No More Excuses: Why You Must Include Social Media in Your Hospital's Marketing Strategy

Over the years, social media has been described as everything from a marketing imperative to a shiny object with no proven return. The truth is, social media has the potential to be both. But like every other media format employed by marketers, it must be backed by a clear strategy for its usage and a strong methodology for measuring its effectiveness.

First, let's talk strategy. Arthur Sturm, Jr., president of SRK, a Chicago-based healthcare consulting firm, brings tremendous clarity to healthcare marketing when he divides all activities into a four-slice strategic pie: growth, loyalty, branding and physician engagement. To some extent, social media can be a critical tool contributing to each of these elements of an effective marketing strategy.

Now let's turn to the magic word — effective. One of the biggest questions I get about using social media is, "How do I know it's effective?" The good news is there are thousands of metrics available to measure almost every aspect of social media. But it's also tricky because all those measurements could send you tumbling deep into a rabbit hole. That's why you need to marry the right strategy with the right metric. Here are some examples.

Social media and market growth
Attracting new customers through social media can be both interesting and effective. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter can be deployed to drive users to a landing page where they can sign up for a newsletter, reserve a spot at an event or some other interaction that will secure their contact information or result in an appointment. For our breast health campaign at St. Joseph Health, we included posts on our Facebook timeline that directed women to a landing page for securing a mammogram appointment. Other quick tactics include posting a QR code on Facebook or a blog that drives users to sign up for a compelling offer.

Metrics: Use Google Analytics tools to track referrals you're getting from social media sites to your landing page. You can track the effectiveness of your social media program this way and, even better, if users are signing up for a service like a mammogram, you have a strong indication of your social media effort's conversion power.

Building fans through social media loyalty tactics

Social media is perfect for interacting with your publics on a regular basis; over time, this kind of interaction builds loyalty. In order to be effective, you have to reward your fans and make the proposal interesting. Sherman Health in Illinois built strong fans by rewarding men who posted Facebook pictures of the mustaches they grew in support of prostate cancer awareness. 

Of course, the reward does not have to be an actual prize. It can be an exclusive invitation to a seminar. Or, you can often build loyalty just by offering something as valuable as knowledge that can't be accessed elsewhere.

Metrics: Easy loyalty measurements include number of comments and interactions, sign ups on social media sites, and the number of friends and followers. Individually, none of these items are enough to indicate lifetime loyalty, but looking at them collectively provides insights into where you can find your most loyal customers and the effectiveness of your efforts.

The number of people who are willing to be viral messengers for your organization is perhaps the most telling indication of loyalty. Users who re-tweet or share posts are not only showing their support, but also being very cost-effective brand managers (which leads to the next section).

Social media and reputation management
Social media can do wonders or extensive damage to a brand's reputation. There are several basic steps to ensuring you remain on the "wondrous" side of the equation. For starters, make sure you have a strong, consistent voice and provide meaningful content that is not boastful or one-sided. Too often, healthcare organizations believe they can use social media to post self-congratulatory press releases. You can do that every once in a while, but take a look at the Facebook content generated by Boston Children’s Hospital, which posts pieces about patients, blogs from physicians and pediatric health tips. In fact, the exchange of comments is so upbeat, Boston Children's makes use of the new Facebook tool that allows users to post recommendations for their programs or services.

Metrics: First, look at the comments. Are people generating positive comments on social media, especially blogs?

Then, explore ratings such as PeerIndex or Klout which measure your effectiveness in directing opinion on social media. Klout primarily uses Twitter and Facebook along with over 35 different variables to determine your score, which is an integration of true reach (extent of your audience, exclusive of spam accounts), amplification probability (your audience's response to your messaging) and network influence (your engagement with social media influencers).

Social media and physician engagement
Just a few years ago, very few marketers would have proposed using social media to engage with physicians. However, a May 2011 report from Manhattan Research shows 81 percent of physicians use smart phones, and according to an August 2011 survey by QuantiaMD, nearly 90 percent of physicians reported that they used at least one social media site personally. At St. Joseph Health, we've been transitioning away from the paper medical staff bulletin for communicating with doctors and have created a Smartphone "app" that provides updates from the health system as well as links to databases often used by our medical staff. Some hospitals have even started recruiting physicians via social media with some success.

Metrics: To measure social media's success in physician engagement, track response to physician-focused campaigns (recruitment efforts, for example), usage of physician-oriented communications tools (St. Joseph assiduously tracks App usage) and physician comments. It's also a good idea to establish a user group of tech-inclined physicians who can offer valuable suggestions for continual improvement.

Although some healthcare organizations have chosen to slowly embrace social media, claiming, "There is no clear way to measure its effectiveness," "It doesn’t fit our target audience" or "It's not appropriate for healthcare," these arguments are rapidly losing steam. Social media is as much a part of the healthcare marketer's toolbox as traditional media. And there is little doubt it will overshadow many traditional tactics in the very near future.

Susan Solomon is vice president of marketing and public relations for St. Joseph Health, a 14-hospital health system serving California, West Texas and Eastern New Mexico. She has worked in healthcare marketing for more than 20 years, teaches at three Southern California universities and is a Fulbright scholar.

More Articles on Healthcare and Social Media:

Who's Viewing Your Hospital's Social Media Page — And Why?
10 Ways Hospitals Can Become More "Consumer-Friendly"
Going "Social": Monitoring and Addressing HIPAA violations on Social Media

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