case study

Take Us to A Better Place: A Culture of Health Captured in Fiction



Why is it we can easily remember the novel we read last summer but can’t recall the white paper we came across last week? This question plagued the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneer team, which is charged with harnessing emerging trends and exploring unconventional approaches to improving health, equity and well-being.  

On Jan. 21, the Foundation published its first-ever book of fiction, Take Us to a Better Place, a collection of 10 short stories touching on topics as wide-ranging as health care, immigration, cultural identity and gentrification that illuminate the complex forces that shape our health. By using the power of fiction, RWJF hopes the book will help readers imagine possible pathways to a Culture of Health—that “better place” found in the title of the collection.  

Our challenge was to get people to download the e-book and audiobook, and to use the stories to spur new thinking and conversations in their communities about what it will take to actually build a Culture of Health so everyone has the opportunity to live a healthy life.  

Our Approach 

The Foundation hired a production company to commission the stories and accompanying artwork, with an intentional focus on diverse voices, a mix of emerging and more established authors, and writers who spanned different genres including science fiction and graphic novels. Burness was involved as a thought partner and strategic advisor throughout this process.   

When the book was published, we were charged with leading the marketing of the book. Using the Foundation’s communications channels, Burness widely promoted the book to its followers—with the first challenge being how to frame this project as coming from an organization better known for its evidence-based work. We connected with strategic partners, including TEDMED, to help spread the word, and worked with a publicist to engage the authors in sharing the book with their fanbases. We also devised and implemented a paid advertising campaign on Facebook in both English and Spanish. Finally, we created a conversation guide for each story to help spark the organic “book club” discussions RWJF sought.  

In the coming months, we’ll be supporting additional activities around the book including a series of booklet discussions. 

Results & Impact 

Thousands of people downloaded the e-book and audiobook in its first month, along with its companion conversation guide. On its second day of release, the e-book reached number one on Amazon’s Best Sellers list of free Science Fiction Anthologies and inched toward the Top 100 free e-books on the Kindle Store, coming in at number 256. Social media conversation included reader reviews on the leading book site Goodreads and tweets from authors, including Roxane Gay (more than 789,000 followers), Martha Wells (more than 15,000 followers) and other leading fiction voices such as Neil Gaiman (more than 2.8 million followers). The social media ads performed well, accumulating an average CTR of 2.45% (more than double the industry average of 0.90%) with a low cost per click of $0.27 (compared to an industry average of $1.72). The campaign also generated high engagement. 

The book and conversation guide can be downloaded at

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