How Health Systems are Pivoting Social Strategies During the Pandemic

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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