Anyone in New England who's been diagnosed with cancer knows about the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute: Their top-rated physicians and researchers, their status as a Harvard Medical School teaching hospital, their reputation as the place to go for the most advanced treatments available from world-renowned specialists. Still, for any would-be patient visiting Dana-Farber's website to learn more about the organization and possibly schedule an appointment, it's the blog posts, videos, and other content they'll find that will likely convince them to pick up the phone.

Among the media on the site one recent day: a video about the patient and family involvement in the design of a new building; a post about a boy from Puerto Rico who came to Dana-Farber with a cancerous tumor in his hip; and an article about a man who believed he had two years to live but is now participating in a clinical trial of a new drug that fights cancer cells using the body's own immune system.

Welcome to the latest in the world of healthcare marketing. Over the last few years, storytelling — once a craft reserved primarily for children's bedtime stories — has become a favorite customer-outreach tactic of hospitals and health systems everywhere. On the Facebook page of UW Medicine, for example, visitors recently found not only information about where the facility is located, but also a link to a story about UW medical students exploring “the more human side of medicine." And just two miles down the road from Dana-Farber, Boston Medical Center has adopted its own storytelling approach: Its website recently featured a piece called “Ten-Word Stories: Why I'm Running the Boston Marathon." “My children lost their father and BMC helped us cope," wrote one individual who planned to participate in the historic event as a member of the organization's “Team BMC."

A Rising Trend
While statistics around the use of storytelling in healthcare marketing are hard to come by, a number of surveys and studies have considered how stories can help brands connect with consumers. In one widely cited experiment, for example, thrift-store objects auctioned on eBay sold for significantly higher prices when their descriptions included a short story pertaining to their origin. And another study, commissioned by an advertising firm, found that chardonnays that were marketed with the “winemaker's story" sold for 6 percent more than those that were not.

Storytelling is so effective, in fact, that one recent survey by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found that 80 percent of marketing professionals believe digital storytelling is the “most important" trend impacting the future of public relations.

So what is it about stories that make them so compelling? And how can a healthcare organization incorporate storytelling into its marketing in a way that fits the brand? For anyone who's lost themselves in a great book, the answer to the first question is perfectly clear: As human beings, we're hardwired to respond to a well-built narrative, whether it tugs at our emotions, challenges our beliefs, or merely introduces us to an interesting character. Stories help us understand and empathize with the world around us — to go to those places we've never been before.

With that in mind, an organization hoping to leverage stories to shape the consumer experience is limited only by its marketing department's creativity. A provider profile, for example, might go beyond the basics of a written bio to include a video interview (linked through Facebook and Twitter) offering a snapshot of what that provider loves most about her job. Similarly, a patient story about a successful treatment might appear as a blog post on your organization's homepage, but also as ad content, in promotional emails, and on social media platforms where readers can be encouraged to share it with their friends.

Whatever the case, when it comes to storytelling in the context of marketing, it's important to ensure each story is your own. It should reflect your organization's mission and goals, and — in the end — reveal something about its character. Tell your organization's story any way you like, but also show your audience why you're unique. This is just one piece of the puzzle in engaging today's healthcare consumers by standing out from the competition.

Want to learn more about a healthcare website solution that lets you showcase your storytelling abilities and assets across a variety of screens and devices with ease? Download our Definitive Guide to Healthcare CMS.