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Hone Your Healthcare Content’s Tone: 6 Best Practices

The content of your healthcare organization’s website is key. But perhaps as important as the actual substance of what you say on your site is how you say it — the tone in which you present the information.

With in-person or video communication, audiences can infer deeper meaning, deduce emotional states, and gauge the speaker’s level of empathy and trustworthiness simply by nonverbal cues such as tone of voice and body language. It’s less work to gain the full context.

But with text on a screen, the words are all you have to work with. That means your content has to convey a lot of subtext to ensure users are receiving the message you want to send so they become patients or members.

As you evaluate existing content and create new content for your website, it’s crucial to ensure that your tone is both in line with your organization’s messaging strategies and appropriate for the audiences you want to reach. Use these six best practices to stand apart from your competitors with the tone of your content.

1. Always consult your tone and style guide

When in doubt, your organization’s style guide should be your source of truth for content guidelines, including questions of tone.

We’ve worked with many healthcare clients who have captured their organizations’ requirements for grammar, punctuation, capitalization, abbreviation and more. But far fewer have codified their guidelines on how they want their content to sound to someone reading it.

A holistic tone and style guide helps further consolidate your content governance procedures. It also standardizes your content across your organization. This way, all your content sounds consistent to users.

2. Refine your tone with personas and journey mapping

Many organizations think of personas and journey mapping based on the classic marketing demographics — age range, marital status, income, etc. But those are data points, not people. It’s hard to write content that appeals to data points. Moreover, that kind of content can lead to negative impressions of your organization.

Healthcare personas and journey maps that start with real people — patients and members of your organization — allow you to treat your personas as real people. You can write for Evelyn, rather than “High-Income Single Mother of Two.” This can help your content creators write as though they’re having a conversation with someone in the room with them. The goal is to foster a positive relationship with your user and increase the chances of their conversion.

Personas and journeys also help identify needs and challenges specific to your audiences — not generic ones based on their demographics. This allows you to tailor your content and its tone to resonate more strongly with your users.

3. Use a kind, understanding tone in your healthcare content

In healthcare content specifically, you can think of tone in terms of a provider’s bedside manner. Many healthcare consumers have had bad experiences with healthcare providers who have poor bedside manner, and they’re wary of a similar tone in your digital content as well.

A cold, clinical tone in your healthcare content likely will remind users of these negative experiences. This can evoke a negative response in your users before they ever consider converting. That’s one reason why content that comes straight from providers often requires some polishing before it goes live. Physicians are used to writing for their peers and for medical journals, which encourage a detached, scientific tone to best convey the data. But consumers want a warmer touch.

Make sure your healthcare content includes emotional validation in the appropriate places. Consider why users are likely to need your content:

  • If they’re seeking out information on symptoms and treatments, reassure them of your team’s expertise in this area of specialization
  • If they’re on a page about support groups, remind them that your team is here to support them every step of the way through their care (or that of a loved one)
  • If they’re on an FAQs page, acknowledge that it’s normal for them to have questions and that you’re here to help with the answers they need
  • If they’re on a patient story page, discuss how the profiled patient was feeling to reassure the users that it’s OK for them to feel similarly during their own journeys

Always ask these questions when creating a new page of content: “How does this person feel?” “How can I help them feel better?” Write content that responds to these emotional needs, and users will respond positively.

4. Write with an authoritative, knowledgeable tone

It’s a fine line that healthcare marketers have to walk between empathy and authority — one of many reasons why writing healthcare content that converts isn’t easy. In addition to addressing emotional concerns, your content needs to inspire confidence in users. They need to know your healthcare organization can help them address their immediate concern.

Many organizations with content that comes from providers get bogged down in departmental divisions and convoluted organizational structures and history. Healthcare consumers don’t have time for that. It often falls to the healthcare marketer to keep the organization’s content on message.

Strong, authoritative statements on what sets your organization apart and why your team will help the user — a value proposition, in other words — early on in a piece of content helps differentiate your content from the competition. Balancing this with emotionally intelligent material that meets the user where they are in their healthcare journey is a powerful combination.

5. Avoid passive voice

Here’s an exercise for you. What’s wrong with the following paragraph?

Content on healthcare websites is frequently written in passive voice. This style of writing is harder to be understood, particularly when it is read by a layperson audience. The content may be perceived as distant by users. This content is also harder to be scanned quickly.

It was probably harder for you to read that paragraph quickly, and you may have had trouble understanding it at first. That’s because I wrote it in passive voice. Most of the verbs came before the nouns, and it wasn’t as instinctive as to who or what was performing what actions. Most people are accustomed to subject-verb-object (SVO) sentence structure, where the subject of the sentence comes first, then the verb (action), then the object (whatever is receiving the action).

Let’s look at that exercise paragraph again after I’ve used active voice for the sentence structure:

Content on healthcare websites often uses passive voice. It’s often more difficult for a layperson audience to understand this style of writing. Users may perceive the content as distant. It’s also harder for users to quickly scan this content.

See how much easier that was to read quickly?

Passive voice makes the user work harder to understand your content. Anything that makes users work harder increases the chances of them leaving before they convert. Use simple sentences with active voice to increase your readers’ comprehension and raise your conversion rates.

6. Use first- and second-person references

Think back to your English classes, when your teachers probably told you about the different persons in writing:

  • First person: Uses “I,” “we,” etc.
  • Second person: Uses “you”
  • Third person: Uses “he,” “she,” “they,” etc.

Many healthcare organizations have historically presented their content in third person, especially if that content tends to come from providers. Third-person content is standard in academic and journalistic publications. But it doesn’t have the personal touch that healthcare marketing content should use. Users have come to expect more natural language in their digital experiences.

When your persona(s) in mind, write directly to your user as though you’re having a conversation with them. Use “we” when referring to your organization to present a personable, united image of your team. You can use “I” if you’re ghostwriting an article from a provider or some other bylined content. Use second-person references when referring to the user or their loved ones, such as “you,” “your child,” etc. This lets your content feel more friendly and relatable to the user.

Your tone supports your healthcare content’s substance

Whether you’re appealing to a consumer to choose a primary care physician, showcasing why your organization is the best choice for a complex surgical procedure or highlighting your range of healthcare coverage options, the goal of your content is to start forming a relationship with your user. To do that, users must feel like they know what to expect before they take that step.

Emphasizing the importance of your tone in your digital content will help you forge those relationships with consumers. A relatable, kind, empathetic tone will help more of these users become your patients and members.

We’ve worked with clients nationwide to dial in their content’s tone and better reach their target audiences. Contact us to learn more about our comprehensive healthcare content solutions.

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Michael Adkins, Senior Content Strategist, Digital Health Strategy

As part of Perficient's Digital Health Strategy team, Michael partners with healthcare organizations to create informative, conversion-centered content for a variety of applications, including websites and blogs. Michael writes content that highlights clients’ service-line offerings, expertise in unique treatments, differentiators in competitive markets and additional factors that are important to patients.

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