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 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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