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Ten Key Questions You Should Ask Before Diving Into Social Media

“Social Media” is more than just a marketing buzzword; as the Internet increasingly becomes the medium of choice for researching health information social media has become an important channel for improving the patient experience. A 2013 study conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project found that 72% of U.S. internet users had gone online in the past year specifically for health-related information.  Eight-in-ten online health seekers say they began at a search engine such as Google, Bing, or Yahoo. This is especially true for millennials. According to a Nuance survey, 54% of people ages 18 to 24 say they search online for health information and rely on online physician ratings before seeing a doctor. And it’s not just the young, tech-savvy generations that can be reached on social media; one of the fastest growing demographics engaging in social media is the 55-65 year age group.

Not only are patients seeking health information online, they are also using social media to research health information, track and share symptoms and vocalize how they feel about their doctors, drugs, treatment plans, insurance, and medical devices. Many say their choice of a specific doctor, hospital or medical treatment is influenced by social media. While social media can have a direct impact on the ability of health organizations to attract and retain new patients, it can also deliver a human touch to the patient experience at scale. Social media allows healthcare professionals to create more meaningful connections with patients throughout each stage of their health journeys.

Those health care professionals who are yet to embrace the social media revolution can no longer afford to remain reactive to its changes. Nevertheless, while it’s tempting to jump straight into social media, a more thoughtful and planned approach is first called for. Social media marketing is more than just creating social accounts and posting updates once in a while. Nor is it merely a digital tool to broadcast updates. To make social media an effective means to reach patients you need to take a strategic approach.

Sharpening Your Digital Axe

Abraham Lincoln once said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I’ll spend the first four sharpening the axe.” To help you sharpen your digital axe, this article guides you through ten questions which you should ask – and answer - to help you develop a social media plan. Whether you are a beginner, or you have been using social media for some time, answering these key questions will help drive your strategy towards success.

#1 What Do You Want To Achieve With Social Media?

This is a critical first question to answer. Until you have a clear picture of what you want to achieve, your social media marketing will remain unfocussed. Do you want to attract more patients? Communicate more effectively with existing patients? Create and maintain an online reputation? Chances are you may want to do all of these things, but it’s best to identify your top two to three goals and focus on them first. Whichever goal you wish to pursue, make it as detailed and specific as possible. The more trackable your goal is, the easier it’ll be in a few months to see if you have achieved it.

Take Action: Set S.M.A.R.T. social media goals, i.e. goals that are specific, measurable, and achievable within a defined time-frame. For example, instead of saying you want to grow your number of Twitter followers, set a numerical value and a deadline, such as “grow our Twitter followers by 25 per cent by the end of the first quarter.”

#2 Who Do You Want To Reach With Social Media?

Understanding the people you’re interacting with online is key to creating an experience that relates directly to them. Focus on identifying your audience, where they go online for research, what issues they are concerned with, and which communities inform or influence them.

Take Action: Start by finding data on your existing audience. Use the Demographics and Interests sections of Google Analytics and the audience analytics features contained within Facebook Insights and Twitter to help you.

#3 Which Social Media Sites Should You Use?

The short answer to this question is to go where your patients already are. While the trifecta of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are extremely popular, newer platforms such as Pinterest, Snapchat and Instagram have gained enormously in popularity in recent times. This doesn’t mean that you have to be everywhere at once. Not all platforms will serve your particular goals and target audience. This is why it’s essential you answer questions #1 and #2 before you decide to invest your time in a particular social platform.

Take Action:  Match your audience demographics to their social use. Consult Pew Research Center’s The Demographics of Social Media Users, which is a useful guide to different social media platforms and their users.

#4 What Is Your Budget?

The perception that social media is free is misguided. The days you could make an impact with a few tweets or Facebook posts are long gone. Running a social presence now requires an investment of resources. You may need to buy-in services such as SEO (search engine optimization), analytics software, content or creative support. Time is also a cost factor. Look at what takes you the most time to do. Can you spend money to make these processes more efficient? You will also need to budget for paid advertising, particularly if you want to make an impact on Facebook, where organic reach has steadily declined over the past few years.

Take ActionSet a realistic budget and create a digital marketing strategy that works within it. Whatever you decide to spend money or time on, be sure to track how your content performs on social media relative to the amount of time and money you put against it. This is your social media return of investment (ROI) and it is closely linked to the goals you set at step #1.

#5 What Style and Tone of Voice Should You Use?

How do you wish to communicate on social media? Do you wish to be seen as authoritative, inspiring, friendly, approachable, or helpful? What values does your organization stand for? What unique qualities make you stand out? Answering these questions will help you develop your own identifiable style and tone of voice.

Take Action: Be human and relatable. Use social media to communicate the “who” and “why” of your practice. Authentic communication and engagement are highly valued traits online as much as offline. Look to build and strengthen trust and credibility in all your online interactions.

#6 What Kind of Content Should You Create?

