How Health Systems are Pivoting Social Strategies During the Pandemic

by | May 26, 2020 | Consumer Engagement

Learn how digital marketing experts at three different types of health systems are shifting social media strategies in response to COVID-19.

We recent­ly host­ed a round­table dis­cus­sion with dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing experts to learn how they’re shift­ing social media strate­gies in response to COVID-19 and piv­ot­ing for the future.

Our pan­el included:

Kelly McDonald

Kelly McDonald

Sr. Man­ag­er of Social Media at The Ohio State Uni­ver­si­ty Wexn­er Med­ical Center

Ryan Owens

Ryan Owens

Direc­tor of Pub­lic Rela­tions at Methodist Health System

Nolan Perry

Nolan Perry

Man­ag­er of Rep­u­ta­tion & Engage­ment at Sut­ter Health

You can watch the full round­table dis­cus­sion here, but first, read through the high­lights from the panel:

On the Biggest Challenges During COVID-19

Kel­ly: The biggest chal­lenge [we face] is the amount of ques­tions we get that tru­ly have no answer. This is a brand new virus and there are still a lot of things being learned. For exam­ple, we were plan­ning a blog post on avoid­ing ibupro­fen, and with­in 24 hours, we had turned the post around and were ready to pro­mote it on social. Then, the CDC came out and said this isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly a cause for con­cern. Anoth­er chal­lenge has been think­ing through how and when to com­mu­ni­cate new infor­ma­tion in the most effec­tive way. For exam­ple, when we start­ed offer­ing test­ing in dri­ve-through loca­tions, we need­ed to antic­i­pate the myr­i­ad ques­tions we would get, like who could get the tests. It can be dif­fi­cult to draw the line between lead­ing with the most cur­rent, talked-about infor­ma­tion in a time­ly man­ner, while also allow­ing for a lit­tle bit of time to make sure the con­tent we’re shar­ing doesn’t have to be retracted.

Nolan: One of the biggest chal­lenges for us was man­ag­ing the infor­ma­tion that’s chang­ing day to day. We want to get in front of it and pro­vide accu­rate infor­ma­tion for our audi­ences, and yet we have to be cau­tious and make sure it’s vet­ted and approved. To achieve both goals, we acti­vat­ed our Emer­gency Man­age­ment Sys­tem that requires all inter­nal and exter­nal mes­sag­ing to go through a cen­tral group to get approved. While that can insert delays, it also ensures we’re not going off on a tan­gent or going rogue and telling our social media com­mu­ni­ties some­thing that con­flicts with infor­ma­tion com­ing from the PR and media departments.

On Lessons Learned During COVID-19

Kel­ly: We’ve seen a huge increase in engage­ment, despite the fact that we’re post­ing less. Pri­or to COVID-19, we were post­ing eight times a day on Face­book and Twit­ter and once per day on LinkedIn and Insta­gram. We’ve moved to three to five posts per day on Face­book with a sim­i­lar cadence on Twit­ter, with lots of retweet­ing from our physi­cian experts. We’ve had a lot less con­tent on Insta­gram and LinkedIn with great engage­ment, espe­cial­ly around the grat­i­tude-focused con­tent we’re sharing.

Ryan: Peo­ple are stuck at home look­ing for real­ly prac­ti­cal and easy-to-use advice and frankly, look­ing for any ray of hope. That’s why sto­ries like the one we post­ed on remde­sivir are doing so well.

On Social Monitoring and Responding to Negative Comments

Kel­ly: We get a lot of ques­tions and have received some neg­a­tive com­ments around the research we’re doing. Ohio has been at the fore­front nation­al­ly because of how our gov­er­nor has han­dled the shut­down. Com­bined with the part­ner­ships Ohio State has with Bat­telle to devel­op some of the N95 mask san­i­tiz­ing pro­to­cols, we’ve seen an increase in peo­ple com­ment­ing on our page with more of a polit­i­cal out­look than they would have before.

To stay on top of these com­ments and mon­i­tor our social media, we’ve updat­ed a lot of our queries with COVID-19 key­words, using online lis­ten­ing tools and divid­ing that respon­si­bil­i­ty among my team. Last month alone, we received more than 7,000 Face­book com­ments. That’s 25% of the total num­ber of com­ments we had last year—and that’s just on one channel.

Our typ­i­cal response to com­ments is reit­er­at­ing that we’re an aca­d­e­m­ic med­ical cen­ter and that gives us access to infor­ma­tion that we can lever­age from oth­er col­leges, and the infor­ma­tion we share is com­ing from experts. Beyond that mes­sage, we’re encour­ag­ing peo­ple to fol­low CDC guide­lines and sim­ply not engag­ing with the more con­spir­a­cy-type comments.

Nolan: We’ve seen the increase in com­ments, ques­tions and com­plaints and ini­tial­ly, we were esca­lat­ing every com­plaint that came in to our PR and media rela­tions teams. They’re over­whelmed so we start­ed to buck­et those con­ver­sa­tions using tools like Khoros for social mon­i­tor­ing, lis­ten­ing and engage­ment and Reputation.com to aggre­gate online reviews and respond as appro­pri­ate. Using these tools to track com­ments, label them as they come in and pull report­ing on those labels allows us to pro­vide bet­ter insights, track the trend­ing top­ics and only esca­late those.

