Using Social Networking as a Marketing Tool

August 31, 2010

Today doctors are competing for patients in a radically changed marketplace. One of the most important emerging technologies in that space is Internet-based social networking.

Today doctors are competing for patients in a radically changed marketplace. Products and services are introduced to consumers in significantly different ways than those that most of us remember. Now, consumer-patients often learn about new products though electronic channels. And one of the most important emerging technologies in that space is Internet-based social networking. 

Social networking tools allow individuals and organizations to quickly share information over the Internet through a public forum under the control of users - a kind of electronic bulletin board on which they can share information. It differs from simply putting your practice information on your own Web site because an outside organization, such as Facebook, maintains the electronic infrastructure.

From a marketing standpoint, the difference between using social networking and traditional advertising is vast. Advertising is expensive and issues “broadcast” messages - messages that go to a wide range of consumers, many of whom are not interested in your product. Social networking is ¬¬inexpensive and only goes out to those patients who’ve expressed an interest in receiving your messages, and so can be thought of as “narrow-casting.”

The yield from social networking messages is proportionally greater - Internet-marketing gurus refer to this as the “conversion factor” (the proportion of Web viewers who turn into customers). “Spam” messages are the diametric opposite of narrow-casted social networking messages - their yield is virtually zero, but they’re effective (and annoying) because they are broadcast to virtually everyone.

I know what you’re thinking - only teenagers use social networking. Not so. The New York Times reported that the social networking site Twitter is used primarily by young adults, not teenagers. Just 11 percent of Twitter users are aged 12 to 17. Use of social networking tools by people aged 35 to 54 grew 60 percent in the last year. This cohort includes the crucial pre-retirement generation that is central to the preventive health efforts that form the core of primary care’s mission: They are the primary-care physician’s current and future customers.

Two of the fastest-growing social networking tools are Facebook and Twitter. Both can be used to drive Web traffic to your practice’s Web site - which I think every practice should have. I have used this narrow-cast strategy to promote my medical informatics consulting practice and two books I’ve written, with phenomenal results, despite a zero budget for traditional advertising.

There are three elements to a creating a successful social networking strategy:

Set up your own Web site. Use a consultant to properly index your site so that it displays on the first page of Google searches for your local community and uses keywords related to your practice (family medicine, sports medicine, etc.). You can use public-domain tools to help you rotate your Web site’s content - it must change every week or so. I suggest a health-oriented blog.

Establish a Twitter identity. This is very easy and requires no outside consulting. Choose a name that reflects your practice’s identity (or your own) and post daily, at least once, on a health-related topic - you have a 140-character limit. There’s no option for pictures, graphics, or other embellishments, so it’s simple. Put your Twitter URL on your business cards (mine is www.twitter.com/medformatics). You will be surprised at how many local news organizations troll the Twitter feeds for story ideas.

Establish a Facebook identity. Facebook is a more complex social networking tool than Twitter, but simple enough to set up without the help of a consultant. It allows you to include more material, including multiple links to outside health resources.

Studies show that patients have significant interest in contacting their physicians between office visits. While you can easily use social media to share valuable disease-specific information with your followers, remember HIPAA rules prevent you from transmitting patient-specific data or actual healthcare advice over the Internet. It is a good idea to include a specific disclaimer requesting that patients not solicit medical advice over the Web. Also, don’t be tempted to use Internet-based e-mail to communicate with your patients: Creating a patient portal is the better option because it is encrypted and password protected. Finally, never give out your personal e-mail address to patients.

Social networking tools provide a cost-effective way to connect with your patients as a group between office visits. Many physicians will make the mistake of ignoring these emerging information channels, which I believe are vital in helping them compete for business and provide valuable information to their patients.

Jeff Hertzberg, MD, MS, is president of Medformatics, Inc., a Minneapolis-based consulting firm specializing in the design, implementation, and selection of healthcare information systems. He can be reached at jhertz@medformatics.com.