[VIDEO] Aaron Watkins of Johns Hopkins on the Intersection of Community and Public Health During COVID-19 and BLM

What Did You Learn? Episode 15

Johns Hopkins Medicine has been at the forefront of the international response to COVID-19. Their coronavirus resource center and dashboard have helped countless organizations and individuals track the status of COVID-19 in real-time.

Aaron Watkins, Senior Director of Internet Strategy at Johns Hopkins, explains the thoughtful decision-making behind one of the world’s best academic medical centers throughout the pandemic.

During this week’s episode of “What Did You Learn?” he shares how Johns Hopkins got out in front of the rest of the country with their COVID-19 coverage to secure top SEO positioning and how the organization reckoned with Black Lives Matter outside of the hospital system — and within.

Watch the full episode now.

Ahava: Hi. Welcome back to “What Did You Learn?” I am very excited today to have Aaron Watkins, Senior Director of Internet Strategy from Johns Hopkins Medicine. Aaron and I go back 15 years. We have been in the trenches together, so I’m really excited to have him here today. Aaron, welcome.

Aaron: Well, thank you for having me. I can’t believe we’re finally here together.

Ahava: I’ve been wanting to interview you for a decade and a half. So this is my dream come true.

Aaron: You’ve done it off the record quite a few times, so this will be interesting.

Ahava: Totally. So let’s just start with the fact that you’re in one of the best academic medical centers in the world. And you are just, you know, the pandemic happens and you have to deal with it. What hobbies did you take up while you were working that hard?

Aaron: Right. You know, interesting. I think my biggest hobby is taking a walk. I mean, I have never enjoyed walking more than I have during this pandemic. It’s like at the end of the day, I just want to get out and do that. The other really fun period was when the streets were kind of empty, which of course, was disturbing. But at the same time, I could go out on a bicycle with my daughter and it felt like the ’80s, in a way. We were just all over town. And you’re seeing all these other people bicycling. And that was a really cool experience that I never thought I would get to have with her.

I baked a little more banana bread because I was buying more bananas. And you know how that goes, some weeks you use them, some weeks you don’t. My daughter loves it. That’s the main thing that I’ve done a little more of, but I cooked less overall.

Ahava: Really? How have you eaten?

Aaron: A lot of to-go. I mean, I’ve tried, even early on, there were a few weeks where I was nervous about taking food from restaurants. But on the whole, I’ve been in that throughout.

Ahava: Supporting your local businesses?

Aaron: Yeah. And then, you know, it’s tough times. Some are doing really well and some have closed.

Ahava: What do you wish you had known? I don’t know. I mean, I think like a lot of people, I wish I knew how long this would last. I mean, I think I felt, early on, more out of step with many people and colleagues and maybe underestimated that stress. Like I felt I kind of hope or I plan for the worst, hope for the best a lot of times. And I felt when they were saying, “In 2 weeks the kids will be back in school,” I was like, “she’s not going back this year.” And so my mindset spent a little bit more on the duration, and that’s been good at the same time, trying to help other team members, you know, how long do they plan for? I just I wish I was better equipped to do that and be supportive in that way.

Beyond that, some of the things were like well, now what aspects of our tool set were we really well prepared to go into this, and what things weren’t we? And that’s probably been the most fascinating part of the process, really, from a work perspective.

Ahava: So when the pandemic started, a lot of focus was on Hopkins because of the dashboards and the public health aspect of it. Did you feel an increased sense of pressure because there was all of that light focused on it?

Aaron: No, I actually, I’ll tell you. So my senior content person came to me in January and said, “I think we should write an article on coronavirus.” So we had an article up in late January. I think it was January 22nd. And so for us, you know, my team’s responsibilities include marketing, social, search engine positioning, right? And one of the things that just was really great is that article became a foundation for us. And when people Googled “What is coronavirus?” in February and March, we were already there, number one, and we’ve largely held that kind of position on really basic searches. And then we’ve never had focus from so many people like we’ve had. The team really produced a lot of great content. And we always had this strong foundation and high search engine performance. And so about 70 percent of our traffic came off search engines throughout the experience.

Ahava: I assume that you also worked insane hours and just were trying to stand up a million different things. Was the perceived out-ahead-of-the-curve and the perceived “we’re doing a really fantastic job because we’re getting all this attention”, did that help motivate your team or were there ever moments of darkness? And what did you say to them when you needed to say something?