Ryan: A gen­er­al strat­e­gy I’ve learned to use on social media: We do our best to always focus con­tent around a patient sto­ry. If the post is about research or a par­tic­u­lar tech­nique, it’s eas­i­er to point fin­gers and say awful things than it is when look­ing at a dar­ling patient.

On Collaborating with Other Stakeholders

Kel­ly: One of the biggest strug­gles for me and my team, being part of an aca­d­e­m­ic med­ical cen­ter, is work­ing more close­ly with uni­ver­si­ty mar­ket­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tions than we ever have before. That means a ton of cooks in the kitchen and require­ments for cer­tain approvals that we typ­i­cal­ly wouldn’t have had to secure before. For­tu­nate­ly, I have a great rela­tion­ship with the social team over there so we’ve been able to ham­mer those things out.

Also, there has been a lot of grat­i­tude mes­sag­ing, which is great and we cer­tain­ly want to rec­og­nize our health­care work­ers. At the same time, it can be a chal­lenge to high­light every­one. One of the tough­est chal­lenges has been bal­anc­ing expec­ta­tions between shar­ing those types of mes­sages, mak­ing sure that our fac­ul­ty, staff and front-line folks are get­ting words of grat­i­tude while also not bury­ing the infor­ma­tion that our com­mu­ni­ty is com­ing to our social pages to read and edu­cate themselves.

Nolan: You have to estab­lish rela­tion­ships ahead of time, and if those are bad then you’ll be in a worse sit­u­a­tion. Thank­ful­ly, we had those rela­tion­ships already estab­lished. Mar­ket­ing now reports up through pub­lic rela­tions and that brought our orga­ni­za­tions togeth­er. So, we’ve start­ed to assign own­er­ship that allows us to bal­ance requests with all oth­er goals and objectives.

One effec­tive step we’ve tak­en dur­ing COVID-19 is pri­or­i­tiz­ing requests by the audi­ence rather than the per­son who makes the request. We have a main Face­book page for the sys­tem and one for each of our hos­pi­tals. We might pub­lish a sto­ry that we’ve been asked to share just on the local hos­pi­tal page or local geog­ra­phy page, rather than on the main account. That usu­al­ly works to appease the per­son who makes the request while help­ing us focus the most impor­tant mes­sages on the broad­er audience.

Ryan: I believe post­ing less is more. When I began man­ag­ing our social media, I had to be the bad guy who said get a break­room bill­board and leave our social media to our cus­tomers, our patients and their fam­i­lies. That can cre­ate chal­lenges with inter­nal stake­hold­ers who think we should be post­ing every pic­ture of every nurse. Then, when COVID-19 hit, our employ­ees became nation­al heroes and every­one want­ed to hear their sto­ries. What I would have con­sid­ered an inter­nal appease­ment post a few months ago sud­den­ly got a lot of traction.

Now as I begin tran­si­tion­ing back to some­thing like nor­mal, I’ve had to re-edu­cate peo­ple on the impor­tance of doing sto­ries about our ser­vice lines, sur­geons and oth­er strate­gic content.

On Shifting from COVID-Focused Content

Ryan: We’ve had suc­cess with using a COVID-relat­ed open­ing or lead when focus­ing on a non-COVID top­ic, includ­ing mes­sag­ing around how emer­gen­cies, trans­plants and oth­er health issues haven’t stopped when intro­duc­ing a sto­ry. For exam­ple, we devel­oped a blog post about bet­ter sleep. In the intro­duc­tion, we acknowl­edged that no one is sleep­ing well due to COVID-19, before mov­ing into the rest of the sto­ry. It’s key to make your non-COVID con­tent rel­e­vant to the times, so the audi­ence doesn’t think you’re going right back to things like they’re nor­mal when every­one knows they’re not.

Nolan: It’s impor­tant that we don’t appear to be blind to the situation—and ignor­ing it or being insen­si­tive. So, link­ing to COVID-relat­ed top­ics and mes­sages is key. In addi­tion, we always try to ver­i­fy that our facil­i­ties are ready for us to pro­mote them and dri­ve traf­fic. One exam­ple is with our video vis­its. Tele­health has been a huge boom for us—but not every­one across our orga­ni­za­tion is ready for tele­health. Some spe­cial­ties do not have it and our doc­tors are not offer­ing it at the same lev­el, so we have to con­tin­u­al­ly ask them and con­firm readi­ness when plan­ning content.

Kel­ly: Here’s an exam­ple of how we’re start­ing to com­bine COVID-19 infor­ma­tion with ser­vice line mes­sag­ing: Since it’s Stroke Month, we worked with our neu­ro team to pro­mote a Face­book Live event that focus­es on how COVID-19 can impact your risk of stroke. Along with the COVID angle, we’ll also cov­er signs to look for, what to do if a stroke is sus­pect­ed and oth­er issues to sup­port the neu­ro team.