If patients are searching for health information online you need to be creating and sharing what they are searching for. Tune into the health stories patients are reading about and be ready to provide context, counter misinformation and dispel myths with medically factual information. Keep in mind the content that works best on the social platforms you have chosen to use. Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest require high quality visuals to stand out. A blog on the other hand is better suited to long-form thought pieces. Think about how you can vary your message delivery to complement how people like to consume online information. Alternate between written content, video, infographics, and podcasts to match your audience’s preferences.

Take Action: Create content that truly resonates with your patients. Generally speaking, patients are less interested in your brand, your physicians or your technology, than they are in how you can help them solve their problems. Great content is not about you, but about what you can do for your patients to improve their quality of life.

#7 What Are Other Healthcare Organizations Doing?

You can learn a lot by observing what other healthcare organizations are doing online. Which social platforms do they use? What type of content do they share? How often do they share it? How does their audience respond to them? How have they chosen to use images and videos?

Take Action: Compare your competitors’ digital footprint against your own. What are they doing really well? How might you do it better? What aren’t they currently doing that you could do well?

#8 Who Will Be Responsible For Social Media?

You may wish to take full responsibility for maintaining your social media presence, but if you are giving the task to someone in your organization, or hiring outside help, you need to ensure they are the right person for the job.

Take Action: There are many different roles which make up a social media marketing job (for example content creation, e-mail marketing, social media management, etc.). Clearly define the roles and outline the responsibilities of this position for your ideal candidate.

#9 How Will You Monitor Social Media?

It’s important to monitor social media on a regular basis to keep on top of what people are saying about you, your organization, or topical health issues. From a marketing perspective, social media monitoring will help you determine the impact you are making, and if required, make adjustments to your strategy.

Take Action: One of the main keys to social media success is listening and responding in a timely way. Responding in real time strengthens public perception that your focus is strongly centered on patient satisfaction.   There are many free and paid monitoring tools which vary in scope and range across a number of sites, real-time or delayed searching, sophistication of analytics, flexibility of data presentation, integration with other applications, and cost. Which one you choose will depend on your budget and the level of analytics you wish to achieve. Even setting up a simple Google Alert (email updates of the latest relevant Google results based on your queries) with relevant keywords is a good place to start.

#10 How Will You Measure Results?

How do you know if all the time you’re investing in social media is paying off? A “spray and pray” approach will not help you determine your return on investment. By tying your social media goals to your metrics you will be able to track and measure your activities more strategically. A good way to think about ROI is to measure desired outcomes. For example, if your goal is to attract new patients, think about how you will track the conversion rate from social media.

Take Action: Go beyond vanity metrics such as likes, shares, or retweets to measure reach, audience engagement, sign-ups and conversions. Use Google Analytics, Facebook Pixels (a piece of code that placed on your website that allows you to track conversions from Facebook ads), and UTM parameters (short text codes added to a URL to track important data about website visitors and traffic sources) to track website traffic, conversions, and sign-ups from social media activity.


With currently 2.8 billion social media users globally, expected to rise to almost 3 billion users by 2020, social media’s influence has still not reached its peak. It’s a dynamic environment in which new networks emerge, old networks evolve, and user bases continue to grow exponentially. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by this rapidly moving landscape and unsure of your progress. By building your social media strategy on a solid foundation you are less likely to become distracted by shiny new tools, and more likely to see results over the long-term. Your strategy starts with answering these ten questions; your answers will provide focus for your efforts, grow the reputation of your health experts, attract prospective patients, and ultimately improve the patient experience.

Marie Ennis-O’Connor , a member of the MCSMN External Advisory Boardis a digital communications strategist and an internationally recognized speaker and writer on emerging trends in digital health and participatory medicine. Marie works with clients to create patient engagement strategies, co-design research, and increase clinical trial recruitment. 

Editor's Note: Mayo Clinic's Social Media Residency is designed to facilitate strategic planning in application of social media tools in health care and to help you "sharpen your digital axe." Your next opportunity to participate in the program is Dec. 13 on our Mayo Clinic campus in Scottsdale, Ariz. following our Dec. 11-12 2017 MCSMN Annual Conference. Get discounted pricing when you attend both.

Thanks for writing this excellent post, @MarieEnnisOConnor! As you consult with clients and present at conferences, what do you find is the biggest challenge organizations are facing with social media right now?


Hi Dan, I guess finding time and managing that time effectively is one of the biggest challenges, along with not knowing what is actually working. From my own perspective, when I take on a client and I am trying to get buy-in from their staff, it can be challenging to get them to participate in content creation and promotion.


Hi Dan, I guess finding time and managing that time effectively is one of the biggest challenges, along with not knowing what is actually working. From my own perspective, when I take on a client and I am trying to get buy-in from their staff, it can be challenging to get them to participate in content creation and promotion.

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Ah, yes, the client buy-in dilemma. Everyone loves the idea, but when it comes down to developing content that’s another story.

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