Doctors may be late to the game when it comes to using social media as part of a marketing strategy.
And for good reason: physicians are, by their very nature, risk averse.
Social media, though it has been around for almost two decades, is still something of a Wild West frontier in many ways.
However, it's now an ingrained part of the social tableau, making it more critical than ever for doctors to start learning the ropes in the world of social networking if they are to compete for medical marketing space online.
How to master social media as a healthcare professional may be an additional challenge to the busy practice, as well. Knowing how you can benefit, what you should avoid, and how you might go about building a social media presence is well worth the time invested, as its benefits to the medical marketing strategy are considerable.
Using social media as part of your medical marketing strategy: Pros
Social media is most commonly defined as those stations on the internet where people congregate to socialize.
The top four include Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Google+, though there are infinitely more social networks to be found out there, and many that have risen and fallen over time (such as MySpace).
Being present in the social media landscape as a medical practice can mean any of the following:
hosting a group in Facebook
having a LinkedIn page
posting tweets in Twitter
leading a circle (community) in Google+
Which among these you choose to use (and how many) is a discussion for a separate blog post, but in all cases, your presence can lead to the following advantages for your medical practice.
If you have a compelling presence in any of these social media locations, you can expect, over time, to develop a reputation as someone who is a leader in the field, an expert in your niche. This bodes well for you because you:
can eventually attract more new patients to your practice,
you may be able to cast a wider professional net among your peers, and
any specific areas you specialize in may become "space" that you "own" on the web, based sheerly on the levels of social media shares and likes you receive over time.
In urban areas, there are literally thousands of doctors to compete against for new patients.
When people have new health concerns and their current healthcare providers are not able to provide them with the care they need, the first place they look for help may not be through a referral from their primary care physician, but through a search online, guided by their insurance company's "in network" listings.
Even when their own physicians give them some options for referrals, patients will visit the internet, plug in those names, and see what they find.
The doctors who have practices with well-kept, easy-to-navigate websites are always going to be more appealing to them than those MDs who may not have a website at all, or a sketchy presence, at best.
Not only is local visibility important, but for some, establishing yourself as a thought leader can also lead to national visibility because of your digital presence.
An example: The Seattle-area sleep health services practice, Sound Sleep Health, was recently contacted by a national newspaper when word got around about an unusual case involving an Ambien hallucination that led to a major response by local medical units. Had the sleep specialist not had a website, the journalist covering the story could just as easily have sought out a hospital-based sleep lab for a quote, but because Sound Sleep Health had a prominent web presence, they were first on their "source list."
The opportunity to humanize your practice
It's no secret that patients seem to have lost faith and trust in the healthcare system. It doesn't help that the new requirements of the Affordable Care Act require a level of bureaucracy that leaves them feeling dehumanized, thanks to the foibles of instituting and maintaining new EHR systems.
However, if you have a website and a blog, your medical practice can rein in some of the angst that patients have when they must deal with medical concerns. Your pages, if designed to be easy to read and understand, should also show a welcoming, personal side to your practice. Images and text that support your brand can go a long way to make potential new patients more comfortable with healthcare in general, but with your suite of services, in particular.
Of special importance is the medical practice blog. If updated regularly and written in a conversational style, its content will have greater currency. As such, social sharing across social media platforms can mean your reach expands to many thousands of potential patients as well as established ones who, upon seeing your content, may feel even more secure in their decision to receive care from you.
Websites are generally "static" and do not have updated content that search engines look for when updating their page rankings. Blogs, on the other hand, keep your presence fresh and alive on the internet and make it possible for viral activity surrounding your content to take root.
Using social media as part of your medical marketing strategy: Cons
As with any kind of effort to market your medical practice, there are inherent risks and problems that need to be addressed. Here are three key challenges to using social media as part of your medical marketing strategy.
- Your presence risks being too generalized to be meaningful. Just having a Facebook page is not going to be enough. You will need to populate that page with content and images that stimulate your readers' curiosity or help them to feel like you are there to help them.
Make sure your social media presence is complete (usually, the sites themselves prompt you to add certain elements to help you do so).
