Allyson Collins, Senior Director of Digital Communications at NYU Langone Health, shares her experience building a cross-functional digital communications team that prioritizes the needs of its audience. She also shares her perspectives on customer research, telling an SEO story, and wine-centric travel.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Christine: I would love to start at the beginning and talk about your career path and ask — what got you into marketing? What got you started down the path that has led you to being a Senior Director of Digital Communications today?
Allyson: I wanted to be a doctor for most of my life, so I always had an interest in health and medicine. But then in high school, I really had an interest in writing as well. When I went into college I had a dual major of magazine journalism and biology, and magazine journalism was really a side interest. I wanted a major where I could write a lot, and then I started taking classes and I completely fell in love with it. I think immediately I realized that I could have a big impact on patients in a different way if I took the path of being a health and medical writer instead of a doctor. I could still be very involved in medicine, but my role could be translating information into understandable terms for patients, and really helping people access medical information.
All the writing I did in college was around health and medicine. I would go to the hospital and interview doctors. I interviewed a child-life specialist. I did a profile of a family that was raising a child with special needs, and I went to their house several times, and then talked to the entire medical team. Starting to tell these patients’ stories really captivated me, and I just changed gears and said, “I actually want to be involved in communications instead.” At that point I really wasn’t sure which path I would take. After I graduated from college, I started out working at a travel magazine in Rome.
Christine: That sounds wonderful.
Allyson: I love to travel. When I moved back to the U.S. I went out to L.A. because I had always wanted to live in L.A., and my first thought was that maybe I wanted to write for television and film, still as a science and medical writer. So I actually worked at a talent agency with a literary agent. I read scripts, I took notes on scripts, I recommended scripts to the agent that I was working with. And then I just realized that I wasn’t going to be able to write enough, and so I immediately transitioned and started working as a science writer at USC’s medical school, and that’s where my path went.
I found digital communications after I got my masters degree. I was working at the National Institutes of Health, and I learned from the woman who was running the website for the National Eye Institute. And from then on all the work that I did was in digital because that was where I felt I could have the widest impact. That’s where I saw the field going.
Christine: That’s fascinating. And it’s interesting, I’ve talked to a couple digital marketers at hospitals, or healthcare services, and a lot of times it feels very personal. What does inspire you and motivate you? What are you thinking about that keeps you going every day and makes you excited to keep doing what you’re doing right now at NYU Langone?
Allyson: Always thinking about the patient, is really what keeps me going every day. I think an important tip I would give marketers is to not lose sight of your audience or your customer, whoever that customer may be. In my case, it’s usually a patient or a caregiver. The moment we stop thinking about who we’re talking to and the mindset they’re in when they’re looking at our content, we lose that higher purpose.
And so with every piece of content that we create, with every piece that I edit, I’m thinking, “If I know nothing about healthcare, am I going to understand these terms? Will I know what that treatment means? Will I be able to take this information and feel empowered when I go to my doctor’s office, or am I going to feel even more confused and have even more questions for the doctor?” In terms of what keeps me going, it’s being able to provide information for people who are sometimes at a really scary point in their lives, and helping them feel a little bit more comforted, or at least better informed for their journey ahead.
Christine: We talk a lot about the customer, and earning your customer’s attention. You have to give them information that’s valuable, and there’s probably nowhere that impact is more direct than in the medical field. I love the idea of empowering patients and giving them information to help them feel stronger in times of stress. Tell me a little bit about your team structure and how things work in your current position, and how you interact with other teams.
Allyson: I started at NYU Langone Health a little over six years ago, and I was actually the first person to work in digital communications on our communications team. Six years ago it was just me, and now I have about 25 people on my team, a combination of full-time staff members, and freelancers. And I have basically two sides of my team. One side is editorial—medical and science writers, and editors working on web content.
The other side of my team is the production team, and they’re focused on putting content into the content management system on a daily basis. I know that in some organizations the writers and editors are working in the content management system, but we just have so much content and we have the luxury of being able to have a team that’s really expert in the CMS and devoted to it. And then that side of my team also works on analytics.
But our digital communications team is much broader, because we partner very closely with IT and with the product team to build and maintain the website. I know this is different from other organizations as well, because sometimes the communications and marketing teams can be really siloed from the product teams. But we call ourselves one team and we really try to act as one team. We’re partnering with expertise in all different areas, like user experience, design, and content, to make sure that we’re optimizing our digital experience from all sides.
We sit in the Office of Communications and Marketing, and we also work on a daily basis with the marketing team that oversees our paid digital efforts as well as advertising, and help the media team with press releases and adding news stories to the website. We also work with our publications team, making sure that we translate all the printed materials into digital content that can be reused and optimized across the web.