Aaron: Yeah. I mean, I think one of the things that was exciting, was I got more insight into our department as a whole. I mean, our marketing communications department is huge, and I’m just one division in that. So to see what, what are our media people dealing with? What’s editorial really doing? What are the inputs? Where are they getting their data and decision making and to be interacting with people at all levels of the department every day? You know, we actually had for the first month or so we had two daily huddle calls. I think it was 7:30 in the morning and at 5 at night, something like that. Seven days a week. And so that experience was really amazing, right? What’s hard? We always want to do more, right? And so there wasn’t …

We all knew how well we were doing, but at the same time, we weren’t taking the time to necessarily understand that. Like, I didn’t know how many, how well we were doing in search, at the beginning. I’m seeing the drivers, our usual tool sets for analyzing why certain pages were performing like they were. We couldn’t look to those tools yet. So it took some time to really get an understanding of how well we were really doing and to share that. And so I think as it went along into kind of May, June, I think there was a lot more when collegiality and just shared experience within the department, and we started to understand what kinds of impacts everybody had had, and the web was a big part of that recognition. And then we’ve been like, we’ve had some big awards too already, and those are the kinds of things that especially when you look at the pandemic, our leadership has a lot of things on their mind. They’re aware we’re doing really well in terms of traffic and the messaging. They’re proud of that messaging. But they also, they really know when you get recognition in the industry, right, that drives it home. It’s a different thing, you know? So that’s been good to experience.

Ahava: So you’re touching on something that a lot of my guests have talked about, which is that for the first time, they really feel like we’re almost at this place where we really can get an integrated marketing approach. And, you know, you and I have talked about that. How I believe in 20 years from now marketing will just be called customer experience, right? So do you think that integration is going to stay? Or do you think that when this all becomes whatever it becomes that silos will come back up again?

Aaron: Yeah, it’s a little bit of both. I think, you know, I can only look at our kind of window of experience, right? We’re in a very foundational time in that we’re rebuilding our CRM. We’re rebuilding our PRM, we’ve been rebuilding our web platform. That’s actually on hold. But we plan to go back to it. And so I’m in those calls that really are about what data do we have to drive that experience? What personas do we need to develop? Why are we doing this? What are the business objectives like? Really foundational calls that are shaping how we build technology against, that’s really exciting.

Ahava: Do you think that when you go into these executive meetings and when Suzanne Sawyer your CMO goes in and she says, “I need more money to do X.” During the pandemic, you wanted to do X, but we didn’t have the staff we needed or we didn’t have, you know, the team that we needed or we didn’t have a role that we needed. Do you think that there’s going to be an opening of the pocketbook, so to speak?

Aaron: Right. I think, yes. And there has been, I mean, so we had, you know, there’s some “COVID money” to do what we had to do, right? And, that we managed. Then, we’re also getting back to her road map. How does she see us building foundationally each year? I know some roles that we’ve added to the department to my team related to CRM/PRM that is really a data analyst role that has been vacant for a long time and that we have now strengthened. It’s a better position.

So she clearly has that support. How much did the pandemic play into that and strengthen it? I’m not sure. But we’re making a lot of really good foundational moves right now.

Ahava: So you and I both live in Maryland, and obviously, you know, Governor Hogan was very nervous, but I think, you know, politically we could say it seems like he did a good job. We never got a surge. We were careful. But you are in Baltimore, which Hopkins has an interesting relationship with its minority population. Black Lives Matter happens and you’re exhausted. Your just done. What was the first reaction? What did you do?

Aaron: I mean, that was a very difficult period. I mean, I think that was the hardest period on everybody.

Ahava: From a work perspective or a personal perspective?

Aaron: Work and personal. Like a lot of organizations, we were better prepared for a public response. And part of that, I think the biggest part of that was that our team, again, across the department and outside the department, people were working together in such an intimate way on a daily basis. But now this hits. And we were getting really honest feedback from our minority staff members about some of the messages that we were writing and how they needed to be strengthened. And then we came out with much more balanced messaging from our leadership, as a result of that. Our CEO was visible saying, “Black Lives Matter.” We had physicians saying, “It could be me. What happened to George Floyd could have happened to me.”

