Engaging Today's Healthcare Consumer: The Opportunities, Challenges and Dangers of Using Social Networking and Social Media to Market Your Practice.

Everybody's doing it. Wherever you turn today, you hear something about social media. For health care organizations, it is evolving into a powerful marketing tactic. It must, however, be a strategic part of your overall marketing plan, and you need to define your goals for integrating social media into your practice:

  • Are you trying to increase overall brand awareness?
  • Do you want to build or strengthen loyalty/retention with current patients/ customers?
  • Are you trying to generate buzz about something new?
  • Do you have a product or service you want to sell?
  • Are you trying to cross-market services to your existing customer base?

If executed properly, social media's impact speaks for itself, and success stories abound. Aurora Health live-tweeted during a knee replacement surgery and subsequently 20 patients inquired about knee surgery--14 of whom actually had the surgery performed. However, like any tactic, social media is not the be all and end all, and you need to think before you leap. Social media has its own unique challenges, and if not executed properly, it can turn into wasted resources or even backfire on you.

What is social media?

Social media is a neighborhood party, and the neighborhood is global. It is an informal style of online communication, and it offers the tools that transform content consumers into content producers. Why are healthcare consumers attracted to social media? The simple answer: other consumers. Patients today want to research others' opinions. They want emotional support, to share their knowledge and experiences, and to feel they are part of a community that has similar concerns or interests.

Who is using social media?

It's widely known that women make most healthcare decisions. What isn't as widely known or practiced is that social media is one of the most effective ways to reach them. Here's why:

  • Forty-two million U.S. women participate in social media at least weekly
  • Seventy-three percent of online women are active in social media
  • Seventy-nine percent of online women research products and services
  • Baby boomer women are the largest and fastest growing online segment

In our society, people trust people like me? more than they trust authority figures or advertising. We all know the power of a word-of-mouth referral. That is nothing new.

Start small but move boldly

The world of social media can easily be overwhelming, so take baby steps. Video is a great place to begin. Incorporate it into your current Web site, and be sure to format it properly and add links to the key social media sites, so people can easily share your videos with others. Create brief video bios on your physicians, shoot patient testimonials, highlight your community involvement and provide medical minutes highlighting preventive health tips as well as the latest treatments, technologies and research in your field. Executed correctly, video presents doctors as real people, patients as satisfied customers and your practice as a caring member of the community.

Another great place to start is to begin a blog. Share the latest updates in your field along with news about your practice, post preventive health tips and address frequently asked questions. Keep it brief, timely and conversational, and once again post links on the key social media sites. The "big four" include Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube. To boil them down to the most basic of terms: Facebook is where friends meet, Twitter is where thoughts are shared (in 140 characters or less!), LinkedIn is where professionals meet, and YouTube is where videos are shared.

Addressing the dangers of social media

1. Commit. Don't start what you can't finish. Too many organizations jump into social media, initially investing great amounts of energy and resources, and then once they realize the ongoing commitment of time and energy required, they fizzle out. If you are going to do social media, ensure you have someone within your organization that is accountable and committed to making it work for you long-term.

2. Invite participation. Just because you build it does not mean they will come. Find ways within your practice to let patients know about your social media presence and encourage them to engage. Sure, you can invite them to join you by e-mail (assuming you are asking for and collecting e-mail addresses), but also post signs/flyers in your waiting room and patient exam rooms letting folks know about your site(s). And empower your staff to let patients know, especially at check-in or check-out.

3. Engage. Don't be a loudspeaker. If you only use social media to push out your message, you are missing the whole power of this tool. Those engaged in "following" you will quickly become turned off. Yes, you can give updates and share news (having a blog and posting links to new posts is a great way to feed your followers), but also be sure to ask questions and start conversations. Ask your followers what they think. Find out what they feel about, want from and value about you. Get them talking about you. And be sure to listen and deliver the information they want (and yes, there are ways to do this without crossing the line of providing medical advice online). That is the power.

4. Track. When it comes to tracking, there are a number of tools and sites out there to help you monitor online conversations and also measure your social media impact. Some to explore include Google Alerts, Google Reader, Twitter, TweetBeep, Trackur and RSS Feeds. Benchmarks include traffic increases to your Web site, changes in your Google search rankings, referral links, blog mentions, video views, embeds, comments, fans/ followers/friends and tweets/messages/mentions.

5. Monitor and respond. Perhaps the greatest fear and danger medical practices have about social media is that they can't completely control what people say. However, what we too often forget is that this is the case with any conversation - - whether in person or online. With social media, you can, however, monitor and influence conversation and react quickly, which is why you should become involved. Those conversations are out there whether you are a part of them or not. And on your own Web site, you have the homefield advantage. You can moderate comments and also proactively set social community standards.

Protect yourself

While testimonials and endorsements can be one of your most powerful social media tools, you must stay within Federal Trade Commission (FTC ) guidelines. The FTC issued new rules and recommendations last year. There are a few simple ways to abide by these rules:

  • Don't hire paid endorsers
  • Only feature actual patients
  • Be sure to have patients who provide testimonials sign a properly crafted Authorization for the Use and Disclosure of Individually Identifiable Health Information form (your attorney should be able to assist you in crafting a legally sound one)
  • Don't compensate patients in any way
  • Have patients tell their stories in their own words; ask questions rather than writing a script? Add a clear, concise disclaimer at the beginning or end of each testimonial
  • Be honest and open; clearly identify the patient by name and avoid partial disclosure or misrepresentation of facts

Other rules you should check and abide by include your individual state Board of Medicine, HIPAA and your own professional liability policy. Florida board-certified health law attorney Michael R. Lowe, Esq. has a few other tips. "Use HIPAA compliant procedures for secure transmissions and/or encryption for any online communication," said Mr. Lowe. "And don't give medical advice, consultation, care or treatment via your social media channels." Mr. Lowe also recommends developing a written policy and procedure for your practice and physicians on the use of social media and communication with patients.

The bottom line

Used strategically and appropriately, social media can be a powerful new tool to amplify your voice and your message.

Start by:

  • Monitoring what people are saying about you
  • Responding to all mentions of your brand
  • Claiming your Twitter and Facebook names
  • Creating a small content creation budget
  • Engaging your employees in a basic social media strategy
  • Creating a Facebook page and Twitter account
  • Creating video physician bios and patient testimonials
  • Starting a blog and linking your posts on Facebook and Twitter
  • Starting a YouTube Channel

When it comes to social media, don't stick your head in the sand. It isn't going away, and savvy healthcare institutions are already reaping its rewards. At the same time, don't plunge in full force. Stick your toes in the waters. Start slowly, refine, be patient and evolve. The opportunity to move forward is now.