How Facebook fan pages can connect with patients
■ A practical look at information technology issues and usage
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Successful marketing campaigns go where the target audience is. And no matter who you're trying to reach, they're probably already on Facebook.
At Facebook's last reported count, there were more than 400 million users worldwide, with the average user spending 55 minutes per day on the site. With such a large audience, many practices find that creating a Facebook presence can be an easy -- and free -- way to stay in touch with patients or attract new ones.
"Any doctor in medicine really wants to have that patient forever, whatever their specialty is. And what's going to connect them to you is that interpersonal relationship that will make them come back instead of going to another" physician, said Monique Ramsey, principal of Cosmetic Social Media, a consultancy firm that helps practices create and maintain a social media presence.
On Facebook, an individual creates a personal home page and can send updates, photos, videos and Web links to his or her group of "friends."
Businesses, including physician practices, can create something similar: fan pages. Anyone on Facebook who elects to "become a fan" of your page receives, on his or her own home page, any updates, photos, videos or Web links that you post.
Rather than having patients "friend" you on Facebook, you can direct them to the fan page.
Even if someone isn't a "fan," he or she still could see your site or find it through a Web search. More than 20 million people become fans of Facebook pages each day. (The American Medical Association and American Medical News each have Facebook fan pages.)
Creating a fan page is easy. The hard part is turning that page into a community users want to visit often, and one they want to participate in once they arrive. This requires a clear plan for your fan page -- and ongoing maintenance.
The first step is to determine what the page's goal is and who from your practice will be allowed to post to it, said Cesar Torres, manager of Web services for the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society. For example, if you don't want patients using the page to confirm appointments, say so.
Having a moderator is important, because having someone dedicated to responding to people makes fans feel more connected, Torres said. The moderator, or moderators, don't have to be physicians.
Another decision you need to make is whether to let fans post to your site. Many doctors worry that dissatisfied people will post inappropriate comments. But Ramsey, principal of Cosmetic Social Media, said she hasn't found that to be the case.
If people are going to say something bad about you, they are going to do it anyway, she said. Having them say it on your site at least gives you a chance to manage the message.
Imparting information and more
The Orthopedic Foot and Ankle Center in Westerville, Ohio, not only provides videos and information about new procedures and treatment methods on its Facebook page, but it also adds interesting personal tidbits to draw people's interest, said Thomas Lee, MD, a practice partner.
One example is a fitness challenge the center launched on its fan page. Patients, as well as practice employees, are posting pictures of themselves participating in challenges such as climbing 20 flights of stairs or doing push-ups.
Although physicians use the site to talk with patients and provide help outside the normal course of care, the group does not provide specific medical advice or recommendations online. Experts say that is the approach practices should take.
The La Jolla (Calif.) Cosmetic Surgery Center tries to keep interest up by posting not only information about procedures and treatment options but also personal stories of patients who agree to share them.
Other practices put their own spin on a mix of the professional and personal. For example, many ob-gyn practices post, with their patients' permission, pictures of newborns on their fan pages.
Alerting people to the site's existence also is key, experts said.
Dr. Lee has his Facebook fan page printed on his business cards, and there also is a link to it from the practice's Web site.
Once you start a Facebook fan page, you're not likely to be overwhelmed by new fans right away. But once you start promoting the page to patients, other physicians and people in your community, the pace of fans joining will accelerate.
When people join the site, their Facebook friends can see that they became a fan, and often the friends will join, too. Facebook also allows users to send invitations to friends to become fans. As an operator of a fan page, you can send invitations to people on Facebook to join your page.
While the number of fans is one measure of success, it shouldn't be the only one, experts say.
If there's good conversation, people are enjoying themselves, and the practice is disseminating useful information, it can be considered a success.
And growing too big might not be good, either, Ramsey said. If you have 20,000 fans, it's going to be impossible to keep up with all of them.