Christine: I love hearing how closely you worked with multiple different teams. I know those communication silos happen a lot, and overcoming them can be hard. Tell me a little bit more about growing your team out from just you as the single person responsible for digital.
Allyson: I’ve been really lucky. When I started here I knew that, even at a senior leadership level, there was an appreciation for digital communications, and an understanding that there was an opportunity to have a really big impact in terms of communicating about our services, and reaching new audiences, new customers, new patients. We’ve had this senior leadership support since the very beginning. I hired digital writers and editors, but there were also other people across the organization working in different academic departments, updating their websites.
Part of growing my team was bringing in those people who had worked independently on the website, so they could have a bigger impact and be able to work across the entire web system, instead of just focusing on one particular area. The editorial portion of my team grew a bit more organically because I was hiring people, but on the production side we were really able to build on a team that already existed across the organization. And I think everybody has really been able to have more impact as part of this larger team than they would have if they were working in silos.
Christine: That’s fascinating. You touched on this a little bit with the idea that even in the preliminary stages, there was an understanding that this area is important and that digital communications are essential. What else makes NYU Langone a special place to work? What makes it different?
Allyson: Well, this is the longest I’ve ever worked anywhere.
Christine: Six years is not messing around.
Allyson: Working here, there’s a combination of institutional support and a drive across the organization to grow, to be better, and to optimize everything from our medical services to our digital content. There’s also the ability to work on a variety of projects — every day my team is doing something different. And every year we’re able to explore new digital technologies and digital platforms, and that keeps my entire team motivated.
But even from a higher level, this organization is continually growing, and I’m very proud of being able to communicate the medical services that we offer. It’s not like I spend every day promoting and talking about something that I don’t believe in – I very much believe in the care that we provide and the services we offer.
Christine: What is something you’re working on or will be working on in the near future that you’re excited about?
Allyson: Our team is working closely with the IT team and the product team, starting to look at how we’re expanding into our NYU Langone Health App, as well the communications that go out to our patients in association with our patient portal, NYU Langone Health MyChart. So now we’re looking beyond the website to say, “How are we communicating with people via email? How are we communicating with our patients via text message? How are they interacting with our app as they’re experiencing their actual journey here?”
The website is a way to bring people in the door and help them schedule an appointment, but we’ve started to look beyond that to make sure that we’re consistently communicating with our patients, be it at the point of diagnosis, or maybe after they’ve had surgery and are coming for follow-up care. What’s making me really excited looking across this entire digital patient experience is making sure that we’re being as clear as possible and optimizing the access that people have to information during their journey.
Christine: That accessibility is a throughline through so much of what you’re talking about. What are you most proud of that you’ve worked on in the past?
Allyson: Last year at the end of May we launched a new website for Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital, which is our inpatient hospital for the care of children. But really all of the care that we provide for children across our inpatient and outpatient locations is part of Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital.
About a year before the hospital opened, we started to look at the digital experience, and we realized that all of the content about the care of children was distributed throughout our website. The conditions and locations we had written about were living among adult conditions and adult locations. We took a step back and we said, “How could we better serve this information to a primary audience of parents who are looking for care for children?” And so we made the decision to launch a new website specifically for Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital. It’s still part of the NYU Langone digital ecosystem, but it is a separate website that we basically wrote from scratch. Every single page is written for parents, speaking directly to parents and caregivers about the care of children.
What was really exciting about this project, in addition to being able to have a tone and voice that was really understanding and informative, was having our Patient and Family Advisory Council help us shape this website. We were talking to parents whose children have been treated here. They were helping advise on the physical building of the hospital, but they were also telling us what sorts of information would be valuable for parents as they’re looking for care for their children.
It was very gratifying that we could make sure that we were providing information that would be as valuable as possible to that audience of parents who might be up at 2:00 in the morning Googling something crazy because they’re not sure what’s wrong with their child. We’re reaching them at a very vulnerable point, and hopefully making them feel a little bit more informed and comforted.
Christine: That resonates with me a lot. I have a brother with special needs and I can think of my parents when something was going wrong, before Google, with a big Physicians’ Desk Reference trying to figure out what was happening. Finding that right information can make you feel like you have some understanding, even if it’s just about the next step of who you should be getting in touch with.
Allyson: Exactly. This project is close to my heart because I’m a parent. I’m the mother of a toddler, and I didn’t really realize the mindset of a parent until I became one myself. I’m the mother who’s Googling things at 2:00am, and it’s nice to be able to bring that perspective to the situation.
Christine: Let’s pivot to the future. What’s one brand new thing that you’re trying out, a skill you’re trying to learn? How are you continuing to develop professionally this year?
Allyson: We’ve been really focused on search engine optimization these past few months. We’re really proud of what we’ve done these past few years, and it was based on the principle of writing well and writing clearly. Now we’re working closely with Conductor and an agency to make sure that we’re continuing to optimize our content in this competitive market.
