One in five Americans use social media websites as a source of health care information, according to National Research Corp.’s latest Ticker survey on consumer health care opinions and behavior. Facebook topped the list, with 94 percent of respondents reporting that they’ve used the social networking site to gather information on their health care. Some 32 percent of respondents used YouTube, and 18 percent used Twitter and MySpace as sources of health care info — and those numbers are only increasing all the time.

Doctors are wise to jump on the social media train if they haven’t already, but it’s not enough to simply have a presence on Facebook or YouTube. At its heart, social media is about relationships and education, says Dr. Howard Luks on The Doctor Blog. “Increasingly, your digital footprint means educating, engaging, and growing your audience.”

Here are 8 ways to build your social media audience and increase your influence online.

Be trustworthy. More people trust health content posted on social media by doctors (60 percent) than content from any other source, according to the PwC HRI Social Media Consumer Survey. Patients trust health info from doctors over that from other patients they know, their insurance companies, or drug companies. That places a lot of responsibility on doctors to provide credible, up-to-date health content from reputable sources. Use your power wisely.

Be professional. Patients pay attention to the message or image you portray through your profiles and your communication on social media, says Luks. “Are you competent? Are you conscientious? Most importantly, do you seem to care?” Consider these questions every time you post. Don’t act one way on social media during office hours and another when you’re posting “off the clock.”

Be human. At the same time, don’t forget the “social” in social media. All too often, health care providers don’t think about the interactive angle of social media, says Luks. Patients aren’t looking for an impersonal stream of links to the latest medical research. It’s OK to show some personality online. It’s even OK to respond to patients’ health questions — just address them as a group rather than as individuals to stay on the right side of HIPAA, advises KevinMD.com’s Dr. Kevin Pho.

Share more, sell less. Social media is not the place to force your brand messaging on your audience — in fact, constant advertising thinly veiled as “content” is the quickest way to lose followers. Instead of being overly promotional, think about how you can engage and educate your audience. Think relationships rather than transactions.

Now let’s get into the nitty-gritty details of specific strategies and tools that can increase your reach online.

You may have to pay to play. While social media is sometimes touted as “free marketing,” that notion is increasingly outdated and inaccurate. Recently, Facebook admitted that the average post on a business page is seen by just 16 percent of the page’s followers. Users who wish to expand their reach have to pay to promote their posts.

Another option is to invest in patient-education and practice-marketing software that provides targeted, branded content that you can share across social media platforms, as well as use in your office, giving you more bang for your buck.

Whatever route you choose, you should expect to allocate at least some portion of your budget towards social media to maximize your efforts.

Think beyond 9-5. Social media is a 24/7 pursuit. The reality is that much of your audience — and potential patients — may be online only in the evenings and on weekends. This doesn’t have to be daunting if you share the social-media load with your partners or staff, or look into social-media management tools like Hootsuite or Buffer that allow you to schedule tweets and updates in advance. The more active you are on social media, and at different times of day, the wider the net you’re casting for new followers.

Make it easy to share. Include social-sharing buttons at the end of every blog post or email you send out. People are more likely to share your content if they can do so with the click of a button. And be sure to include your practice’s website, blog, Facebook page, YouTube page, and other social media pages on everything you can — including your business cards, brochures, email signature, bio, and social media profiles.

Use keywords and hashtags. Increasing your audience means making sure your content is getting in front of the right people. Ways to do this include optimizing your social media pages by using keywords that your target audience is searching for (ex., eye doctor, cataract surgery, LASIK, etc.).

Another way to target the right audience is to use hashtags in your updates. Used by most social media platforms these days, hashtags are a way to categorize your content and make sure it turns up in searches for those terms (#eyecare, #eyehealth, #glaucoma). Just be sure to use hashtags sparingly so you don’t come across as a spammer.

By giving some thought to your goals and audience, and with a consistent and targeted approach, you can increase your reach and grow your audience on social media fairly easily and quickly. Social media’s not going anywhere, so now’s the time to figure out how to make it work for you.

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