Eight Tips for Using Social Networking in the Health Care Industry
As marketers, we know that social networking is more than just a buzzword. It's a revolution that, although in its infancy, already is affecting our world. For the first time ever, consumers literally can be connected to a community of their peers at the click of a mouse.
In health care terms, this means consumers, patients and medical experts can reach out globally and share information with a community about a particular disease state [the kind of disease that someone has and the specific drug or therapy that is used for it], its symptoms and side effects - no matter how small and fragmented that community might be. In addition, because individuals feel relatively anonymous on the Web, they feel more liberated to share details of their patient journey with the community. What was once a private, personal health issue now can be an open, shared experience.
According to results of a nationwide survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, eight in 10 U.S. Internet users - or approximately 113 million adults - go online for health information. The opportunity for health care marketers is great: Through social networking, we can help improve a patient's education and possibly lead them to a journey of better health, which can drive greater trust and loyalty in our brands and help us reach a new community of consumers/patients with credibility and influence. For global brands, there also is the opportunity to understand trends and hot topics regionally and apply regional learnings for patient acquisition and retention globally.
Ultimately, the question for most health care marketers today is not why, but how. There still are many concerns about how to leverage these participatory channels within legal and regulatory guidelines while delivering high-quality, accurate information to our audiences and driving consumers to product. While health care companies still are trying to figure out exactly how social networking can fit into the marketing plan, there are steps we can take today as we test the waters. Here are eight tips to consider:
1. Monitor, plan, participate. To stay current with social networking, get out of the office, go to industry meetings, network with your own peers, keep an eye on how other industries are leveraging social networking, ask family and friends (particularly younger generations) how they use it, become a user of it as well. Work with management and your regulatory, legal and marketing teams to brainstorm ways you can embrace social networking while also mitigating its challenges.
2. Search is king. According to the Pew Internet survey results, the typical search for health information starts with a search engine, includes multiple sites and often is performed by family, friend or caregiver. Thus, search should be a significant component in your marketing strategy. It also needs to be active. Because market dynamics are constantly changing and because there often are new competitors - and perhaps competition that is not on your horizon yet - search programs should be reviewed and adjusted monthly or quarterly. Stay tuned in to social computing efforts of associations, third-party content providers and patients. You could learn new terms and phrases that can improve your search efforts. Search also can be used as a strategy to help you deliver high-quality, accurate information to patients who might be receiving information that is biased or inaccurate from peers in their community.
3. Sponsor blogs. For health care companies, blogs are still a hot potato. Clearly, they work well in a closed community or user group. But healthcare providers - from manufacturers to agencies - still struggle with how to enter into a public discussion about disease states and appropriately manage adverse comments and negative advertising. One place blogging is being leveraged effectively in health care is for scientific inquiry, discovery and ongoing research collaboration, and the exchange of ideas and innovation.
4. Participate in wikis. Peer-edited sites like Wikipedia often come up in the top 10 - and many times in the golden top three - results for health care searches online. Make sure the disease state being discussed is appropriately represented on a peer-edited site, such as Wikipedia. Connect your product/treatment to the appropriate disease state. Be careful to remain completely factual, as the goal is to simply inform the reader (who most likely is recently diagnosed) about a disease state and possible treatments.
5. Ramp up your e-mail/relationship marketing programs. Allowing patients to opt-in to an e-mail communication program might be a baby step toward social marketing, but it can be very effective in creating conversations, building communities and driving them to therapy. Allow patients to choose their preferences in content, frequency and format. Create chat-back channels such as polls, surveys, feedback and discussion boards. Incorporate video and audio to help humanize the experience. Build a dashboard that allows you to analyze open rates, click-throughs, opt-ins, etc. Ongoing measurement will help you understand and build out content most valued by readers and will foster continuous improvement in the program as a whole.
6. Add video and audio webcasts and downloadable podcasts. Video and audio podcasts can provide a human touch to your company or product/service - they provide a connection to real people talking about disease state and symptom management. They beef up search marketing. And they can provide a high level of audience interaction through Q&A, surveys and polling.
7. Incorporate RSS. RSS, or Really Simple Syndication, allows your readers to sign up to automatically receive the content updates in which they might be interested. If a reader wants to stay up to date with information on a clinical trial, he can subscribe to an RSS feed that automatically will send him content every time it's updated. Consider the opportunity to deliver value to your field force by allowing them to receive important content updates from headquarters. RSS also might be a tactic to help you stay top of mind with key opinion leaders.
8. Engage the caregiver. A typical search for health information often is undertaken by other influencers in the community - a patient's family and friends, for example. They are an important part of spreading the word. Try to include content that reaches, engages and supports them.
In the end, health care companies are well positioned to benefit from social networking. Patients are more voracious than ever for access to high-quality health care information. As health care providers, we have an opportunity to respectfully provide quality education and support that can help a patient find a path to better health. Ultimately, this can help us extend the reach and influence of our brand, while we remain a valued partner in health care excellence.