A man puts pieces of content together in a thought bubble.

Content Strategy in Online Communities: Going Beyond Content

For people living with chronic health conditions, Health Union’s online communities help people live better by providing the information, connection and validation they want. But, how do we know what people want? How does Health Union deliver it in a scalable, yet personal way that benefits the patients we serve and our partners?

To kick off the year, our marketing team sat down with some of the leaders from Health Union’s Community Development team. We wanted to hear first-hand from the people who are immersed in our communities and ask why Health Union’s approach works. In this series, we will focus on three critical components of our model.

The final interview in this three-part series is with Brian M. Green, Executive Director of Community Development. Check out part one on moderation and part two on engagement.

Brian Green

Brian M. Green, Executive Director of Community Development

What is content strategy and what role does it play in community development at Health Union?

Health Union defines content strategy as ensuring that we have content that meets the needs of the given community. Each of our sites revolves around educating, validating, and connecting people impacted by chronic conditions. Our content strategy fuels this ongoing process. Because our community managers are immersed in our communities daily, the needs of people who participate in those communities are largely known to us–and we also see needs emerge and change over time. So, the content strategy evolves given the needs of the people that are using the site, as well as broader community members that we may attract or want to attract.

What does the community management space believe content strategy to be, and how does that differ from our definition?

In large part, a lot of other organizations that have online health communities are influenced by traditional content marketing and marketing principles. While our strategy builds upon and utilizes elements of content marketing, it’s not just content marketing. We strive to meet the needs of the community where they are, at the various stages of their disease journey as opposed to trying to just push out content (like traditional content marketing) and hoping someone will bite. Our approach is about creating and curating content that reflects people’s needs and then also aims to fill in gaps that are identified within the community space. Our intention is to make content part of a two-way conversation, which is what makes our approach different than that of a traditional online publisher.

We also utilize user-generated content (UGC) and rely upon UGC as a common way of understanding the needs of our community. So, it’s not just that we’re curating what people send to us, but we also learn from it. I personally come from a background of “physical” community development, meeting people in-person, in real time–before online communities even existed. So, I think it is also important to understand how online communities can utilize the principles of, “what is a community?” We learn from traditional community development models when we’re drawing upon those features, those influences, those things that motivate people in a community–and we then seek to replicate these for online communities. That’s how I think about content strategy. We’re using the online space as a tool to reach people knowing that their lives exist outside of that online space.

What has been the evolution of content strategy principles in Health Union’s history?

I like to think we’ve improved on our content strategy over time, by being able to better measure how people respond and react. We’re also able to better measure the types of engagement that are most impactful in terms of building and sustaining relationships in the communities. And, being able to characterize what we mean when we say people come to our communities for social support. What does social support mean? I think there’s huge skepticism amongst people who don’t deal with online health communities on a daily basis that people actually do seek – and can find – support online. We see it happen every day! We can say that over 50% of people utilizing our communities are doing it because they are seeking social support–it’s the main motivator to why people visit and why they stay engaged. I think we have strengthened our content strategy by framing it around principles that are not just about content marketing. It’s about how we can ensure that our content resonates with the community and becomes an important building block of our relationship with the community.

How does content strategy fit within the rest of the community model?

Content strategy is the foundation of Health Union’s community model, but on its own, content strategy is insufficient to achieve what we’ve achieved. If our community development model was just content strategy alone, we would fail. We’d be just another publisher. It’s really the bare bones of what we need to do to be a successful online community. That said, we are also mindful that our content often goes beyond what might be found on a traditional publisher’s site. We have user-generated content that we think is valuable and we also develop content that compiles reactions and comments from users. We use a lot of the user-generated information and content that’s at our disposal, and package it for the community in a way that makes it more valuable than it could be experienced originally.

Why is our approach effective?

We start with truly understanding the needs of the people impacted by a particular condition. We undergo various methods of understanding the health condition and therefore, know what exists already and improve upon it to fill gaps and determine unique engagement opportunities.

The success of our model and the subsequent growth of our communities are all interdependent.  Content is useless without building upon it with engagement and moderation. Moderation adds value to the original content and the relationship with the community. Engagement is the natural or organic relationship piece, the response. Taking those three things together gives us a very solid picture of what any specific content piece means within the community. It’s never about content by itself. The model is this triangulation of content, engagement, moderation that uncovers needs and adds value to the community experience. Part of planning and developing content is always being able to anticipate how people are going to engage. If we don’t know how the community will react before we publish content, then it’s probably not a good piece to share at that time.

What are the results? How can external partners benefit from our unique approach?

Health Union teams are immersed within each condition-specific community. As a result, we will always have an idea of what will and won’t resonate with patients and caregivers–both in message and tone. And our approach that integrates content, moderation and engagement attracts a wide range of people living with these conditions, so our partners will be able to reach and engage exactly the patients who will benefit from their products. For people looking to better understand a patient or a condition, and better understand how to meet people’s needs along the patient journey, that’s what Health Union offers. Online health publishers can’t offer that insight, and other online health communities cannot match the depth and breadth of relationships we have within our communities.