For hospitals, social marketing may be just what the doctor ordered

Watch out for unexpected side effects.

Of the 5,754 registered hospitals in the U.S., only 1,129 — a little over one in five — actively use social media, according to an April 10 report.

More should.

Because many of social marketing’s weaknesses are strengths for the healthcare industry.

Time’s not of the essence

The problem with social marketing for most advertisers is that it works s-l-o-w-l-y. It can take months to build an audience of followers, to establish a dialog, to convert passive liking into active choice.

If you’re trying to get consumers to come in and buy now, that’s frustrating at best and wasteful at worst. But not for hospitals. Hospital admission is not something anyone can build demand for. You go to the hospital because you need to, not because you want to — when you’re sick, when you’re pregnant, when you’ve been injured in an accident, when you need an MRI or some other heavy-duty form of lab work.

All the advertising in the world can’t make a healthy person want to go to a hospital.

But that’s okay, because no one’s in a hurry to. There’s plenty of time for the kind of reputation management that social media can excel at to make people who’ll become sick or injured one day feel better about the hospital they have to go to.

Acceptance, not preference

Most advertising, regardless of medium, works to get target audiences to choose the brand being advertised. With hospitals, they often can’t; their health insurer does it for them.

Here in Richmond, for example, only Bon Secours hospitals were in the Optima medicare PPO’s system. If you needed to go to MCV or wanted to go to Henrico Doctors Hospital, there’d be a big cash penalty.

It’s hard, if not impossible, to build a strong enough preference to overcome that. But it’s much easier to build acceptance among patients who have to come to your hospital and help them feel reassured, in advance, about being there.

Made to order

Some 87% of hospitals that do social marketing use Facebook pages, encouraging potential patients to “like” them. This plays directly to a strength of social marketing.

Seventy-seven percent use Foursquare, where consumers can “check in” and read what other people have to say about the hospital. This plays directly to a strength of Internet use — consumers’ ability to check others’ opinions and ratings before they buy.

Two-thirds use Twitter, for the timeliness other social applications can’t offer — announcing anything from job openings to wellness events and timely health information (e.g., flu shots in November) to clinical trial recruitment.

Side effects may include…

But like many things in the medical world, there can be side effects.

On the inbound side, social media provide excellent soapboxes for patients who feel mistreated to air their grievances.

On the outbound side, there’s the risk of breaching privacy or security. Someone on the staff could indvertently or, even worse, imappropriately share confidential information — and repercussions from that can be even worse than disgruntled patient comments.

Prevention is the best cure

That’s why it’s important for hospitals using social media to carefully monitor what’s being said on their pages and their accounts and vital to have a specific social media management policy in place.

Unfortunately, according to PowerDMS, most don’t.

Only 31% of hospitals using social media have a specific management policy, while 45% have no policy at all.

So it’s hardly surprising that while 24% of hospitals surveyed had to discipline an employee for social media behavior, nearly twice as many — 42% — did just three years later.

Use as directed

Here are five simple guidlines that hospitals should make integral parts of their social media management policy:

  1. Be responsible — Take responsibility for what you post, and always use good judgment and common sense.
  2. Be accountable — Employees post more responsibly when they have to include their own names and job titles.
  3. Respect your audience — They’re your patients, your present or future colleagues, your vendors, so alienate them at your peril.
  4. Respect copyrights and fair use — And when you’re making fair use of someone else’s content, give attribution (and links, if possible).
  5. Be transparent but not too transparent — Transparency plays an important role in building the kind of mutually supportive community that social media seem to be designed for. But being transparent doesn’t mean baring all. Make sure employees know how to protect confidential, private and proprietary information.

So if you’re a healthcare provider actively using social marketing, better get those specific guidelines in place and enforce them, to make sure your social marketing does no harm. That way, if you do have problems, at least they won’t be iatrogenic.