January 30, 2023

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Technology and Age

An Inside Look at One of the Most Ambitious and Successful Content Strategies

Health Essentials boasts some impressive vital signs. The content brand, owned by the Cleveland Clinic, earns more than 12 million visits each month. That’s 60 times the traffic it earned a decade ago.

Not surprisingly, the content team’s mission expanded over time to include the organization’s website and health library, too.

Mergers of content marketing and content strategy like that happen more often these days (as Robert Rose has pointed out). So it can’t hurt to study up on the care plan (aka strategy) and practices behind this content marketing success story.

Amanda Todorovich, the Cleveland Clinic’s executive director for content marketing, shared the story (which ends with a bit of a cliffhanger) in her Content Marketing World 2021 presentation, Winning Resources: How To Get Leadership Support To Grow Your Content Marketing Team.

I’ve charted some lessons from that presentation. (Amanda will share the rest of the story at Content Marketing World 2022 in September.)

Work on your bedside manner

Yes, the Cleveland Clinic is a massive global health system with 21 hospitals and operating revenue totaling over $12 billion.

But don’t think the program’s resources came easy. When she landed at Cleveland Clinic as a digital engagement manager 10 years ago, Amanda joined a team of three. Today, she leads a group of 80 (50 of whom she hired in 2021).

To get there, Amanda had to figure out how best to communicate with leaders – including two CEOs with different perspectives – in terms they understand.

For example, content and marketing are two powerful words to content marketers. But to the CEO and other executives? Not so much.

“They like that second word (marketing). They don’t really know what ‘content’ means, and they don’t really understand how it matters … the actual impact a blog post has on an organization is something they don’t comprehend,” Amanda says.

Semantics play a role in successful communication, she says, but making the most of opportunities to get in front of executives and share successes matters, too.

#Content and #Marketing are powerful words to marketers. But to CEOs and other executives? Not so much, says @amandatodo and @AnnGynn via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

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Become the content prescriber, not the content pharmacist

But the first and most important change Amanda made has lasted and served the organization well: implementing a strategy.

A team of three handled the Clinic’s digital marketing in 2012 – a writer, a social media person, and a project manager who tracked all the content demands from people across the organization on spreadsheets.

One of the first things Amanda did was throw out the spreadsheet: “That’s not what content marketing is about. We’re not going to run around and ask everybody internally what they want us to put on this blog,” she says.

Instead, the small content team switched their perspective from filling content orders to creating content that would be good for the audience, Amanda explains.

Blog traffic grew from 200,000 to 1 million monthly visits in just half a year, relying on a simple strategy of three to five audience-focused articles a day. (It hit that 12 million monthly visit number in September 2021 using the same content formula.)

But the new focus on serving the audience wasn’t an easy transition. “From day one, we had to have lots of crucial conversations with leadership and key stakeholders about why we were changing the strategy,” Amanda explains.

Fortunately, data is a content marketer’s friend. Amanda used the audience numbers to help leaders gain confidence in the team’s shift. Any resistance to moving away from filling the doctors’ orders to creating content prescriptions for the audience dissolved in the face of the healthy, evidence-based outcome.

Data is a content marketer’s friend. Use audience numbers to build confidence in your #ContentStrategy, says @amandatodo via @AnnGynn @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Amanda developed the habit of sending brief emails weekly to her boss about the team’s activities, describing a win, a cool idea they’re trying, or a new content relationship they’d formed. “I was making sure people knew what we were doing,” Amanda says.

The prescription

  • Don’t let subject matter experts place content orders (i.e., demands) or direct the content strategy. Let your audience’s needs drive content creation and strategy.
  • Use your data to prove the content strategy’s success to secure continued leadership support.
  • Share wins, experiments, and news via informal outreach in addition to formal reporting.

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Balance audience strategy with leadership priorities

When the content team achieved 1 million blog visits a month, they celebrated with a cake and party.

But the CEO at the time didn’t share the enthusiasm. He believed the organization’s future depended on social media success.

During a presentation on paid search, for example, he interrupted to ask about what the team was doing on TikTok. With the emphasis on social media, more people joined the team to focus on social channels.

“It was a bit tough because while we were doing things and innovating, it was Health Essentials (the blog) plus social media,” Amanda explains.

At one point, Facebook accounted for 60% of the traffic. But as the team built an arsenal of helpful content on Health Essentials (and social media algorithms and behavior changed), the numbers shifted. Organic search drives most traffic now.

The prescription

  • Don’t expect to change the CEO’s content priorities, but still keep your focus on the big picture behind your content strategy.
  • Use the strategy’s success to help educate the CEO and evolve organizational priorities to deliver what the audience needs and wants.

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Expand the strategy when new content responsibilities arise

While the blog was delivering growth and engagement, the website wasn’t. The team behind it was stuck in the order-taking strategy thrown out at the blog. “We had this great strategy and cohesive thing happening with (the blog and social), and the rest was kind of a mess,” Amanda says.

Given the success of the blog and social, Amanda’s role expanded once again as she took on responsibility for health content across the brand’s website, pulling together teams that once operated as separate entities. “We started talking about how the pieces fit together,” she explains.

With an audience-focused strategy, the website grew exponentially. In 2012, the website had 50 million visits. In 2020, it had 256 million visits (including the blog), with 81% of the traffic coming from organic search.

