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Article Date: 9/1/2010

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Is it Time for Your Practice to Connect?
social media

Is it Time for Your Practice to Connect?

How to address the millions of social media website users who respond to a new brand of marketing

Lee Ann Murphy, contributing editor

Several years ago, many of us may have wondered, "Why are all these teenagers exposing their lives on MySpace?" Today, social media sites are no longer the sole domain of the "25 and younger" crowd. For instance, Facebook estimates it has more than 500 million active users. Adults "friend" their kids, parents, coworkers, poker buddies and friends from high school, among others. They become "fans" of businesses, clubs and grassroots initiatives. No longer a mystery, social media sites are the places to be.

"The average age of a social networker is 37 years old," says Karen Rocks, who owns Sparkfire Marketing, a medical marketing consulting firm. "For a suburban family practice, this is your target patient age range."

Those optometrists who have begun to use social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, are finding that social media is not just a fun add-on to the marketing strategy. It really can produce results.

The first week that Midwest City Vision Source became "really proactive on Twitter" was the same week it set up its first appointment through Twitter, says Keely Rowe, who manages the website and social media at the Midwest City, Okla. practice. "The following week we had two more appointments through Twitter," she says. "So, we're definitely seeing results. There are simply people out there — more and more of them — who use this technology to communicate. They're not going to get on the phone."

Authenticity is what counts

Social media is a new way of looking at marketing. It requires a kind of day-to-day authenticity that differs from more traditional forms of marketing, where customers do not post opinions of your business — both good and bad — in real time.

"The level of authenticity is immediately apparent to people," says optometrist Nate Bonilla-Warford, of Bright Eyes Family Vision Care, in Tampa, Fla. "So doctors need to avoid being too aggressive with marketing messages on these sites or the quality of relationships will suffer."

It's a delicate balance, and while experts admit it sounds cliché, they say the best advice for those starting is: Be yourself. Here is some other sage advice from doctors who have found success in the time of Facebook.

Identify your targets

Before you start posting on social media sites, consider your goals. For example:

► Do you simply want to build relationships with existing patients?
► Do you want to attract new patients?
► Do you want to strengthen ties with other optometrists or with the local small business community in your area?

These goals will help you identify your target audience, as well as the appropriate content and websites for your posts. For example, Alan Glazier, O.D., of Shady Grove Eye and Vision Care, in Rockville, Md., set the goal of driving new business into his practice (see "A New Paradigm for Marketing," below).

Ms. Rowe says she uses social media interaction to build a reputation for the practice within the community.

"We want people to be thinking of their eye care," she says. "And I want them to associate our practice with that, so when people think of contacts or glasses they're going to think of our practice first."

"Personally, I've found that many of the movers and shakers in my area are busy in the social media sphere," says Dr. Bonilla-Warford. In fact, by using social media to connect with these influential voices in the community, he says he's been able to develop relationships with a lot of small business owners, which he says has led to a mutual support system that would have been difficult or impossible in more traditional media.

Optometrist Justin Bazan, of Park Slope Eye, in Brooklyn, N.Y., says he takes a very specific approach to each of the three social media sites he uses.

"Our primary goal on Facebook and Twitter is patient loyalty building," he says. "It's going to be the loyal patients that support your practice and the loyal patients that give you the most referrals. And by actively engaging with them on Facebook, you're going to see some pretty big returns."

Dr. Bazan says he's found that Yelp (www.yelp.com), a site that features business reviews, is an effective patient recruiting tool.

"It's a user-generated review site, and it's becoming one of our main referral sources," he says.

Dr. Bonilla-Warford says he's found additional success with a platform called Foursquare (www.foursquare.com), another user-generated site that allows people to share information about their favorite stores, shops, doctors and more.

