Why should you care about social media?
Social media is a ubiquitous element of modern life. The connectivity of affordable internet, varied smartphones and portable computers, and multiple online platforms means that social media now contributes to the narrative in politics, sports and impacts social commentary. Although the medical and ophthalmic spaces are traditionally more conservative in these regards, we are now beyond a tipping point where here, too, social media is pervasive. But how can we best harness social media as a means to promote an eyecare practice? Before we answer this question, we need to step back and see that social media is really a reflection of branding; and, for the first time, eyecare specialists need to seriously consider this aspect of their brand to fully optimize the potential of social media for practice promotion and growth.
What is a brand? Simply defined, a brand is an “identifying mark”. With origins in the branding of livestock, a brand signifies a specific mark that is non-generic. Where in livestock it was used to attribute specific ownership, in our context, we can think of a brand as a non-generic “brand name” similar to the proprietary name of a branded drug. At the very least, when we extend the definition of brand to this point, we can use it to imply some description of the source or qualities of a product or service. Next, we must make the transformation of this straightforward definition of brand to the sphere of eyecare for our discussion. I have come to define an “eye brand” as a summary of the intangible sum of a service's or product’s attributes. As an eyecare professional, you deliver care and your brand needs to create a specific perception concerning the qualities of this non-generic (remember, your practice is specific to you and your partners) service or product. This also applies to the technology you utilize or any products you may sell.
This discussion of brand is essential because there is no successful path to practice promotion via social media without brand definition and awareness. The brand is the basis of the relationship formed between patient, client or consumer and the product or service (i.e., eyecare) consumed. You and your practice need to have a defined brand. From the training of staff, to organizational culture, to emphasis on preferred practice protocols, everything should be aligned with the respective branding message. If you don’t have a brand, then you need to assess and reflect on what is most important to you and your practice. Luckily, in most eyecare contexts, delivering the best possible care and working towards the most favorable patient outcomes is common ground you can draw in defining your brand. In all sincerity, if you do nothing else but crystalize the brand you value for your practice, then this exercise would be worthwhile and pay dividends many-fold over.
Social media platforms
From the brand discussion above, we can now move to social media platforms and how to maneuver in this space to promote a practice. The advent of online and social medical platforms has democratized the ability to review and judge your delivery of eyecare. For eyecare professionals, your brand establishes trust with patients before they even come into your office. For practices, the brand aligns the core competencies of the organization (e.g., excellent patient care, technological innovation, research and development, etc.) with the desired aims of practice promotion. Online or social media platforms will serve to distribute your brand – your mark – of the attributes that you wish to provide to the population you serve.
Social media platforms work best with an excellent practice website. I like to think of a practice website as the “central server” to every other form of online content like social media and online ratings. The practice website is the central authority that must be congruent to the messages on social media and online ratings. Without this, there will be a disconnect that will hurt your branding and messaging. For example, if a potential patient first encounters your practice on social media, they will naturally link to the practice website. Then, the practice website must serve as a central source of information ranging from useful patient resources to a facile method of contacting the office and booking an appointment.
Moving beyond the practice website, Facebook is the largest social networking site with 2.7 billion monthly active users. Here, users can post comments, share photographs, and post links. It allows text, short videos, and live chats. Twitter, another online news and social networking site, differs in that people communicate in short messages called tweets of 280 characters or less. Currently, Twitter has about 330 million monthly active users. LinkedIn is a business-focused social networking site designed for professionals looking for new opportunities to grow their careers and to connect with others. It is the online equivalent of going to a traditional networking event where you exchange business cards. LinkedIn currently has over 575 million users and 260 million active monthly users on its platform. Instagram is a social networking application made for sharing photos and videos from a smartphone. It is very similar to Facebook and Twitter but with a heavy emphasis on visual information (mostly photos and videos). Instagram has over one billion active users. Finally, Doximity is a more specialized online social networking service specifically for U.S. clinicians. This social networking site has a variety of functions including contacts, professional profile page, continuing medical education, ability to email, fax, or text colleagues, a medical news portal and a digital doctors' lounge for conversation. One-in-four U.S. physicians have a profile on Doximity and the site has over one million verified users.
