For those of us working in health communications – and, really, for anyone who has been a patient, or cared for one – trust is the holy grail.  Effectively communicating life-saving and life-enhancing information to (and amongst) patients, professionals, caregivers and policymakers can’t be accomplished without trust.  In fact, when it comes down to it, most of what we do in our line of work centers around demonstrating credibility, authenticity and a genuine commitment to advancing patient care.

But is trust the real currency when it comes to online consumer behaviors? 

Turns out, the answer is “no.” 

New data from the Sixth Annual Makovsky/Kelton “Pulse of Online Search” Survey reveal strong consumer preferences for online health resources that are easy to use – regardless of the source’s trustworthiness.

That consumers value ease-of-use is no surprise. But the notion that it pushes trust right out the window when it comes time to click might just change health communicators’ online game plan.

Companies and brands direct significant resources, both human and financial, toward ensuring that their messages are perceived as trustworthy. Securing the opportunity to share scientific data or information about patient support programs via a trusted third-party source is high on the list of desired outcomes – and for good reason.  Consumers do, indeed, have strong opinions about trustworthiness!  Yet look what happens when trust of online resources is high, but ease-of-use is low:

Even though advocacy groups earn consumers’ highest rating for trustworthiness (59%), just 16% of consumers visit their websites to research health information.  Conversely, WebMD leads the pack for consumer usage (53%), but earns relatively low endorsement for trustworthiness at just 39%.  How can this be?

The disconnect is laid bare when looking at the data for “trust” and “ease-of-use” ratings side-by-side:  WebMD scores highest on ease-of-use (56%), while advocacy groups (29%) are among the two lowest-rated online resources in that category.  In other words, despite high levels of trust, consumers seem to be turned off by a poor user experience on advocacy websites. (The other lowest-ranking resource for “ease-of-use,” perhaps not surprisingly, is government agency sites – which also score high on trustworthiness, but are visited less than half as often as WebMD.)  Online, the presentation is just as important as the message.

This trend reveals a clear and urgent opportunity for health marketers and communicators: act as the bridge between experts in both patient care and web design. Continue to demonstrate credibility and build trust – but then reward your target audience with a positive online experience and messages that speak their language.  Get patient and advocate input on their on-the-ground needs – but don’t forget that accessing information online is one of them.  By bringing ease-of-use to the fore – and combining digital know-how and resources with advocates’ patient-care messages and reach – we can amplify and advance patient education, care, and hopefully, outcomes.

With today’s consumers increasingly educating themselves about treatment options before and after doctor appointments (read more about this trend here), communicating trustworthy information about treatments and how to manage medical conditions is more important than ever. Make sure your trusted information is easy to use.

The full results of the Sixth Annual Makovsky/Kelton Pulse of Online Search Survey can be viewed here.

– Arielle Bernstein, Group Vice President, Makovsky

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