Make sure you crosspost your blog and Twitter content to your other social locations, and don't forget to answer questions and acknowledge comments from readers addressed to you (or remove spammy posts).
Otherwise, you might be viewed as a one-sided space that has no real interest in interaction with its followers.
- You still have to address privacy concerns. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) has specific rules for what privacy is and how important it is for all healthcare workers to follow these rules. This means that, among other things, you should never share any kind of information that could identify patients in your social media posts. Ever.
Here's a great discussion about the risks of violating HIPAA standards published a year ago at Healthcare Compliance Pros ("Posting with Caution: The DO’s and DON’Ts of Social Media and HIPAA Compliance"). It includes not only instances that show direct violation of HIPAA regulations, but also the monstrous fines and penalties that could be the result of ignoring them, as well as best practices for managing your social media with grace.
- The vagaries of human behavior. Most people, whatever field they work in, have some sort of social media account that's for their private use. It's fair to say that we all know how people can behave in social media, and that there are some fascinating behaviors that are unique to social networking that weren't a problem before the advent of the Internet.
You and your employees have likely already experienced a great deal of training for dealing with problematic patients (and their families or advocates). Many of the same rules apply when it comes to unruly behavior online.
If you happen to have a more active social media presence than other practices might (for instance, those who specialize in sports medicine might see a bump in their traffic during the two weeks of the Olympics), the odds increase that you'll have to suffer the negative, sometimes politicized comments, of people who are reacting to news items or sharing their alternative experiences in challenge to your more conventional approaches.
Having a social media policy for how to deal with flame wars, trolls, catfishing, spambots, hackers, cyber rage, digital conspiracy theory, clickbait, and other aspects that represent the dark side of the web can come in very handy.
Using social media as part of your medical marketing strategy: Considerations
Beyond the rewards and the risks are these other areas you should give some thought to if you decide to fully develop a social media presence.
Build a social media team
Social media management takes a lot of focus, discipline, and time. Hire someone who can be dedicated to setting up, maintaining, and upgrade your social media pages. This could be your medical practice blogger or could be a small team of experts. Make sure they are well versed in social media usage and belong to active internal groups that serve the needs of page holders, group admins, microblogging accounts, and the like.
Set up automated delivery of fresh content
There are numerous tools that can help you automatically send your new blog content out to all your social media locations as soon as it is published. There are also services that help you to schedule microblogs ("tweets") and URL shares in advance so your prescheduled blog content will also be automatically crossposted by these means.
Embrace change and be an early adopter
Social media platforms (especially Facebook) can make a lot of dynamic internal changes. Staying on top of these can prevent confusion and misunderstanding down the road.
Also, these changes often come with useful improvements, such as automated newsletter sign-up links embedded in your pages and other options you can activate at will. It doesn't hurt to try a new feature if you think it might help your readers (and your practice). You can usually opt out if it's not working.
Generally speaking, however, being an early adopter—though it may result in some occasional mistakes or flops—more often than not pays off for healthcare professionals who are set to embrace the rapid pace of change that the digital timeline brings.
Some options cost money
Social media is a free experience for casual users. For business users, there are other options that may cost a small investment.
Facebook advertising, for instance, costs money, though the rewards that come of hyper-targeted marketing often far outweigh the initial investment. Paying to upgrade your LinkedIn account may also be a boost for your business.
Consider all upgrades carefully; if, after you research their pros and cons, they don't seem to offer you value, then go ahead and decline. But don't discount paying for certain kinds of social media services or upgrades.
If all your peers are doing so, it might be an indication that these healthcare marketing options hold valuable advantages you'll also want on board.
The world of social media is vast and growing by the nanosecond. Now's the best time for a medical practice to invest in all that social networking can offer as part of its inbound marketing strategy. Patients need to find your services, after all, and social media is one of the most affordable and direct ways for your medical practice to connect with them.
Leveraging your social media presence, with your blog and other aspects of content marketing, for your medical practice may be more complex than you expected. Why not check out our Inbound Medical Marketing Handbook (below) to help make sense of it all?