On How Success Is Measured

Ryan: Our engage­ment is up so dra­mat­i­cal­ly dur­ing this time, par­tic­u­lar­ly traf­fic dri­ven to our SHINE Online blog, that I don’t have a met­ric to com­pare this peri­od with. We’ve seen extra­or­di­nary growth over the past cou­ple months. I’m not focus­ing on social met­rics as much as what peo­ple are doing on our site and what types of con­tent are res­onat­ing. For exam­ple, our bounce rate has gone down 40 per­cent­age points and we’ve learned that if users like one COVID sto­ry, they’ve prob­a­bly read every COVID sto­ry on the site. Watch­ing online behav­ior like this tells quite a story.

Kel­ly: We’re still look­ing at engage­ment rate as that’s the major­i­ty of how we mea­sure suc­cess. We’re also look­ing at over­all reach and where that reach is com­ing from when the data is avail­able. For exam­ple, our strat­e­gy in decid­ing whether to put mon­ey behind a research-focused sto­ry is based on whether it’s rel­e­vant to a nation­wide audi­ence or just to our com­mu­ni­ties in Ohio, and the data helps us under­stand where peo­ple are engag­ing our con­tent from. While we’ve paid atten­tion to loca­tion data like that in the past, we’re mon­i­tor­ing it more metic­u­lous­ly now.

Nolan: My team is pri­mar­i­ly focus­ing on the engage­ment rate for organ­ic con­tent. Specif­i­cal­ly, I’m focused on the audi­ence reac­tion and keep­ing a pulse on their ques­tions, com­ments and frus­tra­tions. Are we deliv­er­ing the infor­ma­tion that our patients want? Are we answer­ing their ques­tions? We can’t always do that, but if we can help to min­i­mize their frus­tra­tion and lack of infor­ma­tion, then that puts us in a bet­ter place from a rep­u­ta­tion and brand perspective.

On Elevating the Role of Social

Nolan: This sit­u­a­tion presents oppor­tu­ni­ties to pro­mote dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing and oth­er solu­tions that may not have got­ten trac­tion as quick­ly before. One exam­ple of a win for us is a joint pain sem­i­nar that one of our geo­gra­phies want­ed to host. We pro­mot­ed the vir­tu­al sem­i­nar via Face­book and they had 75 peo­ple attend the entire two-hour sem­i­nar and received 45 refer­rals, which is unheard of for them. They imme­di­ate­ly got more excit­ed to do more vir­tu­al events in the future.

Kel­ly: COVID-19 has giv­en peo­ple a tri­al by fire with new tools. Face­book Live is a great exam­ple, and we make it eas­i­er for col­leagues by cre­at­ing a one-pager with step-by-step screen grabs and walk­ing them through train­ing on the inter­face. Our advice is to pre­tend it’s a tele­health appoint­ment to dri­ve excite­ment and make the new tools less scary—and it’s work­ing. We recent­ly host­ed an hour-long Zoom webi­nar on the COVID impact on health inequity and 1,300 peo­ple signed up. Now, there’s a lot of dis­cus­sion around how we can move for­ward with these vir­tu­al events that peo­ple were nev­er think­ing about before and how the social team can sup­port them.

For any­one work­ing to gain buy-in and sup­port for social media, now is the time to help your lead­er­ship under­stand the val­ue. We’ve all seen increas­es in engage­ment as social media is where peo­ple are going to find infor­ma­tion in this time of crisis.

On Planning for a World Impacted by COVID-19

Kel­ly: What the com­mu­ni­ty wants to know is dri­ving our direc­tion and our post-COVID plans. We meet every morn­ing to talk about what’s in the news, what’s com­ing up on our social feeds and what users are ask­ing about via com­ments on the blog, Face­book Live and oth­er chan­nels. Those sources help inform how things are chang­ing and what that means for peo­ple. We’re mov­ing toward post-COVID but I don’t fore­see a shift back to nor­mal for some time.

Ryan: In Texas, our hos­pi­tals are back open and we’re per­form­ing all pro­ce­dures now. I feel strong­ly that mov­ing rapid­ly to reopen is caus­ing anx­i­ety for a lot of peo­ple. It’s a per­son­al deci­sion about whether to go to bars, gyms and oth­er places—and now more than ever, we need to be giv­ing peo­ple the right infor­ma­tion to make those decisions.

It’s impor­tant to have your fin­ger on the pulse of your par­tic­u­lar com­mu­ni­ty, and the mind­set here is that we’re doing our best to get beyond this and get back to nor­mal. I’m look­ing at con­tent that I think makes sense for our com­mu­ni­ties here in Texas. For exam­ple, we just launched a new blog post about swim­ming and COVID-19 because every­one has a pool here in Texas. Our infec­tious dis­ease team had some inter­est­ing things to say about how chlo­rine almost cer­tain­ly kills COVID, but social dis­tanc­ing is still impor­tant because of the air that’s above the water. We’re shar­ing prac­ti­cal things like that to indi­cate that while we’re mov­ing for­ward, let’s do so in a safe manner.

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