How can social networking market your practice to the public? What should you and your staff post, and what should you avoid posting? In addition to answering these questions, a few experts offer insights on how sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn can help practices connect with patients and potentially increase referrals.
These days, it seems that almost everybody is connecting with friends on Facebook and posting 140-character updates on Twitter. Social networking has allowed people to reunite with old friends and engage with people they would not have met otherwise. How can podiatry practices harness such connective power to boost the profile of the practice and reach new patients?
If your practice is not active in the social networking arena, some experts say you may be missing out on a great marketing opportunity.
Rem Jackson, the President and CEO of Top Practices, a marketing and practice management company, calls social networking “an essential component in a larger electronic (web-based) marketing strategy.
“The fact is that millions of people now use this social networking in a significant way on a daily basis and if podiatrists do not enter this world, they are leaving themselves behind and that is a great risk for them now and in the future,” says Jackson.
For his Save a Leg, Save a Life Foundation, Desmond Bell, DPM, CWS, uses Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Yammer and Google Plus. In addition to their interactive nature, these sites are free of charge (except Yammer) and have the potential to reach a wider audience than with local marketing, according to Dr. Bell.
Christopher Hyer, DPM, has a Columbus, Ohio practice with a lively Facebook feed and approximately 1,000 fans. He and his staff use Facebook “fairly heavily” to interact with patients, colleagues and industry “friends.” He notes that the site’s traffic coincides with how active the practice is on the site with increasing posts generating more traffic. Dr. Hyer will post updates on ongoing research and conference presentations, humanitarian work, new or innovative surgical techniques, and general news of his practice.
Even if podiatrists do not personally engage in social networking, Jackson says they must engage professionally. He says many podiatrists may have misconceptions that their older patient base is not using computers or that they are in rural areas where most of the community doesn’t use computers or social networking. However, Jackson says practitioners are wrong if they believe their patients are not embracing and using technology at a rapid and accelerating pace.
For Dr. Hyer’s practice, social networking provides a low-cost option to keep the practice connected to the community, allowing him and his staff to deliver information in real time. In addition, he notes that social media can bring traffic to the practice’s website.
Social networking gives a practice not only the potential to reach local patients but for a practice with a niche specialty, Dr. Bell says a practice can reach patients well beyond its locale.
“People are using the Internet and social networking to find medical information at an increasing rate,” notes Dr. Bell. “Marketing via social media enhances one’s ability to market even the smallest practice.”
“The relationships may seem superficial but they are not,” says JudyAnn Lorenz of BarJD Communications, who handles social networking for the Indianapolis practice of Patrick DeHeer, DPM. “The connections result in being top of mind when someone needs our service or has a friend or family member needing our service.”
Lorenz notes that the practice’s strongest social media marketing tools have been consistent blogging at www.HoosierFootAndAnkle.com  and sites such as www.podiatrytoday.com , as well as traffic on Twitter with increased activity at the practice’s Facebook fan page. She says the practice’s interaction with “fans” and “followers” sets relationships that influence the search engines. Her Twitter account and Facebook fan page/business page are indexed on search engines.
“Personal accounts, even though they may be public, do not have as much influence with search engines,” she says.
Lorenz cautions podiatrists to avoid artificially inflating social networking numbers through the purchase of connections with non-interested participants. Lorenz notes that having large numbers of non-engaged participants can lower social networking benefits. non-interested participants. Lorenz notes that having large numbers of non-engaged participants can lower social networking benefits.
Social networking should also point to information patients can have so they will learn more about their condition, information Jackson says should be on the practice’s website and not anywhere else. He says Facebook and Twitter should make it easy for patients to engage with the doctor and make an appointment. In addition, Jackson suggests the use of video on social networking sites. He advises buying a small high-definition camera and making one-minute to two-minute videos to answer patients’ questions.
In addition to bringing Dr. DeHeer’s practice to the attention of search engines, Lorenz says her consultancy uses social media in conjunction with other nurturing tools to deliver customer/patient leads to referrals. Since posting on social networks can be time and energy consuming, she works on nurture marketing and social media strategy.
As an additional part of nurture marketing, Dr. DeHeer’s practice uses an e-mail service to deliver a newsletter. It also networks with other people in their fields of interest and community to nurture current patients, which Lorenz says encourages patients to mention the practice and recommend it to others who need its services.
Jackson emphasizes that social networking permits practices to build a referral network around the practice at almost zero cost, one that has the ability to introduce the practice to thousands of prospective patients that one cannot reach any other way. He says doctors in his Top Practices Group who are using social networking effectively tell him they see new patients every day because of social networking.
“I have had doctors who have been asked to speak at events, become a running club’s podiatrist and meet other high referring doctors and professionals simply because they were online with their marketing and communication,” points out Jackson.
