by Dorothy Pirovano
chair, Worldcom healthcare practice group
Interest, expectations and budgets for leveraging social media are increasing considerably across all sectors of health care clients. A roundtable of agency executives from the Worldcom Americas region healthcare practice group convened to discuss trends and the evolution of client thinking at the annual Americas region meeting and found that their experiences—coast to coast—were near universally the same. Worldcom is the world’s largest partnership of independent public relations firms with 105 offices in cities on five continents.
The group has 50 members worldwide, all of which have a specialty in the market segment. A dozen of the 20 Americas Region firms participated in the roundtable.
With few exceptions, group members said their health care clients are expecting more from social media—and more from their public relations agencies in terms of new and creative ways to engage, measure and prove the value of these strategies. Budget increases overall were expected to be anywhere from 5 percent to as much as 20 percent in 2011, with a portion of those increases earmarked for social media outreach.
The group agreed that to be effective and able to measure the success of outcomes, it is best to narrow the target of online influencers. That approach was reinforced by research presented at the Worldcom meeting by Ed Keller of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association that indicates 10 percent of the population is responsible for a quarter of all word of mouth.
At RLF Communications, Greensboro, the target is typically about 400 people. The agency zeroes in on only those with the most influential online presence and clients receive an Influencers Scorecard on a monthly basis that shows the impact a communications program is having on as the 400 selected.
“We help clients understand who really is influential in social media—the bloggers, tweeters, posters and commentators—and then we build relationships with them,” said Monty Hagler, president and CEO of RLF. “We keep a scorecard on them every month to see how many of those folks are following us back, have commented on our blog or engaged with our client in some way. It’s not the universe that matters, it’s really these 400 people because they are the ones influencing the universe.”
The IW Group, Los Angeles, specializes in Asian-American communications and has identified the social media influentials in this rapidly growing community.
"California, Hawaii, New Mexico and Texas are already minority-majority states and many more states will follow in a few short years," said Bill Imada, chairman and CEO. "Therefore, it is essential that clients engage in an active dialogue with new, emerging ethnic influencers in order to have a stronger impact on consumers."
IW Group is working to convene Asian-American and Asian-Canadian online influencers at a conference in February to discuss how Asians can build a stronger voice and greater influence in all areas of popular culture. At the same time, these Asian bloggers will be exposed to IW Group clients and learn more about their interests. "The conference is just another way we can reach out to bloggers and learn more about their interests, concerns and aspirations."
At Public Communications Inc., Chicago, we have paid special attention to mommy bloggers for a select group of clients that are targeting young and middle-aged women, and have arranged education sessions and previews just for them. While many in this community are supplementing their media role and selling their services as consultants who will help clients reach other mommy bloggers, we’re finding they and the “pure bloggers” gladly participate, eager to be among the first to have a slice of information that will be of particular interest to their readers.
The results are instantaneous, with many tweets and posts sent out during these sessions. Longer blogs tend to follow. Clients feel the impact just as quickly, as measured by traffic to specific URLs or toll-free numbers.
In a survey of roundtable participants, all but one said they are finding that many more new business prospects are expecting agencies to have greater social media capabilities than in the past. The definition of media relations has broadened in health care to include social media outreach, they said.
Some agencies have created proprietary programs that demonstrate to potential clients their capabilities in this area. For example, Wordsworth Communications, Cincinnati, created VIBEs, Very Important Bloggers Events, and is replicating it for a variety of its healthcare and other clients, said Michael Maul, president of the firm. As a prelude to a VIBE, bloggers who are the primary influencers in the client’s realm are researched and vetted, and a venue identified where they will be congregating, such as a national conference. “We get them together in one room and look each blogger in the eye, presenting information that fits their needs or the needs of his or her readers,” said Maul.
“We cover topics important to the bloggers and their audience. We mention our client but only as a part of the whole field/industry/trend, making the session truly informational, and thereby more meaningful,” Maul says. “We immediately monitor and measure what goes out in the social media space, but, more importantly, we track the impact on sales. For one recent VIBE, using tagged URLs, we tracked the number of people logging in and buying our client’s service following the event. We showed a direct relationship between the VIBE and positively affected sales.”
Essentially all of the healthcare practice group agencies are involved in creating social media platforms for their clients, building followers, assisting in developing content, and, most important, driving engagement. “Americans love to talk and being part of a conversation is essential,” said Keller, who is CEO of the Keller Fay Group, and speaking at the Americas Region Conference on behalf of WOMMA. Keller said research has found that every day, 36 percent of Americans talk about health care—not surprisingly, more women than men. And while most of those conversations take place face to face or over the phone, a growing number are happening online, particularly among teens and 20-somethings.
Knowing that you are actually engaging your audience is all-important, Keller said, describing a simple test clients can use to see if they are really reaching their followers and friends through their platforms. Keller suggested that you post the following message on your site: “If you see this message, please click on ‘Like’.” When he did this, fewer than 10 percent of his followers responded. Try it again – or several times – to see what happens. The challenge for agencies and their clients is to build this number to a far higher level.
It can be particularly challenging using interactive online platforms with pharmaceutical clients right now since the FDA has yet to issue its guidelines on social media applications. The Standing Partnership created educational programs on how to best use social media for advocacy with key groups critical to its pharmaceutical client. The program helped appropriate advocacy groups that didn’t have the resources or knowledge to mobilize their members or agendas online.
“We go to these groups, meet with their volunteers and marketing teams, train them for a day on how to mobilize– not just collect people—and give them tools to use in a very grassroots way,” said Melissa Lackey, president of the St. Louis Worldcom partner. “Many of these groups hadn’t taken the initiative with social media platforms, or if they had, they didn’t know how to engage them in an ongoing way. It has been very well received.”
Amy Mitchell, Deputy Director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and a keynote speaker at the Americas region conference, said according to their research, 92 percent of Americans can be classified as “news grazers” —they gather their news from four to six sources – and this number has grown in just the past three months. At the same time, these grazers are not “aimless wanderers,” she said. They tend to go back to the same sites time and time again, and a third have signed up for news feed from social networks.
“The vast majority of information—92 percent—is still coming from old media and the vast majority is from newspapers” whether it is from the actual paper or their online platforms, Mitchell said without dismissing the potential for social media platforms. “New media alone has not filled the need,” she said. According to Pew research, only 340 of more than 4,600 online news sites attract 500,000 unique visitors a month, reinforcing the need to narrow the audience when you target social media.
Keller agreed. Research he presented showed that half of all conversations are prompted in some way by old media. “TV might prompt an immediate conversation. The Internet is likely to be the aftereffect of that conversation as people go online and check it out,” he said, showing that both have their place in communications.
The Health Care Practice Group members are keeping this in mind in their programming – making sure not to neglect traditional media as they add new media to the mix. “Today, a newspaper columnist is also blogging or writing for the online edition so there is a blurring of what is traditional and what is not,” said Debra Gaynor, chief business strategist, Marina Maher Communications, New York City. “We take a hand-in-glove approach integrating traditional media and social media. We treat them all as journalists for today, they are.”
Where just a couple of years ago, many agency clients were questioning the value of social media or were afraid to venture into this uncontrollable world, there is a greater understanding and appetite for getting engaged online. Group members agreed social media will only become more important and play a larger role in health care communications programs, but it will fill different niches depending on who the client is trying to reach, what needs to be said and what level of interactivity is desired. The interest is clearly there, budgets are growing, measurement is becoming easier and lessons have been learned and taught. Staying ahead of the curve as it evolves is the true challenge.