Hospitals Make Slow Progress in Harnessing the 'Social' Aspects of Social Media

by Cynthia Schaal


The buzz term in the marketing industry (and beyond) this year has been social media. While interest in these novel online platforms has been growing rapidly, to date only approximately 10% of hospitals and health systems maintain some form of social media presence.

The most popular social media adopted by hospitals are Twitter accounts, Facebook pages, YouTube channels and blogs. Though still in a nascent and experimental stage, social media efforts among health care providers reflect the struggle many face in maximizing the "social" aspects that these new channels enable.

Practical Applications Abound; Few Maximize 'Social' Aspect

Hospitals' current social media activities can be classified across to five major areas:

  • Brand management: Social media provides insight into ongoing conversations regarding a hospital name or brand (or any other search phrase) in these online communities.  For some institutions, simply monitoring these conversations -- through various social media tracking tools such as Technorati™ or Social Mention -- is enough.  Others take it a step further and actively engage in conversations upon mention of their brand, which can be particularly powerful service recovery mechanisms.
  • Real-time public relations: Online communication -- in particular, social media applications like Twitter -- has greatly accelerated information sharing, heightening the need for PR staff to quickly disseminate news and rapidly respond to crises.  At the same time, these platforms have also created communication channels for PR staff to forge deeper relationships with media outlets and play a larger role in shaping the news.
  • Volume generation: This broad category encompasses a variety of efforts to rapidly and virally promote hospital events or service offerings, in order to drive volumes and generate revenue. At its simplest, this category is about informing community members of a screening opportunity at an upcoming health fair; at the opposite end of the spectrum are elaborate efforts, such as "tweeting" a knee surgery in real time.
  • Non-marketing functions: These include discrete, tangible uses such as fundraising or employee and physician recruitment.  Another appeal of social media is that it enables hospital staff to target communications to specific populations -- such as potential donors or employees -- which these uses capitalize on.
  • Community building: Social media platforms can generate conversations or build a group of community members -- ideally potential or existing patients. 

As descriptions of these current uses reveal, only a small amount of hospital activity in the social media space could be described as "social."  Rather, the majority of these efforts are either one-way "monologues" or bounded two-way conversations with little staying power. 

'Twitter Audit' Reveals Lack of Online Dialogue

A closer look at a small sample of hospital Twitter feeds provided further evidence of this lack of interaction in social media channels. The Advisory Board Company's Marketing and Planning Leadership Council conducted an audit of 25 hospital Twitter accounts, chosen at random, across a two-week period (July 15 to July 30). The accounts represented five different types of institutions: 

  • Children's hospitals;
  • Corporate health system accounts;
  • Hospitals within a health system;
  • Independent hospitals; and
  • Specialty hospitals.

Each tweet was categorized into one of 12 distinct categories; the top three categories were:

  • Health education/information (31.1%);
  • Retweets (16.5%); and
  • Event promotion (13%). 

In contrast, interactions -- which we defined as responding to other posts or extending gratitude to particular individuals -- constituted only 6% of posts. 

Tactics for Achieving 'Socialness'

However, the audit also revealed one institution in the sample where approximately 20% of tweets classified as "interactions." These active, two-way conversations represent the ideal use of the unique nature of social media -- and can be difficult to cultivate and achieve. 

Our researchers' direct follow-up with the social media managers at that organization revealed three key factors to creating a more interactive social media presence:

  • Community-focused approach: Recognizing that individuals typically interact with a hospital only on an as-needed basis, this institution decided to develop more community-focused social media efforts. For example, the subject of tweets often spotlights local events and issues. This not only allows them to position the hospital as an integral part of the community through the social media space, but also creates broader appeal for potential "fans" or "followers."
  • First-person perspective: By authoring posts in a first-person perspective, hospital staff are ensuring that fans or followers know that they have a direct line of communication with an actual hospital employee.  In contrast, other hospital accounts are written like traditional press releases, or may even be automated posts, lessening their appeal to online viewers.
  • Proactive engagement: This institution has also proactively reached out through their social media accounts to other corporate accounts and individuals in their geographic region -- identified through search functions on the individual platforms -- to create interactions.  In contrast, the majority of other hospital administrators maintaining social media accounts take a passive approach in the space.

Defining Uses for Social Media Just One Step

Determining which use is appropriate for a particular institution -- whether it is a reactive brand management approach or the creation of an online, interactive community -- is the first critical component of developing a social media strategy.

Identifying the right platform, setting goals, establishing success metrics, incorporating tools to streamline execution, and assigning accountability are other major issues to resolve. Perhaps the key step for most hospitals now, however, is to simply get started.

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