Making Connections and Connecting the Dots

I recently attended the Society for Healthcare Strategy and Market Development (or as the healthcare insiders affectionately refer to it: SHSMD – pron. shuss-med) 2015 Annual Conference in Washington, D.C. I think it goes without saying that conferences of this magnitude (over 1,000 attendees, more than 70 concurrent sessions and 100 exhibitors) can be a bit difficult to summarize in any concise manner. That said, I picked up on several common themes that I think really encapsulate where healthcare Marketing, Strategy and Communications practices are headed.

Digital, digital, digital…

Who doesn’t know this, right? Life as we know it revolves around digital. As professionals, digital is no longer just a channel to be included on the distribution matrix. It needs to be the core of our thought process.

Digital is the new first impression for most companies. People see your online presence via social media or visit your website before ever entering the doors of your facility, so the need for a strong digital first impression is more important than ever before. Remember the days when your website was static content that rarely changed? Neither do I. Those days are (thankfully) long gone.

The name of the (digital) game today is engagement. And by engagement, that means talking about what the audience cares about; not simply pushing your own agenda. This kind of relationship building is never one and done. Like face to face relationships, customer relationship development requires a long term commitment. Show appreciation and be authentic, and be transparent with what you want. If there is an ask, make it clear.

Digital communication both requires and enables greater flexibility. Messages change and adapt with dizzying speed and the organizations that accept this new reality will have an advantage.

Data is king.

Data and analytics are no longer reserved exclusively for (ahem) “other” departments. The modern Communications/Marketing/Strategy practitioner needs to use data to plan, execute and demonstrate the value of any initiative. The tools are abundant and CRM is undoubtedly the cool kid on the block.

I’m no data geek, but even I understand that the science behind the art of communication should not be underestimated. Return on investment – a term once rarely uttered by any communication professional – is now part of the nomenclature and was discussed at length over the course of the conference.

The ability to reach people where they are in the digital space is a game changer. Big brother is big data and we experience this new reality every time we go online. Understanding the data tools for both planning and reporting a campaign is vital to win support from executives.

It’s time to knock the silos down.

Today’s Marketing/Communication/Strategy and even Operational departments need to cross pollinate. Job descriptions need to change in order to encourage collaboration. The free sharing of ideas, the explosion of new tools and comprehensive nature of great campaigns can only be achieved when everyone sits around one table with a clear understanding of the organization’s objectives.

Storytelling is a competency.

This recurring theme transcended just about every presentation and General Session during the conference and was, in fact, the theme of SHSMD’s Bridging Worlds for the Future of Healthcare. Storytelling is as old as time and it has tremendous power to advance a message.

Our employees and physicians can be our greatest assets when seeking and sharing stories. No one knows your organization better, and keeping them informed and engaged in the dialogue is step one.

That said, not all stories are created equal. Companies that cultivate authentic stories should focus less on telling customers how great they are, but instead illustrate for customers how great they can be through story. It can sometimes be more challenging to find them, but stories that are unique and offer some kind of twist to keep the audience interested/surprised/engaged make the greatest impact. You want to tell stories that people will remember.

Different is the new normal.

Whether approaching a new campaign, redesigning our systems of care, or customizing a message for five different audiences; we need to think differently about the approach we take and the ways that we measure success. We are writing the story of innovation with every new tool and tactic we employ.

This experimentation is made richer when we’re able to share, discuss and learn from one another. Perhaps this is the greatest value of a gathering like SHSMD 2015. Many thanks to the organizers for creating an informative and engaging conference.

Making Connections and Connecting the Dots

Stories can Illustrate, Teach and Keep us on Point

Whether helping my kids with homework or coaching a client on an upcoming speech, I am constantly reminded of the many applications for the art of storytelling.

My middle schooler began her U.S. History curriculum this year with a unit on the events that lead up to and have followed the September 11 attacks. Once complete, the class will go back in history and progress chronologically for the remainder of the year. So why start with 9/11?

While current seventh graders were not born at the time of 9/11, this event was so significant to the people surrounding those kids – parents, grandparents, older siblings, etc. – who all have a relatively vivid recollection of that time. Like so many sentinel life events, people can easily recall where they were, how they responded and the many milestones that have passed as a result.  Kids today, whether they were born and directly remember or not, continue to be impacted by the events of 9/11.

One of the class assignments involved interviewing people about their 9/11 experience. My daughter and I talked at length about the different people impacted and developed a long list of people with truly compelling stories to tell. Some narrowly missed the attack; some were so impacted it changed the course of their career into one of military service; some were present in New York City as the day’s events unfolded – bearing witness to unspeakable horror and true heroism. These individuals all have stories that are all the more powerful when told in the first person. I have to believe this seventh grade U.S. History teacher understood that when issuing this assignment.

How is this relevant as a business application?

Whether conveying data and analytics or trying to train a group of employees, creating a narrative can transform ‘information’ into a ‘memorable moment’ that applies to just about any professional setting.

Asking yourself why you are in business will help you nail down the desired result. The course you take to get accomplish your objectives may take many forms, but engaging through stories provides the kind of context that allows your audience to develop more of a connection to the message. Use the data and the business information to support the elements of your story that will draw a more emotional reaction.

I’m not suggesting that you need to make stories emotional. Examples from real life, humor, personal reflection, comparisons: they all represent different styles that can used to develop your story, and when done well, work across a variety of professional settings.

In addition, when you create a story you are more likely to stay on message. Memorizing points on a slide or a written speech is a challenge for the most polished presenters. Giving someone a story to tell will always have a more natural feel and flow and makes the presenter more comfortable.

One example: A tale of woe

Talking about customer service and sharing a list of tips for improvement can be helpful and informative, but wrapping those same elements into a narrative that illustrates an example of really good or really bad customer service can better demonstrate the real world application of customer service tips.

Telling employees to never be rude (ever) when face-to-face with customers seems like an elementary tip. Most of the audience is going to think, “Of course I would never be rude to the customer.”

Insert story here: If I retell my weekend experience from a favorite restaurant that let me down and why, then the audience can better grasp what I mean when I label something rude. In this case, I had a reservation discrepancy (I arrived before 7:00 p.m. believing that to be my scheduled reservation and they had me down for 7:30 p.m.). Honest mistakes happen and no one is perfect, so I accepted some culpability and was willing to patiently wait out the 30 minutes.

However – this being a small restaurant – I was able to see not one, but four open tables that would have accommodated my party of four. After 15 minutes of waiting, I asked the hostess about the open tables. I fully expected a logical explanation about why they were being held open. But what I received was a sigh and an answer that went something like, “I have your reservation for 7:30, so according to my watch we’re still ahead of schedule.” She did not seat my party early and all open tables remained so well past my recorded reservation time.

I’m not a squeaky wheel and I try in most cases to be as patient and understanding as possible, but I was prepared to (and eventually did) spend over $400 on this one meal. Food was excellent and our servers were attentive and helpful throughout the meal. That said, I will not be returning and I did let the management know of my experience in a letter that followed our visit.

What’s more is that I’m sure the hostess would not have interpreted her own behavior as rude, based on her belief that she was right and I was sat by 7:30 p.m. But if you build you business on going above and beyond for your customers (as this restaurant claims), then my experience represents a complete fail. Stories can help demonstrate some of these nuisances in a way that simple instructive lists cannot.

How can your business use storytelling to be more successful? I’d love to hear your story…

Stories can Illustrate, Teach and Keep us on Point