A New Paradigm for Marketing

Shady Grove Eye and Vision Care, in Rockville, Md., doesn't use direct mail or practice newsletters. Several years ago, the practice's owner, Alan N. Glazier, O.D., scaled back the practice's Yellow Pages ad, from $1,700 a month to a $400 listing. At first Dr. Glazier says he felt "like the emperor with no clothes — totally exposed." The growth of the practice now depended on internal marketing and word-of-mouth referrals.
Then in 2006, a patient introduced him to the social media aspects of the new version of the web, Web 2.0, which promotes interactivity among users. With Web 2.0, "you don't have to pay to advertise — you just have to put some work into it, mostly creating content relevant to the subject matter potential patients want to read about, and proliferate it," says Dr. Glazier.
After four years, Dr. Glazier's social media journey boasts impressive results. The practice's marketing budget fell from a high $7,500 a month (including Yellow Pages, an "expensive" Google AdWords campaign and other marketing services) to less than $500 per month. "And my new patient numbers are growing, without any external print marketing," says Dr. Glazier.
At "Optometry's Meeting," Dr. Glazier outlined his social media footprint in a press conference sponsored by CooperVision, which has recently helped hundreds of practices to build and implement their social media strategies. While the central point in the social media program is the practice's website, www.youreyesite.com, Shady Grove utilizes a number of sites, including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn (a business-oriented social networking site), Delicious.com (a social bookmarking service), Digg.com (a social news website), StumbleUpon.com (a web-browser extension for discovering and sharing websites) and the practice's blog.
Large amounts of relevant content on his website ensure that youreyesite.com ranks at the top of the search engines, such as Google. Content also keeps patients, Facebook friends and Twitter followers connected to his social media efforts.
Shady Grove Eye and Vision Care's social media strategies can be adopted by other practices, says Dr. Glazier. The biggest challenge may be in the start-up.
"There are many options for participating in social media, and you only have to pick a few you are comfortable with and stick with them for three to six months to reap the rewards," he says. "Don't be afraid to spend money seeking help in the beginning — your investment will pay off."

Content: match your online and in-office personas

With target audiences and social media websites chosen, what should you post? Clearly, posting overt marketing messages a few times a day just won't cut it. A better approach is to think of social media as an extension of your practice, say those interviewed. Take that personality you've developed in your office, and translate it to a message on a social media website. Also, consider who your fans and followers are and what interests them, those interviewed say.

Ms. Rowe says she tries to make her posts a mix of useful information about eye care, news about community-related events she's involved in, news about the practice and a sprinkling of fun as well. For instance, when the Lady Gaga-inspired illegal circle contact lenses made headlines, Ms. Rowe posted about it. She says it was the perfect mix of fun celebrity gossip and a legitimate eyecare issue.

Further, Ms. Rowe says she posts news about the practice. For instance, she says she lets Facebook fans and Twitter followers know when the office receives a new shipment of designer frames.

Ms. Rowe says she also posts about local events in which the practice participates — anything from a high school event to a local fair. She says this is essential because helping patients learn more about events around town keeps patients connected to the practice.

Ms. Rocks agrees with this approach, noting that it's beneficial to put your audience's interests first.

"Remember that it's not always about you and your practice," she says. "Instead of always being in the spotlight, it can help you to shine a light on other people's accomplishments in the medical community or the community in which you live."

"I think you need to have a steady stream of information that's useful to anyone using the site," says optometrist Walt Mayo, who's CEO of the web development company, Doctor- Sights. "You can include general eye health, new research about eyes or even general health information. And you can pepper in items that are more directly related to your practice like a vision screening or a trunk show."

Content that engages

One pitfall, however, is posting information that is too technical for the average fan. Beyond this guideline, what content should you post on social media sites? Whatever content best engages your audience, say those interviewed. For example, Dr. Bazan says he doesn't include general eye health information or research in his social media content. Instead, he says he keeps his posts fun and community-oriented.

"We don't really do things related to eye care," he says. "The only people who find that interesting are other doctors. That material is dry, and we want to have more of a personality come through, as opposed to just posting news clips."

Dr. Bazan says he does look for a connection to the eyes, however. "We recently posted something called Your Beautiful Eyes photography search. It was intense, extreme close-ups of the eye."

He adds that his practice also posted an eyerelated music video. "The song is called ‘Lazy Eye,’ and it had a million hits on YouTube. So I knew people already liked it, and it's got some eye-related content."

In addition, he says he stays in contact with the local community. "If there's a local photographer who is a patient, we ask if we can post one of his pictures and let our Facebook fans see it as well. Those have been some of our most popular posts."

However, other practices have found success in posting eyecare-related information. For instance, Ms. Rowe says one of her most popular posts was a simple informational link called, "Can My Contact Lens Get Lost in my Eye?"

Both approaches work because each expresses the personality of the practice.

What's the frequency?

If you fear that keeping up with social media will become a second full-time job, find solace in the fact that it is as problematic to post too much as to post too little. It's all about finding the right balance.

"An abandoned Facebook page or Twitter account is like an abandoned building next to your office," says Dr. Bonilla-Warford. "You have to keep up with it or it's not even worth doing."

