Branded Content That Educates, Informs Americans About the Opioid Epidemic

Headshot of Heather Fletcher

Washington Post readers are already highly informed consumers. But a recent content marketing campaign that Optum created with the Washington Post’s branded content arm, WP BrandStudio, made the bold move of educating health system stakeholders and consumers about the opioid epidemic and advocating for a point of view about how to solve the crisis.

It was the right thing to do, says Jennifer Hovelsrud, senior brand director at Optum, a health services and innovation company.

In September 2019, she told Target Marketing about why the February 2018 multimedia investigative feature titled “Working to End the Epidemic,” which ultimately earned six major awards, went beyond the requirements of bare-bones branded content campaigns.

“Optum touches every part of the health system and strives to be known for helping to solve the health system’s greatest challenges and overcoming fragmentation by connecting it,” Hovelsrud says. “The Optum brand team funded this effort and, therefore, needed the investment to support goals of awareness, knowledgeability, and perception. While this program certainly aligned and helped achieve these goals, this was a company-wide effort grounded in living our mission: to help the health system work better for everyone and help everyone live healthier lives. Because of the nature of this devastating epidemic, our primary objective was educating our audiences, with integrity and expertise, on an epidemic that is devastating the lives of neighbors, coworkers, friends, and family members. Not only was this story, and its focus on education, the right thing to do for our brand, it was the right thing to do as a health system stakeholder.”

Optum’s Campaign Goals

In addition to Optum’s primary goal of educating health system stakeholders and consumers on the opioid epidemic and advocating for a point of view on how to solve it, the health services and innovation company wanted to “increase brand awareness, knowledgeability, and perception. This effort was guided by one of Optum’s perception drivers, ‘Optum is helping to solve the health system’s greatest challenges.’ ”

On top of the newspaper’s measurements, the Washington Post’s content linked back to “a landing page highlighting our efforts to tackle the opioid epidemic and offer resources:,” Hovelsrud says.

As Hovelsrud says, the one-month-long campaign exceeded its goals:


  • Reached over half a million unique visitors
  • Demonstrated two-times average time spent against WP BrandStudio benchmarks
  • Highest video completion rate for a multi-video release
  • Shared by Katie Couric (1.75 million Twitter followers)
  • 8% increase among health care decision-makers naming Optum as their first choice

And the awards were a nice bonus:

  • Platinum Winner, AVA Awards — Web Interactive Capabilities
  • Platinum Winner, AVA Awards — Interactive Brand Experience
  • Winner, Pressboard Awards — Best Branded Content Partnership
  • Winner, Pearl Impact Awards — Best Brand Partnership
  • Honoree, Webby Awards — Advertising, Media, and PR: Public Service and Activism
  • Finalist, Digiday Publishing Award — Best Brand Partnership

But the “Working to End the Epidemic” campaign was about more than simple ROI and accolades.

“It was the largest investment made in brand-level content in 2018 and supported all other brand efforts in the awareness and perceptions it achieved,” Hovelsrud says.

Audience Research

One of the main reasons the branded content campaign did so well is Optum and WP BrandStudio performed extensive audience research.

Yes, the Washington Post reaches one in three Americans. Yes, the journalism organization’s reputation precedes it. But Optum and WP BrandStudio decided to target the segment of newspaper readers who influence others. They’re the ones who educate themselves on an issue before speaking about it, which was exactly the goal of informing and educating health system stakeholders and consumers.

Speaking about the Washington Post’s “influencer” audience, Hovelsrud says:

“The Post indexes very favorably against our target audience and was key to our decision to partner with WP BrandStudio. For this program, we also leveraged The Post’s proprietary ad and audience insights technology to reach the target audience across platforms and devices.”

Annie Granatstein, now the former head of WP BrandStudio, explains that the story, the opioid epidemic, dictated the audience targeting and storytelling tactic.

Granatstein says:

“Applying our signature data-driven approach, we looked at three insights to inform our storytelling for Optum:

  1. Cultural Insight: The country is in crisis — every 13 minutes, someone dies from an overdose;
  2. Editorial Insight: The Washington Post audience is trying to make sense of it — Stories on the opioid epidemic in The Washington Post garnered hundreds of thousands of page views during the past year; and
  3. Brand Insight: Optum wanted to raise awareness for the need and ability to use evidence-based approach to fighting the opioid epidemic

These insights led us to determine that a multimedia investigative feature that reflected Optum’s evidence-based approach would be of great interest to our audience. With that in mind, we covered the epidemic incorporating educational elements about the causes and tolls, interwoven with emotional, personal stories.”

Going Forward

Asked what Optum plans to do with WP BrandStudio and content marketing, going forward, Hovelsrud says:

“We have had success with sponsored content programs over the last several years and expect to continue to make sponsored content part of our media mix. WP BrandStudio has been a trusted partner — exceeding goals, delivering our target audience, and offering successful execution and storytelling. They are a partner we hope to continue to work with to meet our goals.”

Heather Fletcher is a freelance reporter for Adweek. She covers performance and direct marketing.