Analog. Digital. Transformation. Danger. Opportunity.

It’s a hazardous journey to start at analog and move to digital regardless of what industry, technology, product, or service might be undergoing that transformation. Ask Kodak. Ask The New York Times. For the past 15 years, my organization, ECRI Institute has been actively immersed in the digital disruption of our own business. By way of background, our organization has been around for about 45 years as a healthcare technology research and patient safety organization. For the first 30 years, we produced about two dozen different print publications ranging from monthly magazines to quick read newsletters to telephone book size reference directories for our audience of healthcare managers and clinicians. Today, we “print” little more than brochures. That does not mean we don’t produce content, as our business has grown and much of the content that used to be read on paper is now read on a digital screen.

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Though this transition has taken place over 15 years, and though all of our content is now “digital,” we have discovered there is much more work to do. In fact, we still have transformation, danger, and opportunity left on our to-do list. Here’s why:

Fifteen years ago we converted print materials to digital materials and provided essentially the same information in electronic form to an audience that was familiar with information from the print world. Today, we hear in discussions that our audience increasingly has no interest in newspapers or newsletters. The majority do research by Googling first, not looking in phone-book size desk references, and can aggregate content from around the world themselves in minutes. At ECRI Institute, it is not that we must learn the world of digital content production—we now must learn the world of today’s digital audiences.

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With that in mind, two years ago, our executive management team decided to completely revamp our content strategy. We not only rebuilt and relaunched our website but we retrained our writers and we refocused our business lines to connect with their audiences and understand their content preferences, their content utilization patterns, and their workflow processes. We are not nearly done though we have had some tangible gains—most notably an immediate and sustained 10% increase in unique users in our web-based content upon release of our new platform.

As we continue our digital transformation and continue to define our audience, here are two key takeaways we have learned about the readers of our digital content through interviews and conversations:

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Make it simple.

Complexity kills. It’s a delicate balance to not be overtly complex when much of our content is deeply technical and clinical and much of our audience is composed of sophisticated professionals. However, our members tell us they want ease of understanding and findability as a critical must have to everything we do digitally. Even though the information itself may be useful, if it is buried in too many search results or requires too much navigation, or takes too long to load on the screen, it simply will not get used. Naturally, our clinicians and scientists want to deliver comprehensive content. That is what they were trained to do. And, in a sense, digital platforms allow a low incremental cost to add content. However, we now know the law of diminishing returns applies to digital content. We must prioritize ruthlessly what we provide. We’ve found that our audience wants content depth but not at the cost of complexity.

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Make it matter.

Nice to have is not good enough. We must deliver digital content that makes a difference. In fact, we must deliver digital software solutions that matter as we have come to realize we are not just providing content. We provide data, analytics, and software in addition to content. In short, regardless of what we call it, we must deliver answers to challenging questions vexing our audience’s minds, or data that improves the productivity of their team, or charts that provide clear recommendations on what to do not just what to ponder. We must deliver compelling content. It must make a real-world difference to our audience immediately.

The difference between digital content and great digital content reminds me of Mark Twain’s famous quote: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” We now hold ourselves to a higher digital content standard: lightning bolts—not lightning bugs.

The Author

Since 2001, Anthony J. Montagnolo has served as Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of ECRI Institute. A member of ECRI Institute’s staff for 30 years, Montagnolo has deep experience in medical technology evaluation, procurement, and management, as well as technology strategic planning. In addition to his management responsibilities, Montagnolo works with ECRI Institute members, clients, and staff on client-specific consulting engagements typically focused on technology forecasting, planning, and assessment. A frequent presenter at seminars and leadership retreats, Montagnolo speaks on subjects such as the future of healthcare technology, strategic technology planning, and patient safety.

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