How to write health care copy that people will actually read

Learning from the halls of journalism

This is the seventh blog post in a twelve part series that transforms ideas from the marketing world at large into practical plans for pharmaceutical marketing in the time of health care reform.

Ever wonder why a patient pamphlet doesn’t grab you like the first sentence of a New Yorker health care article? I believe that it boils down to intent. Pharma copy is written from the point of view of “I have important information I need to tell you.”  Journalistic copy starts from the premise of “I need to capture your attention.” 

The goal of a news story is to get eyeballs on words. The goal of a pharma pamphlet is to impart information that the patient may or may not really want to read. Or in the worst case, just fill the legal obligation to provide the information.

I wanted to explore what would happen if by taking more journalistic approach to developing patient education copy. So I gave a journalist friend of mine some pharma copy. In this case, the copy concerned addressing people’s thoughtless comments. I was curious to see the differences in how it would be written, particularly the opening sentences. Even after removing the expletives, you can see how much more engaging the copy written by a journalist is.

And the difference goes beyond the first sentence. Below I have taken a common journalistic framework—Who? What? When? Where? How? Why? — and used it to extrapolate the differences between marketing and journalism.

The journalistic model of copy writing requires a significant shift. At the end of the day, it is about holding your information to a higher standard—patient engagement. Or as Tony Rogers in his Guide to journalism says, “So when making the rounds of your beat, always ask yourself, “How will this affect my readers? Will they care? Should they care?” If the answer is no, chances are the story’s not worth your time.”


The key concept to extrapolate here is the need to interest and entertain your reader. So here are a couple thought-starters on how to export this idea to development of pharmaceutical information, particularly in the patient space.

  1. Define for your agency “what good looks like.” Gather a few examples of how your product and/or disease state has been covered in the popular and not so popular press. I am riveted by anything that Jerome Groopman writes. Look for good examples of science made accessible. Look for health care storylines that grab people. Compare that to your copy.
  2. Evaluate what is most/least compelling on your website. We have tended to discount “the click” in pharma. But “eyeballs on the page” is the metric used by online media evaluate the success of their endeavors and determine what gets covered in the future.
  3. Hire a freelance journalist to have a “whack” at your copy. Your procurement friends will love you as journalists are about half the cost of pharmaceutical copywriters. And many do a very good job at explaining difficult scientific concepts or MOA’s.

So take a look at your copy. Would you read it if you didn’t have to?

Check back next Tuesday for the eighth post in the twelve part series, “ How to Jay-Z DTC. In this post I explore Jay-Z’s three-part formula for grabbing attention to create more cost effective and impactful DTC campaigns.

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