Conversations With Individuals Not Organizations–Are You More Likely to Follow Your Hospital or Your Doctor?

The American Medical Association recently issued some guidelines for physicians on the use of social media. As a former director of corporate communications in a large, health care organization, I think these guidelines are much needed and, in my “old role” I would have worked hard to keep our providers from independently using social media to communicate with patients.

But, my role has changed. Today, I spend more time helping individuals (generally consultants, authors and entrepreneurs) raise awareness of their products and services. It’s not that they’re less concerned about risk. It’s just that they have less risk to manage and fewer communications to monitor. They have a big benefit over larger organizations because they’re more likely to be able to connect “one on one” with their audiences.

As I dabble in, talk about and research the use of social media to help organizations and individuals connect with their desired audiences, it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that consumers aren’t interested in interacting with institutions–they’re interested in interacting with people. Individual people.

That creates both new opportunities and new challenges for organizations that must balance both brand/image protection and communication effectiveness.

In the health care industry, relationships occur with providers–the people that take care of you. My research has connected me with many providers who are developing great online followings and who are interacting with consumers to a much greater degree than their health care organizations are. Think about it–are you more likely to “follow” or “friend” your local hospital, or your child’s pediatrician?

The same thought process applies for other organizations, particularly large organizations. For instance, are you more likely to connect with a university or a professor? With a large, national department store, or with the owner of a local boutique? And, of course, there are some organizations and individuals that may simply  not lend themselves to online relationships, at least with general consumer audiences. Banks? Utility companies? Car manufacturers? Manufacturers of any kind for that matter… How often do you really need to interact with these types of organizations–or any of the individuals within them?

Whether you’re already engaged in social media or thinking about how you might become engaged, there are some key questions that you should be asking as you contemplate whether social media has value for you. The first question, as with any communication endeavor, is: “What are we hoping to achieve through these efforts?” What’s the goal? If you don’t have a goal at the outset, there’s no conceivable way you’ll be able to measure or evaluate results. Your goal should also give you an indication of the audience you hope to impact or influence. “We want to increase our customers’ levels of satisfaction with our customer service efforts by 25%.” Or, “We want to increase awareness among non-customers in our service area by 30%.”

The second question:  “Is there value for our constituents in connecting with us?” That question should be considered long and hard–and realistically. There may be some utility customers that might be interested in getting tweets about planned outages and, certainly during unplanned outages, there may be consumers interested in knowing what’s going on. But these interactions are more situational than ongoing. Based on your target audience, what value will you able to provide that is significant enough to get them to connect with you–and stay connected?

The third question is: “Who do our audiences wish to interact with?” Often (but not always), the answer is going to represent individuals–or groups–not your organization. We don’t develop relationships with organizations; we develop them with people. That means managing multiple profiles and balancing the need to protect your brand with the value of allowing individuals to reflect their own unique personalities to their audiences.

The fourth question is: “How will we evaluate results?” This ties back to the first question, of course. Before launching a social media initiative you should think about how you will determine whether your goals are met. We actually have a great new white paper on defining effective business metrics, that you may find helpful.

The fifth questionis how do we avoid risk? Yes, there are risks involved in online communications. The risks themselves are really no different than they’ve ever been–businesses and individuals have always been considered about their reputations and about how to best respond to disgruntled consumers–but the potential impact has increased exponentially. It makes sense for organizations to develop a plan up front for how it will address the creation and posting of information, responses to consumers feedback and input, and various types of potentially reputation-impacting issues that may arise.

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