Online ratings, grades, and reputation
In addition to social media platforms, we need to define online rating sites. A 2016 Pew Research Center study found that 84% of all US adults use online ratings sites to inform their product or service purchase decisions (Smith A, Anderson M. Pew Research Center. 2016. Dec 19, Online shopping and e-commerce: online reviews). Not surprisingly, healthcare is no different! A 2017 National Institutes of Health study found 53% of physicians and 39% of patients reported visiting a health care rating website at least once to evaluate a physician or practice. The main physician and healthcare rating sites include Google (widespread with major impact from practice and personal websites affecting internet visibility), RateMDs.com (2.6 million reviews), HealthGrades.com (6.1 million reviews), Vitals.com (7.8 million reviews) and Yelp (more commonly used for ratings of hospitals and larger healthcare organizations). Unfortunately, anyone can post to these sites and verification remains a problem; still, we must accept this as it is unlikely to change.
Being aware of social media platforms and online ratings sites is not enough. You and your practice must be cognizant of what your online reputation is. Hopefully, you can now see the importance of how branding serves these goals. Naturally, your brand must be aligned with your online reputation; your mark must be present in these social media platforms. Do you know what your online reputation is? Are you aware of the patient reviews and health grades you have received? Are there any negative reviews or pages if you Google your name or your practice name? Monitoring of these aspects is crucial and, if any negative reviews exist, they must be addressed because they will not disappear.
Online strategies for practice promotion
For eyecare professionals, the best strategy for practice promotion is a heavy focus on content. Whether it be patient resources, medical updates, examples of expertise (e.g., publications, presentations), specialized content reflecting your brand is the simplest and most effective strategy. As the needs of the patient change, you can address this with content that reflects your brand. This is easily distributed via social media. Let your content reflect your brand and ensure that your practice owns your brand and message.
Another important component in this strategy is authenticity. Don’t hand over the keys of your social media accounts to someone who is not as entrenched or does not wholeheartedly believe in the values of your practice. Practice promotion via social media is not a passive act—it’s an active pursuit that must evolve as your practice patterns change and your patient population grows. This means a commitment to constant updates. Practice website and social media accounts need to be updated regularly. Think of these as moving vehicles where lack of updates can stagnate your branding message and convey the undesirable message of not being at the forefront of eyecare.
Where do you start?
The most common question I’m asked is, “where do I start promoting my practice?” Twitter is the logical starting point for any eyecare professional. Assuming you have a strong practice website—and if you don’t have this, do it now—think of Twitter as your “micro-blog”. Your tweets allow you to highlight your brand and connect with colleagues, patients and others in an easily digestible and enjoyable form. Tweets of 280 characters or less don’t require significant energy and time inputs. Most importantly, with Twitter, anyone can read Tweets; in other words , although only registered users can post Tweets and comments, anyone with an internet connection can view your Tweets. Thus, patients without Twitter accounts can still survey your practice message. A record of all Tweets is stored on your home page which nicely offers a summary of your practice.
Pearls and pitfalls of social media for eyecare practics
Finally, a couple of pitfalls that you need to be aware of. First, and by far the most important, you cannot provide specific patient information online. This violates patient privacy and has serious legal consequences. Do not, under any circumstance, use an online platform to communicate directly with a patient about a specific medical problem. In cases where a patient may want to communicate, I recommend you or your office contact that patient directly by phone and move the discussion to a private phone call, secure telemedicine portal, or in-office visit. Second, be careful with the sale of products on your website. This has the potential for conflicts of interest which can damage patient-physician and patient-practice relationships.
We have covered branding, social media platforms, and physician rating sites, and analyzed basic strategies for practice promotion via social media that eyecare professionals can use. However, to borrow a cliché, this is the tip of the iceberg: aspects like search engine optimization, content filters, Google keywords are topics too large to review here but have a significant impact on your ability to promote your brand online. Nonetheless, best wishes on your online development and on the successful promotion of both you and in your eyecare practice.