthcare marketing. People with health conditions are anxious to learn more about their condition and hear from others about their experiences, including what the treatment is like.  Viewers who have similar health problems, or know someone who does, identify with your patient testimonial. They feel less isolated and are given hope.

While patient testimonials have been around almost as long as healthcare marketing has, today there are a lot more ways to use them and places for them to live. Of course you can put them on your website or on TV. Even better, you can use your advertising to drive viewers to your website or a microsite (optimized for mobile, of course) where they can see longer, more complete versions of the stories. We’ve even used interactive video displays in public places where people can watch testimonial videos from patients and doctors.

Here’s a patient story we produced that ran as a :30 television commercial: How Carol Beat Cancer.

The commercial’s call-to-action invited viewers to see a more complete video telling her story: How Carol Beat Cancer: Full Webisode.

But remember, patient stories don’t have to be in video form. They can also be effective as posts in social media, used in radio spots, recounted in print ads and brochures, and told in posters within your facilities.  Even a billboard with a patient’s photo and the caption, “Cancer survivor,” hints at the story behind it – the journey through illness, treatment and recovery – and works well.

Patient Stories Don’t Have to Be Testimonials

Patients giving testimony about their treatment are the most obvious, literal way to tell their stories. But as we all know from Hollywood movies, professional storytellers can often affect our emotions more than documentarians can. Often patient stories are more powerful when dramatic reenactments are used to show the story rather than merely tell it, as in this spot we produced: St. Compassion.

And here’s an example of how we told a fictionalized story that everyone recognizes as true because of its universality: St. Vincent Cardiology Commercial

Caregiver Stories Create Affinity With Your Brand

Don’t forget the stories of your physicians, nurses and other caregivers. Their point of view makes a highly effective addition to stories of the patients they’ve treated. If you create a testimonial solely about a caregiver, it has to be more than their bio or CV. And don’t make videos of physicians merely explaining what they do – the sales pitch they give to patients. You need to make stories. Get your caregivers to also talk about why they went into medicine, about what gives them the most satisfaction in their work: Meet Jeff.

It turns their technical explanations into personal, human stories. Viewers can’t help but feel an affinity for them and the hospitals where they work.

It should be clear that their approach to care is different – that it reflects the unique philosophy or mission of your hospital. Here, we shot a heart surgeon explaining how he and his colleagues volunteer to give care to the disadvantaged around the world: Imad Tabry, MD.

In short, your caregiver stories should demonstrate how your people further or embody your brand story.  That’s because the key to success in storytelling for healthcare marketing is that no matter what stories you’re telling – and how or where you’re telling them – they all should work together under the umbrella of your top-level brand story. I’ll discuss that brand story in my next article.

Ward Parker

Ward Parker is a Partner and Chief Creative Officer of Brown Parker & DeMarinis Advertising. His career has included stints at The Richards Group and McCann New York, with work appearing in the One Show, Communication Arts and the CLIO Healthcare Awards.

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