By Bryan Tutt
Online newsletters (e-newsletters) are a popular medium that hospitals, professional organizations, and pharmaceutical or biotech companies use to reach specific audiences. Often written to inform, educate, or market to physicians, such newsletters usually require knowledge of medical terminology—something best provided by technical communicators who specialize in health and medical writing. Creating content for such newsletters can be a good way to transition from other areas of technical communication into medical writing. By following a few key steps, technical communicators can easily and effectively make this move.
Understanding Your Audience
If there’s one thing to know about physicians, it’s that they’re busy. Consequently, few physicians take the time to read a medical journal cover to cover, if they read journals at all. In a 2017 survey, 40 percent of doctors said that they regularly read Medscape, which reports medical news from sources such as journal articles, news releases, and government agencies (Revelant 2017). Only 28 percent reported regularly reading Journal of the American Medical Association, and even fewer reported reading The Lancet or other journals. When busy physicians take the time to read a news article, they choose content that may be useful in their practice.
Whether you’re creating a physician-targeted newsletter or writing content for an existing one, it is essential to understand the unique characteristics and needs of your physician audience. Physicians’ reading habits and information needs should determine your decisions about content and style. Physicians want information that is relevant to their practice, but most have little time to find and read such information. You can meet their needs by providing relevant content in a form that is accessible, informative, and easily digestible. Doing so can involve presenting information or ideas in list format rather than paragraphs or using tables, charts, and other visuals to display information.
Choosing an Accessible Format
Understanding physicians’ time constraints can help you choose the format for your e-newsletter. Most physicians prefer to read on their smartphone or tablet, so a digital format is preferable to print, and multiple user-friendly email newsletter platforms are available.
Although you can use inexpensive (or free) easy-to-use templates to create newsletters, e-marketing professionals such as Chris Singleton (2019) prefer a more versatile option in the form of an HTML platform for e-newsletters that link to a landing page. Content on the landing page should be searchable so that your readers can find the articles that are most relevant to their practice. Articles should be also easy to share. These two requirements are more easily met by an HTML e-newsletter format than a PDF. To learn more about the templates one might use for different delivery formats, consult the Email Tool Tester (see Resources).
Providing Relevant Content
If you’re starting an e-newsletter for physicians, you probably have a particular subset of them in mind as your target audience—clients of your company, for example, or members of a professional organization. The better you know your readers, the better you’ll be able to provide content that meets their needs.
After each issue, you can use your e-newsletter software’s performance reports to determine which types of articles your readers prefer. In reviewing these reports, look for the open rate and click-through rate. The open rate tells you what percentage of subscribers opened the email. Over time, this can tell you whether your audience is becoming more or less engaged with your content.
The click-through rate shows you the percentage of readers who clicked on a link to read an article. Most e-newsletter software shows you the number of clicks for each article, and you can use these data to judge which types of articles your readers are most interested in. Some software packages offer more detailed information, such as open and click-through rates stratified by readers’ demographics or device type (Campaign Monitor 2019).
Using a Concise but Informative Style
Although you’ve selected content that is likely to appeal to your physician readers, few of them will read every article of your e-newsletter. This is why your article titles are important. For example, physicians who consider themselves up to date on pancreatic cancer might ignore an article with a vague title like “Diagnosing Pancreatic Cancer,” whereas an article titled “New Test Detects Pancreatic Cancer Before Symptoms Appear” would promise new and useful information. Your style should allow for longish headlines that clearly describe an article’s content or a short heading with a more detailed deck (aka, summary).
Because your readers are busy, your articles should be structured like conventional newspaper articles. This means you should place the most important information at the beginning. If you’re citing source material, such as a research article in a medical journal, provide a link to that material.
Balancing Detail and Style
Although your writing style should be concise, don’t skimp on important details. A mass-market publication might describe a new treatment agent as “an immunotherapy drug for the treatment of patients with lung cancer.” A physician-focused article, however, should specify “a programmed death ligand 1 (PD-L1) inhibitor for the treatment of patients with stage IV non-small cell lung cancer whose tumors express PD-L1.”
The nature of physician-targeted material requires it to be written at a higher reading level than mass-market publications. That said, you don’t want the material to be dense or boring. This is where your skills as a technical communicator are useful. Paying attention to transitions between sentences and paragraphs can help ensure readability. Additionally, keeping paragraphs as short as possible can help readers digest the information.
These style choices, along with relevant and accessible content, can help make your e-newsletter useful to your physician readers. By focusing on these areas, you can expand the ability you have to work in different health and medical contexts on local, regional, and even global levels.
Campaign Monitor. “Email Insights and Reporting.” Accessed 20 August 2019. https://www.campaignmonitor.com/resources/guides/reporting.
“Email ToolTester.” Email ToolTester. Accessed 20 August 2019. https://www.emailtooltester.com/en/
Revelant, Julie. “Which Medical Publications Do Doctors Read Most?” The Script. https://thescript.zocdoc.com/which-medical-publications-do-doctors-read-most.
Singleton, Chris. “How to Create a Newsletter.” Style Factory Blog. 3 July 2019. https://www.stylefactoryproductions.com/blog/how-to-create-an-e-newsletter.
BRYAN TUTT (BFTutt@mdanderson.org) is a Scientific Editor at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, where he served as managing editor of OncoLog, the institution’s newsletter to community physicians, from 2010 to 2018. Bryan earned his BS at Texas A&M University and his MA in Technical Communication and Rhetoric from Texas Tech University.