By 2021, the number grew to 427 million as Amanda secured more resources.

Click to enlarge

The site’s health content success revealed another disconnect. While the audience was coming to the site for the health content, only 1% visited the clinic’s product and services pages.

“Those are the pages that everybody else in the organization is doing whatever they want to do … They don’t know what their patients actually want and are engaging with,” Amanda explains.

That disparity has prompted conversations about how to connect the dots: “How do we bring the same level of sophistication that we’re bringing on the health content side to the rest of the site?”

The answer came as it did earlier – let the audience-focused people oversee those pages, too. Amanda now leads the entire Cleveland Clinic website with her bigger team. “Connecting the dots for leadership has been a critical step,” she says. “It’s not like I went and asked to take over (the website). It was just pointing out opportunities along the way.”

Now, “nothing’s off the table. We’ve made major organizational changes. We’ve asked for lots of resources. You cannot be afraid to do that,” Amanda says.

The content marketing team also isn’t just an expense to the organization. About six years ago, the strategy expanded to include bringing in revenue through their content from digital advertising on their health content pages.

“Executives understand money. So, this has powered a lot of our ability to grow and change the conversation,” Amanda says.

The prescription

  • Expect success to lead to more work, as others in the organization want their content to deliver similar growth, too.
  • Leverage your success to ask for more resources – expand or merge teams to bring content under the same umbrella.

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Grow a new structure

At the Cleveland Clinic today, the growing content marketing team is divided into three buckets of core functionality:

  • Editorial (including many, many writers – Amanda says she can barely hire enough)
  • Content growth (SEO, analytics, social, video, email, voice, and podcasts)
  • Project management (all the tools, capabilities, and functionalities needed to create and maintain exciting, interesting, and engaging content.

But it wasn’t always so. At one point, the social media team way outnumbered the SEO team (which consisted of a single person). But as priorities shifted and data showed the relative importance of each, the team evolved. In September 2021, the SEO team numbered more than 15, while the social media team was less than half that size.

This organization chart shows the makeup and number of positions within the three core functions.

Click to enlarge

A director of content product and operations leads two groups:

  • The content architecture group consists of two digital marketing managers, a coordinator, three digital marketing associates, a podcast coordinator, and five additional associates who are contractors.
  • A product and project management team consists of a digital marketing manager, three project managers, and three coordinators who are contractors.

A director of editorial leads groups for each content product:

  • The Health Essentials team consists of a digital marketing manager, six content roles, one contractor, and three managing editors.
  • The Health Library team consists of a digital marketing manager and 15 content roles.
  • The Care Pages team consists of a digital marketing manager and two content writers/practitioners.

A director of content growth leads groups focused on four areas:

  • The SEO team consists of a digital marketing manager, two additional managers, seven analysts, and six associates (who are contractors).
  • The social media team consists of two digital marketing managers, a program manager, and three coordinators
  • The email team includes one digital marketing manager supported by a contractor.
  • The video team includes one digital marketing manager, an associate, and a lead data analyst.

The prescription

  • Revisit your team’s organizational structure as you scale your content marketing. Create distinct divisions to address core responsibilities.

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Plan to meet changing expectations

Five years ago, a new CEO brought a new set of priorities. This CEO interrupted a presentation to ask why the Cleveland Clinic didn’t appear when he searched for himself or a particular procedure. He gave the challenge to Amanda to fix, adding members of the patient education team to the content marketing umbrella.

More recently, the CEO asked Amanda how the Cleveland Clinic could become the indisputable leader in health care online. He wanted to know how they could beat their competitors by 10 times.

She and her team went to work creating a five-year strategy to explain how that could happen. The CEO loved it but didn’t want to wait five years. The CEO wanted to know what it would take to do it in two years. He gave her 10 days to figure it out.

“We had been running pilots … and studying this for so long. We know what it’s going to take. It’s small changes. We’re not changing our strategy to do this; we just need to do more of it,” she says.

Amanda presented the business plan detailing what it means to be a leader – to have the most traffic, rank the highest, and drive more revenue to the organization. She asked for 90 full-time-equivalent employees and a big budget. The executive team unanimously said yes, with the CEO declaring this content business plan an investment, not an expense.

(Whether her plan worked or not is the cliffhanger. We’ll find out the answer in September.)

The prescription

  • Listen to what leadership wants and prepare a plan to achieve it.
  • Ask for the specific number of people and other resources you need to implement the content business plan.
  • Explain how the plan needs to adjust if they can’t commit the necessary resources.

Keep your content eyes on the audience prize

Though Amanda has seen a lot of change over her decade working in content, their content mission hasn’t changed: “We engage users in daily conversations using health, wellness, and clinical information unique to Cleveland Clinic.”

She explains: “You have to have a strategy, and you have to define it. You have to stick to it, which is the harder part.”

Her bosses love the mission and the effect of the audience-focused content. “It’s unique to us. It’s different. It’s better than our competitors. It’s our experts. It features our doctors. That’s the stuff they want to hear,” Amanda says.

It’s also what hundreds of millions want to hear (or read), too. And that’s why that strategy born long ago still resonates and delivers results leaders love to see.

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 Register to attend Content Marketing World in Cleveland, Ohio. Use the code BLOG100 to save $100. 

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute