Tone and Voice of Healthcare Websites

Our webinars are chock full of good information and our recent session Intermediate Writing for the Web was no exception. Several questions during the live session told us that understanding and developing the right tone and voice for hospital websites was an area where our attendees could benefit from further guidance.

What is tone and voice?

To understand different tone and voice choices, let’s look at coverage of a single topic area, breast cancer, from three different sites: University of Iowa Healthcare’s Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center, WebMD, and Cancer Treatment Centers of America.

University of Iowa Healthcare’s Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center

Except for skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer in women. One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.

Experts at Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center understand breast cancer and are actively searching for ways to prevent, detect, and cure the disease. They use cutting-edge treatments like MammoSite radiation therapy, and they participate in national prevention and early detection trials, such as the study of tamoxifen and raloxifene (STAR) and the digital mammography imaging study.

This content is fairly clinical, but more importantly, it’s very focused on the cancer center and it’s experts, rather than the patient. The goal appears to be showcasing expertise and clinical excellence.

WebMD

Often, there are no symptoms of breast cancer, but signs of breast cancer can include a breast lump or an abnormal mammogram. Breast cancer stages range from early, curable breast cancer to metastatic breast cancer, with a variety of breast cancer treatments. There are different types of breast cancer. In addition, breast cancer in men is not uncommon and male breast cancer must be taken seriously.

WebMD uses more of a news magazine format and reports on the topic in an arms-length, impersonal manner. The page on which this content lives, however, links to a wide range of related content that is in a more personal interest format, ranging from Breast Cancer: Symptoms and Treatments all the way to Top Cancer-Fighting Foods, both of which are in easily digestible slideshow formats. Content is in small chunks designed to make it quick to consume and to generate large numbers of pageviews on which their advertising revenues depend.

Cancer Treatment Centers of America

Breast cancer doesn’t just affect a part of your body—it affects all of you and everything in your life. At Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA), you’ll have your own integrated team of breast cancer experts with extensive experience in treating all forms of the disease.

Your CTCA care team will take time to listen to you, answer your questions and understand your unique diagnosis and needs. Then, together, we’ll develop a comprehensive, integrative breast cancer treatment plan that works for you.

Your individualized plan will include a powerful combination of advanced breast cancer treatments and technologies, along with supportive therapies to help you tolerate treatment, manage side effects and enjoy a good quality of life.

CTCA is unique amongst cancer specialty hospitals in that nearly all of its patients are self-referred rather than being referred by another physician. They are therefore very aggressive in their direct-to-consumer marketing, and the voice that they use in their writing follows right along with the messaging used in much of their marketing communications.

This selection uses a voice that is centered on the consumer and strikes directly at the concerns, fears and frustrations felt by many patients after a cancer diagnosis. The text directly addresses the benefits the CTCA approach and strives to distinguish them from other options that the patient is considering. As such, it’s the most effective “selling text” of the three sites.

This selling approach is also evident in the related links available on the page: “I’m worried that I may have breast cancer,” “I’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer” and “I’m seeking treatment alternatives” – content which is intentionally targeted at the stages in a patient’s disease lifecycle in which they most commonly search for treatment providers.

What’s the right tone and voice to use?

The right tone and voice for your organization is different than it will be for others. We received questions asking about the “right” tone and voice for a hospital website or if a hospital should use a first-person or third-person writing style (“we do the following” vs. “hospital x does the following.” )  The right answer should reflect your organization’s personality and brand as well as be used in a coordinated manner through both your online and offline communications.

The right tone and voice should support your core brand propositions. If you’re an academic medical center bursting with internationally recognized experts, then your tone should reflect that. If your organization takes a whole body viewpoint, has created lots of “healing spaces” within the hospital and integrates holistic treatment options into care plans, your tone should be different.

While there’s no simple answer to what the right tone and voice is for your writing, here are a few considerations:

  • How will the tone on the Web relate to the tone used in other marketing channels?  These shouldn’t be identical, merely coordinated.  For example, you’ll typically use a more casual voice for blogs and social media than for your annual report. Different documents, different purposes.
  • Keep your audience in mind. Will the tone you’re envisioning come across as authentic? Persuasive?
  • Mind your use of healthcare jargon. What’s a STEMI time, anyway?
  • Tone and voice go beyond the words. Decide not only if you’re going to talk about sick people in your text, but do you show sick people in the pictures? If so, what’s OK and what’s not?
  • Make your guidelines specific enough that the multiple authors can write with a consistent voice while keeping it short enough that they’ll actually read it and follow the directions.

I’ll leave you with one final thought – this stuff isn’t easy. Lots of people can write. Some of them can write well. Some of them can write well for healthcare. Some of them can write well for the Web. It’s hard to find one somebody that can do both. This is one of those areas where it’s worth getting some help to lay tone and voice out correctly up front. It will save you many headaches and rework in the future.

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Ben Dillon

About Ben Dillon

Ben’s a big picture type of guy. He loves sharing new ideas in digital marketing, keeping a watchful eye on healthcare industry trends and seeing how it all intersects. A sought-after speaker, writer, blogger and current SHSMD board member, Ben’s an influential voice in healthcare marketing, helping organizations across the country embrace online strategies to engage health consumers. Combine his industry savvy with his background in software development and you can see why he’s also an important member of Geonetric’s software team, ensuring our content management system stays a step ahead of market needs. Ben holds a master’s degree in eBusiness and strategic management from the University of Iowa and a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering from the University of Michigan. When he’s not traveling and evangelizing, Ben enjoys cooking with his family and playing the Big House with the University of Michigan Alumni marching band.

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