Making Ideas Move

Here’s something mind boggling: Three of the technologies that have changed how the world communicates are only about 10 years old. Facebook, which now has more than 1.3 billion monthly active users, was started in 2004. YouTube, with more than 1 billion users a month, was started a year later. And Twitter, which now has more than 500 million tweets posted daily, is the baby of the three, launched in 2006.

Two weeks ago I participated in a roundtable discussion of foundation CEOs as part of the annual conference of the Communications Network, an organization devoted to helping foundations and nonprofits use communications to create change.

The theme of this year’s conference was “Making Ideas Move,” and the panelists agreed that organizations that commission research and promote ideas must expand beyond the usual channels they’ve traditionally used to reach audiences if they hope to achieve measurable impact. This requires us to adapt to new ways that people seek and consume information — on smartphones and through social networks, both online and in person.

For a foundation known for communicating mostly through printed publications and PDFs found on our website, it’s no understatement to say that we are taking these challenges to heart. We understand that releasing data is not sufficient to get the attention of decisionmakers who have the power to address the issues we focus on. Stories that inspire are a powerful tool for spurring positive change, and getting those stories into the hands of those who have a stake in making change requires communicating through multiple channels.

For example, as part of our work in maternity care, our communications team created “A Tale of Two Births,” a consumer-friendly infographic that combines storytelling, compelling visuals, and data to illustrate how two first-time expectant mothers with low-risk pregnancies face very different delivery experiences depending on the hospital they choose. The infographic went viral after the PBS NewsHour picked it up, and it has become one of the most viewed projects in CHCF’s history, with more than 20,000 page views. After the coverage, CHCF program staff received a stream of emails and updates on how the piece was being used by the maternity health and Sacramento policy communities.

“A Tale of Two Births” has generated a long tail. The Public Health Institute recently released a multimedia project inspired by the infographic, The Happiest Birth Day, which illuminates the costly phenomenon of medically unnecessary c-sections and allows viewers to see disparities in c-section rates among hospitals in their county.

We’re also seeking to better understand our many audiences and how to tailor messages for maximum impact. With the help of a social data analytics firm, we’ve begun to track how women talk about pregnancy and cesarean sections, an often unnecessary surgical procedure. This will enable us to better craft messages likely to resonate and influence their decisionmaking. By establishing partnerships with bloggers and other online communities that focus on women and pregnancy, we will use those messages to help women understand the benefits of natural birth and encourage them to be engaged in decisions about their care.

We’re beginning to seed conversations in the community rather than waiting for the conversation to come to us. CHCF recently joined with the John and Wauna Harman Foundation to sponsor 55 screenings of the PBS Frontline documentary “Being Mortal,” based on the best-selling book by Atul Gawande. Thirty-nine organizations around California received grants to host events in their communities for diverse audiences. The screenings and discussions afterward educated participants about their choices should they develop a life-threatening illness and encouraged them to communicate their end-of-life wishes to those who matter, including their health care providers. We are now measuring how these screenings changed the knowledge and attitudes of participants, and because of its success, this model may be rolled out nationwide.

Finally, we need to create partnerships to expand the reach of our work because no organization can spark change in isolation. CHCF and the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation recently announced a partnership to take over daily publication of California Healthline, our free daily digest of health policy news and opinion. CHL will expand its readership with more original reporting and extend its reach by disseminating content through Kaiser Health News and its impressive array of media partners, including many broadcast and digital outlets. We believe this partnership will increase our ability to tell the important stories about health care and to reach beyond our core audience to raise awareness of developments among a broader, mass audience of engaged readers.

This new focus on how we reach audiences doesn’t mean that we plan to abandon the kind of publishing that our subscribers know and rely on. At the same time, we’re excited to flex our creative muscles and experiment with different ways to reach people where they are, with the kind of information they need, in a way that resonates with them — emotionally as well as intellectually. It’s a challenge that institutions are grappling with, and one that will likely result in new and exciting ways to communicate with audiences in the future.

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