We’ve finally reached a point where we’re not only looking at how we can optimize existing content or create new content for our services, but we’re also starting to look at where there are opportunities for us to be more proactive in start to compete with other healthcare organizations.
For example, in the past we have been really focused on optimizing searches for conditions and treatments, and even some of our locations. Now, we’re broadening this to look at how we can optimize our content for people looking for doctors in particular specialties, and this is bringing us into an arena where we might be able to compete with doctor listing websites.
Christine: That’s very exciting. A whole new frontier. Talk to me about how you spread the word internally about the data you work with and get other people invested, both believing in and using organic data?
Allyson: Sometimes, people have the misconception that organic is free. So we need to constantly be our own advocates, and be transparent about the fact that it does take a lot of effort to write and optimize content. We need to make sure that we are creating content that’s medically accurate and meets the needs of our users, and we need to ensure they can find it when they are searching for information. That’s messaging that we are continuing to convey across the organization.
A lot of people across the organization are stakeholders who are helping us create this content, and they’ll often come to us and say, “I did a search and we were the third result. Why weren’t we the first result?” So we have a lot of opportunities to educate people about the fact that what they type into a search engine might not be what a patient is searching for, or show them that results depend on where you are when you’re doing the search, and what device you’re on.
Because the organization has been digitally engaged over the past few years, we always have opportunities to share successes, and to talk about opportunities to optimize or create new content. When we have a new center or program launching, we’re letting them know that we are talking with our SEO agency about the best name for that location or program, so that people can find it when they search.
Christine: And when you have success, are there ways that you share those wins internally, and get them in front of people?
Allyson: The entire communications and marketing team has done a great job of telling our combined story of success. I never think it makes sense to tell an SEO story without being able to say, “Here’s what we did with the functionality of the site. Here’s we did with paid. Here’s when we were in the news for a particular topic.” More and more, we’ve been putting together these cross-functional presentations, and telling the full story of how communications and marketing have worked across a particular area.
Most often, it’s not one single thing that helps to optimize pages, optimize content, and increase visibility. It’s the combined work across communications, marketing, and IT that’s really helping to increase visibility in a particular area.
Christine: What thought leaders, publications, media, or podcasts, do you check out to keep up with what’s going on in this space, and make sure that you’re on the cutting edge?
Allyson: Well, I’m a mom, so I don’t have a lot of time outside of work to stay on the cutting edge. My interests outside of work are in travel, food, and wine. And so I’m always looking across different industries to see which new technologies people are using, and how people are handling different interactions on the web or within apps. I take a lot from those different industries and bring it back to my work in healthcare. I put myself in the shoes of a consumer.
Christine: Very cool. And I know you’ve been talking about yourself as a mom — from the time you wake up to the time you go to bed, you’re living a whole life, not just life as a marketer. Can you walk me through a typical day, from the morning to evening?
Allyson: When I wake up, I look at my phone. It’s the first thing I do after the alarm rings, and I check my email, I check Instagram. And then I try to get myself together before my daughter is awake.
We have some quality time in the morning, our family eats breakfast together, and then I’m off for the day. On the subway, on the way to work, I’m checking social media, reading “The New York Times,” getting informed, getting caught up on any emails that came in overnight.
Then I spend a lot of my day at work in meetings with all the different groups that I talked about. I spend time with our product development group talking about new features and functionalities for the website, and I spend time with our editorial and production teams. My team meets every single morning for between 15 and 30 minutes, depending on what’s in store for the day. And we’re constantly reprioritizing our work on a daily basis, depending on anything urgent that has come in that we need to address. That keeps our team connected, and it’s also an opportunity for me to talk about things that are happening in other areas.
If we have new features launching that day, I’ll demo the features to the team. If people have questions about how to handle something, we talk about those as a group, because they usually can apply to everybody on the team. And then I do a lot of communicating via email throughout the day, in addition to the meetings.
I do try to edit almost every single day — I always want to make sure that I’m able to do and not just oversee. That keeps me feeling fulfilled as a writer and editor, but it also helps me ensure that I understand our evolving styles, or any challenges that our writers and editors are facing. And then after work I go home and play with my daughter. My husband is really into cooking, so I get to relax and enjoy that.
Christine: That sounds wonderful, too.
Allyson: Yes, it’s amazing. And then, after our daughter goes to bed, I’m, again, checking email. We rarely let our daughter have any screen time, which is really funny because of what I do. But we’re pretty strict about that, even though we do check email in front of her. I tend to teach her all the important digital words, of course. She knows what Google is. And then at night, I’m usually either planning a weekend trip or planning our next vacation, because I love planning trips.
Christine: Where’s your next trip to?