We made some really moving content and made it quickly. And I think it was just highly effective. What was difficult, most difficult was just the staff. I think hearing the minorities in our office talk about, talk about what they go through in the real world, right?  But in our real world, and how they feel sometimes day to day, that’s a process that, honestly, we’re just still going through. I’m on a committee that’s about well-being in our department that we formed as a result of this. There’s two other committees and you could just see the pain and the stress so many people are under. And of course, that’s another overwhelming cultural problem that we’re doing what we can within the organization. But it’s just so big.

Ahava: So let’s talk about that from a business perspective, because of where you are, Hopkins sort of hovers on this health disparities type of issue. Have those things come into play now, in terms of business objectives? Has it affected any other things that you’re doing? Do you think that it’s like the forefront of what people are thinking about or are people now back to focusing on coronavirus and getting patients through the hospital and making sure people know that it’s COVID-clean.

Aaron: Yeah, I mean, it’s all of that. You know, COVID has gone through phases. I mean, we’re still trying to provide information, of course. But, you know, our primary focus is on ramping up and supporting the business objectives, helping people understand what they’ll encounter when they come here. And making that information as useful and welcoming as possible. When it comes to intersections with the community and public health, we always have ongoing efforts with that as well. They’re definitely there. They’re definitely heightened. You know, there are ways that it immediately impacted my team in terms of creating content, of course. But I think there’s a bit of a longer tail there because there is, you know, a much more raw, honest conversation that’s happening right now, then maybe could have six months ago.

Ahava: In all the things that you’re talking about and this sort of change, you know that you want to be warm and welcoming, do you think that you’ve gotten less pushback on that issue when executives are reviewing your materials or they just letting them go because there’s no time for that?

Aaron: Definitely not letting it go. I mean especially all coronavirus content is still reviewed by a very small group of physicians. You know, we called them the Big Three for the first few months, and it was three faculty members who, number one, this was far from their only responsibility, like they were the top in our command center, right? And they were reviewing our content. At the beginning, not quite every day, of course, because that was too overwhelming. But we got in a cycle where we could send content as a department, right? Not just web content, but what does our media team need right now? We try and put it together. And they have been miracle workers in responding. Officially in Hopkins, we call it “physical distancing.” But in search engines, there are people putting in “social distancing.” There’s those kinds of compromises that we make and explain. And we put both, right? We have a strategy for which term we put where. But those are the ways that we handle it.

Ahava: Okay, so what did you learn?

Aaron: What did I learn? My role, I think. You know, six months ago, I was very much speaking with executives, leaders about the enterprise and how we needed to evolve and those kinds of things. My job now is much more focused with the director team. And again, it’s how do we need to evolve, given where we are, you know? And how can we really kind of simplify? How can we make sure big kind of technology decisions we’re making, the resource decisions we’re making, how are we aligning those with the business objectives of the institution, which we’re getting more clarity than ever as well? And then with these, big issues, that are coming up. And you know what I’d say? I’ve learned that to be adaptive, less is more, you know, more than ever, it’s like, let’s just focus. There’s enterprise challenges to the web and a good, full, comprehensive strategy. People, process, technology, All these things, but we, as a team, really need to focus on pairing that down and saying these air the 2-3 things that really matter right now that we’re going to build. We’re going to do well. We’re going to get lots of involvement.

Ahava: Awesome. So, we’re having cocktails at our regular dinner.

Aaron: I can’t wait.

Ahava: I can’t wait. Not outside. And we’re eating the chocolate cake that I let you get because I always want the carrot cake. We always share. And you turned to me and you say, “The thing that I took with me from that hideous time was …”

Aaron: I need to try and simplify my approach, my message, my everything, you know? That’s a daily exercise, right? And I’m working. I would say I’m working harder than ever at that. And I anticipate that I will continue to. And more than ever, I’m trying to model it for my leaders. My direct reports there are change agents in the institution. And so I’m, again, I’m trying to be more of a model for them and help them and be adaptive to their individual needs to do that.

Ahava: It was really wonderful to have you. Thank you so much for being here.

Aaron: Thank you so much.

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About Ahava Leibtag

Ahava Leibtag, MA

Ahava R. Leibtag has more than 20 years of experience in writing, messaging and marketing. She is a well-recognized content expert and writes thought leadership about content strategy and content marketing. Ahava is the President and owner of Aha Media Group, a content strategy and content marketing consultancy founded in October 2005. She... More >