Social media do’s and don’ts for providers
Everybody’s doing it.
As parents, we tell our children not to blindly follow the popular crowd. But when it comes to using social media, could it negatively impact your bottom line if you don’t jump on the bandwagon?
The quick answer is quite possibly. The caveat, however, is that social media must be done right or it can easily become more hindrance than help.
Medical News recently had the opportunity to chat with Tim Strickland and Kriste Goad, communications specialists with two of the nation’s top 15 healthcare public relations firms as ranked by O’Dwyer’s, a PR trade publication.
Strickland is a senior executive advisor with Jarrard Phillips Cate & Hancock, which ranked 14th in the nation on the O’Dwyer’s 2011 list. The firm managed communications for 20 percent of the 90 mergers and acquisitions that occurred in the hospital industry last year. Goad is senior vice president and chief marketing officer for ReviveHealth, which ranked 11th last year. The award-winning agency focuses solely on healthcare communications for clients that include hospitals, health systems, physicians, health technology and services companies, and a variety of other health and wellness organizations.
How It Works & Why
“Social media creates many-to-many relationships that can open new doors of opportunity in almost any healthcare organization, all the way down to a doctor’s or dentist’s office,” said Goad. “It works really well when it’s incorporated as part of a larger, multi-channel strategy to connect with consumers.”
She noted a recent PricewaterhouseCoopers survey found that 32 percent of consumers have used social media for healthcare purposes. Intuitively, those numbers are expected to only increase as the current generation of adolescents and children, who are so connected to the digital world, grow into healthcare-purchasing adults.
“Healthcare is moving into the consumer age,” pointed out Goad, “and consumers will increasingly look online and to social media channels for information that they can trust to make decisions about where they spend their healthcare dollars and which doctor or hospital they choose. Organizations, especially providers, that embrace social media and use it with purpose to drive better outcomes and provide transparency will win consumer trust … and, as a result, encourage loyalty to your practice or to your organization.”
Engaging the Audience
One of the biggest perks of social media is the ability to truly engage an audience through two-way communications. “People used to say ‘content is king,’” noted Strickland. “Now people are beginning to understand content is not king … audience is king. Content is a tool to help produce audience, and audience doesn’t settle for just any content.”
The good news for providers is that they typically have a message audiences want to hear … namely how to live healthier lives. Goad said social media channels from Twitter to Facebook to YouTube are ideal for health education and awareness.
“There have been any number of surveys that show people most trust their doctors or their hospitals for healthcare information so there’s a real opportunity to translate that trust across social media channels,” she noted.
Strickland, who previously worked in corporate communications for Onslow Memorial Hospital in Jacksonville, N.C., agreed, saying, “They (members of the community) look to the hospital to be a source of healthcare information that is reliable. Social media will be effective if used to provide information that is of, by, and for the communities those hospitals serve.” Strickland noted the same is true for other community providers and healthcare facilities.
“More people than ever in healthcare are realizing the power that meaningful, digital engagement can have, especially when integrated with traditional advertising,” he said. Strickland added that at Onslow, the hospital made the decision to create social media channels that were all about healthcare news, wellness tips, a mom’s blog and weight loss without ever mentioning the hospital. The information was … and still is … all about the audience and their needs.
“It was amazing what that gesture did to dramatically improve the community’s perception of the hospital’s quality,” Strickland said of findings in a subsequent consumer survey.
Strickland said an easy way to enter the social media world is to create conversations around timely topics such as featuring healthy lunchbox ideas or linking to an article on immunization requirements for back-to-school news this month … as long as you keep the channel open for consumers to engage with their own ideas and comments.
Goad said social media also offers the ability to reach target audiences. “You can dive pretty deeply via Google and Facebook into population segments,” she noted. “You can pretty inexpensively target patient populations to increase awareness or drive patients to the door for a service.”
Strickland agreed, saying it was a great use of social media to create interactive platforms for segmented disease management populations, survivor groups or consumers linked by age or lifestyle issues such as seniors or young moms.
“What makes social media effective is that engagement piece. It’s a two-way street,” said Goad. “If you don’t have someone dedicated to paying attention, you’re not going to get the results you want.” She added that before launching social media channels, provider organizations need to consider who internally or externally will be charged with managing the dialogue and responding to consumers.
“Social media works best when you clearly articulate how employees can participate and who’s primarily responsible for monitoring and responding to whatever social media vehicles you put in place,” explained Goad. “That helps avoid confusion, as well as ensure consistent and persistent attention to your social media followers.”
Strickland said the number of hospitals and providers using social media as one-way communication is declining but still exists. “That is a quick turn-off for the target audience,” he said. Of course, allowing comments includes negative comments. “You’ve got to be willing to admit you’re not perfect,” he said. The upside to that, Strickland continued, is that it allows providers to know what the community is thinking and be able to respond in real time.
“I try to help CEOs realize the dialogue about their organization is already happening in the community. Social media brings that dialogue out in the open so concerns can be addressed and negatives can be turned into positives,” he explained.
An example might be responding to someone who complains online about waiting in the Emergency Room with a sick child. First, Strickland said, it gives the hospital an opportunity to apologize if there was poor service. Then, the facility could use the response post to educate consumers about the triage process and to encourage additional thoughts and ideas on ways to improve the experience.
Strickland added, “I’ve never seen anything stop a negative comment thread faster than a sincere post from a real hospital official who invites further dialogue.”
Returning to Goad’s point of having staff designated to answer quickly, Strickland said a slow response could send the wrong message. “Whether you mean to or not, you convey the message that you don’t care,” he said of letting too much time elapse before addressing negative comments.
While it’s important to have designated staff to post content and respond quickly, Strickland said organizations have to find a balance in how much is posted. “Another common mistake is providing so much volume on your channel that people tune you out … or worse, unsubscribe. Just a few posts a week,” he said was optimal. “Less than one a day for sure. You definitely don’t want to wear out your welcome.”
While social media can be an excellent tool to share content centered on health education and information, it can really backfire if the audience perceives the message as nothing more than an ad for the provider. “Using a social media channel to deliver an unpaid ad doesn’t work. The audience sees right through it,” said Strickland. He stressed, “It doesn’t even have a neutral effect … it has a negative effect.”
Goad concurred, noting that consumer audiences …whether in rural or metropolitan areas … are quite sophisticated when it comes to social media and its content. She said two rules are to always be relevant and authentic. The idea is to encourage conversation around a topic, not to pontificate on a subject.
“A great example would be the (recent) Supreme Court decision. Almost everyone involved in social media was posting. You could quickly see the ones that were self-serving as opposed to engaged in a conversation,” noted Goad.
Another pitfall, she said, is forgetting what you put out is published material. “Sometimes, because social media can seem so personal and informal, we forget to treat it like we would traditional media,” Goad noted. “Here’s a good rule of thumb, if what you post via social media is something you wouldn’t want to see in the newspaper or on TV, then don’t post it.”
Do the Pros Outweigh the Cons?
The public relations experts were vocal in their support of social media done right.
“Social media is the future, and I think any organization who isn’t at least thinking about how to engage in social media is doing themselves a disservice,” said Goad. “If those providers aren’t out there proactively sharing information via social media, they are missing an opportunity, and someone will step in and fill that gap.”
Strickland agreed, “I don’t think providers can afford not to be in social media anymore.” The good news, he continued, is that if you haven’t begun to channel the power of social media, you aren’t alone. “It’s not too late to start. Wherever you are is OK as long as you’re moving in the direction of greater integration and greater interaction.”