With Twitter in particular, Dr. DeHeer’s practice seeks networking with others within its service region. The practice follows entities and other Twitter members in the Indianapolis area while expanding to other podiatry professionals. Dr. DeHeer’s practice has begun a small following at Google+ while Lorenz says LinkedIn is becoming more valuable through the connections, groups and a new company page. She notes the groups can be time consuming, while the questions/answers area is not usually aimed at medical solutions or treatment.
Additionally, Dr. DeHeer uses YouTube as a strong social media tool. He uses a Flip camera to make live videos in the clinics. Lorenz creates marketing videos for Dr. DeHeer.
“You have to remember that whatever is posted is out there for all to see and really for eternity. This is particularly important when posting video and photos,” says Dr. Hyer.
Dr. Hyer stresses the importance of keeping social networking posts professional and being conscious of what one is posting. He emphasizes that posting operative pictures is dangerous and one should keep in mind HIPAA rules. Doctors should not post anything personal about their patients, concurs Jackson, or anything that could identify a patient (without a legal release from the patient to do so).
Likewise, Dr. Bell cautions that doctors and staff should avoid posting medical information that is relevant to a patient’s case, warning that patients or the public may gain access to confidential medical information. He cites an example of a Charcot group on Facebook where people often ask for medical information or referrals.
While this can be a great resource, there is also inherent liability to any provider who offers any recommendations or even opinions, cautions Dr. Bell.
In addition, Dr. Bell suggests not posting personal photos, personal or family info, or political and religious views. “Nothing good can come from such information and you never know who is ‘creeping’ or seeking such personal information and most importantly, how it may potentially be used against you,” says Dr. Bell.
Jackson also emphasizes the avoidance of topics like politics, religion or anything that might take the message away from helping people with foot and ankle problems. While it is fine to comment on pop culture or news events, Jackson says one should not take a controversial position. He notes one should relate posts back to the worries and concerns that people have with their lower extremities.
“(People should) absolutely (avoid) comments that are not dignified and related in some way to the health of people and their feet and ankles,” emphasizes Jackson.
Jackson advises only posting things that you would not mind seeing on the front page of the local newspaper “where you know your mother can read it.”
“Doctors should remember that these posts — even in the social networking sites — will be forever tied to them,” says Dr. Hyer. “If you were a patient, would you want to read a ton of posts about how many times a month (the doctor is) out partying?”
Jackson also cautions against a cardinal online sin: Being boring.
“People don’t read boring things,” he notes. “So be short, interesting and have great, catchy subject lines. Get their attention and talk quickly about how to solve the worries and concerns they have with their feet and ankles.”
For the last few years, Dr. Hyer’s practice has had a strict social networking policy.
“It is important that the reputation of the doctors and practice be strenuously protected and that all posts by employees in regard to the practice have this in mind,” he says.
Generally, he advises vetting staff posts to ensure they are following policies. He compares this vetting to statements to the press from larger companies, in which there is oversight to protect the company’s image.
Dr. Bell advises a policy of discretion for staff, recommending against staff mentioning who they work for on a social networking site.
“The credibility of an organization can be damaged by the lack of judgment of an individual who may not think of all the possible ways a seemingly innocent comment, photo or other information may be interpreted by others,” he notes.
Lorenz notes that having personal social networking accounts gives staff some insulation personally while the public accounts such as the Facebook fan page and Twitter are right out there in public. The staff at Dr. DeHeer’s practice make every effort to keep their private pages private and Lorenz says they get requests for contact with the practice on Facebook friend lists. “We have a professional responsibility to avoid 'spilling our guts' and making fools of ourselves,” she notes.
The practice should educate staff about the power of social networking to keep the practice strong, which Lorenz notes is directly connected to their jobs. That power can work the opposite way to hurt the practice so she advises posting with wisdom so as not to hurt the practice. Cheerful interaction on social networking sites can help boost the conversation and connect the practice with patients and potential patients, comments Lorenz.
All passwords and accounts should be in the practice owner’s name and under the owner’s control, suggests Jackson. If a staff member set up passwords using his or her identification and that staff member leaves your practice, Jackson says control of your social networking leaves with that person.
Jackson notes the doctor should have a guide in writing on all policies for any communications that represent the practice. One very important point, he notes, is never to use art or content of any kind that the practice does not have the rights to use, as such use is illegal and content owners may rightly pursue their rights in this regard.
Not being online at all is a drawback, notes Jackson, who says that the competition is online and patients are online. In particular, the patients who are online are the ones who will be talking about your practice, emphasizes Jackson.
Social networking “allows the practice to reach significantly higher numbers of prospective patients at very low cost,” says Jackson. “It also (because of its inherent design) enables podiatrists to reach groups of people who they have no affiliation with at all other than the connection with other professionals or companies. The reach is really quite remarkable.”