Allyson: We’re going to Paris in October, and our daughter has never been to Paris so we’re very excited.
Christine: That’s going to be amazing. I also love to travel, and to read about wine on the internet — if I can’t be drinking it.
Allyson: Well, we should talk then.
Christine: We should talk! This might be answered by either wine or travel, but what are some of the things that you do outside of work that make you a better marketer?
Allyson: Usually, travel and wine. But in being a consumer, I am always looking at how people are handling their marketing. I’m constantly assessing. It’s very difficult to be on a website with me. My husband goes crazy over this because I’m like, “Look at this, and this functionality, and look what they’re doing. I like this, I don’t understand that.” So I spend a lot of my time as a consumer assessing other digital properties, but also taking back ideas.
And then I do have a very big passion for wine, so most of our trips are planned around wine. We’ve been to many wine regions across the world, to Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany, Portugal, New Zealand. . That is really what refreshes me — getting out of the city and taking some deep breaths. And then coming back rejuvenated and ready to get back into the grind. I love New York, so I don’t want to leave New York, but it’s nice to be able to travel and get a different perspective.
Christine: You really do appreciate New York more when you get to leave it. What’s your best piece of marketing advice for somebody just getting started? What would you tell them based on what you’ve learned throughout your career?
Allyson: I do think this goes back to something that I said before — never lose the perspective of the consumer and your audience. If you can’t place yourself into the shoes of the consumer that you’re reaching, talk to real consumers who can help you get that perspective.
It was amazing that we were able to talk to those parents from our Family Advisory Council about how they were looking at web content in their more vulnerable moments. My perspective as a parent was helpful, but there are many people on our team who aren’t parents, and they were still building a website for parents and families about the care of children. Being able to talk to that audience really helped increase their awareness of the challenges that our audience faced.
When you can put yourself in the shoes of the consumer or talk to real consumers, it helps you to stay in touch. It improves the work you’re doing.
Christine: I think that second part is a great addendum. At C3 this year, Julie Rice from SoulCycle spoke. And we actually just published a blog post from one of the people on our marketing team about her talk. One of the main points was that you’ll never learn more than when you go sit at the front desk — or the front desk equivalent — of your business and actually interact with consumers. Sometimes with the plethora of digital data, we forget that there are actual people we can turn to, and talk to, and learn from. So I love that.
I have a couple more questions, and the first one ties into this. One of the things we’re trying to do with this series, and in other ways, is build a stronger marketing community. What does your ideal marketing community look like?
Allyson: I think the most effective communications provide people with tips that cross industries. In marketing, we’re all working in different industries. We all have different stakeholders. We all have different budgets. But being able to share our own challenges, talk about how we face them, and empower each other with solutions, is really helpful.
When I go to a conference, the most effective presentations are the ones where people are saying, “Here’s what I learned. Here are some tips that cross all different industries, and here’s how you can implement them.” An open community where people can share their challenges is really helpful.
Christine: I love the idea of crossover between industries. As a marketer on a B2B team, it’s expected that you’ll want to talk to other B2B marketers. And there is a ton to learn from them, of course, but you actually can learn a lot from B2C marketers too, and those lines are increasingly blurred.
So diving into the very hard-hitting, journalistic question of the day: we’ve heard from a lot of people that music is a big part of how they pump themselves up, or stay focused, or blow off steam. What’s one song, musician, or artist on repeat for you right now? Or one that you would recommend for something specific that other marketers might enjoy?
Allyson: I hear all of my music at SoulCycle, to be honest. I listen to a lot of Elmo, but I don’t think you want to put that on your playlist.
Christine: We did, on one of these calls, sing “Baby Shark” with somebody who was watching their child while talking to us.
Allyson: “Baby Shark” is definitely number two. Elmo is number one. But I will say, there are a lot of “Sesame Street” songs, like, Paul Simon sings with “Sesame Street.” I’m trying to broaden my daughter’s horizons beyond Elmo to all different types of “Sesame Street” songs.
Christine: Elmo’s the entry point, right?
Christine: I’m going to have to look up Paul Simon on “Sesame Street.” My brother, who I referred to, loves “Sesame Street.” And actually my boyfriend just moved to L.A., and he texted me to say there’s a download on Waze where Cookie Monster will give you directions. I don’t know how effective Cookie Monster is at identifying where you’re supposed to go, but it’s an option.
Our final question is what’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever Googled? Something that’s still appropriate for us to print online.
Allyson: “Best way to pack wine in your suitcase.” My personal tip is to use a WineSkin when available (I never travel without them). When not available, wrap clothes securely around each bottle and ensure the suitcase is fully packed as tightly as possible. If I’m being honest, we’ve used diapers in a pinch. Either way, I have never had an issue.
Christine: Now, that’s a good search.