But it doesn't have to take over your life, he says. "I think it would be possible for an optometrist to market their practice effectively through social media on a half-an-hour-aday or two or three hours a week," says Dr. Bonilla-Warford.

Ms. Rowe admits that getting started requires a little more time, but once you've figured out where to look for information to post, it becomes second nature, and the amount of time you have to devote to updating becomes manageable.

"I probably spend minutes a day," she says. "It definitely gets easier as you get more used to it. Now, if I have some time on a weekend I'll set up a week or two of posts ahead of time. But I like to keep that communitybased interaction, so I'm still going to be checking in every day to see if anyone has a question, or if there's something relevant in the news that the practice needs to respond to."

If you find you can't limit your efforts to a few hours each week or less, consider alternatives other than reducing your presence on social media sites.

"Think about bringing someone in as a consultant or delegating to someone on staff," says Dr. Mayo.

A wide range of frequency of posts exists among optometrists who are well-versed in this technology. Some will post to Facebook as little as once a week, while others will shoot for two to three times a day. On Twitter, the average falls around two to six posts per day.

Ms. Rowe says that a Facebook post once a week is enough to keep fans interested but not annoyed.

"I don't want people to ‘hide’ me or ‘block’ me," she says. "Most people are using Facebook to interact with their friends or to follow their news groups or hobbies. I don't want to be a nuisance."

"I try to have a calendar that keeps me guided," says Dr. Bonilla-Warford. "I'll update Facebook once a day and Twitter several times a day. At least that's the game plan. However, I only post about things that I think are useful. You have to be genuine. If there's nothing I think is interesting it's better not to do anything."

As Dr. Bazan's posts focus more on entertainment and community events, the practice can get away with posting more frequently. The frequent posts may not be as consuming as they would be at another practice because at Dr. Bazan's office, everyone on staff is involved with social media.

When the practice first started with social media, Dr. Bazan says he instituted "Social Media Monday." On that day, each person on the staff was required make one post by a specific time during that day.

"We don't have to do that anymore because the staff is so engaged now," he says. "But when we were first starting out, people who didn't know how to do it were given time to enhance their skills. It's become part of office culture now."

Take advantage of management Tools

To keep efforts consistent, practices utilize a variety of online management tools. Most are free and can be used on a desktop or a mobile device. These social media dashboards consolidate all your social media sites into one place so that you can monitor and update them efficiently.

Ms. Rocks says sites, such as socialoomph (www.SocialOomph.com) "allow you to schedule when your tweets are sent and send them for you."

Ms. Rowe says she uses a site called HootSuite (www.hootsuite.com) to schedule Tweet days in advance.

"It can look like I'm tweeting at 3 a.m. when I actually set that tweet up two days before," she says. "I try to cover the 24-hour cycle so that our name is out there on a fairly regular basis."

"Not only are management sites helpful, they're necessary if you're going to try to do this to effectively promote your practice," says Dr. Bonilla-Warford. "You have to get very efficient and take advantage of the tools that exist."

He says he also uses Hoot-Suite to set up posts, such as his "Word of the Day," an optometry-related vocabulary post he sends at around 10 a.m. to Twitter each day.

"I set up the whole week in 10 or 15 minutes on the weekend," Dr. Bonilla-Warford says.

Dr. Bazan says he uses Postling (www.postling.com). "Right now it's set up to manage Facebook, Twitter, Yelp and my blog all in one place."

To determine which tool is best for you, ask friends or look at a Web 2.0 directory, such as Listio.com, suggests Dr. Mayo.

Measuring your success

Management software is also a way for you to measure what's working and what isn't. Hoot-Suite, for instance, has a link shortener that allows users to measure how many people click through on a given link. This can give you a better idea of what types of posts resonate most with your fans and followers.

"You can also route people from social media posts to your website through specific URLs," suggests Dr. Mayo. "Then, you can measure how many people are getting to your website from your Facebook page."

For measuring new patient referrals, consider user-review sites, such as Yelp and Foursquare. Facebook and Twitter can be used to recruit new patients, but they excel at maintaining and building relationships. (For information on how to measure the success of your website, see "How to Design Your Website," OM August.)

Also, consider the potential value in opening lines of communications with patients and prospective patients.

"Optometrists spend a lot of time communicating with their patients and getting to know their special needs and activities," says Ms. Rocks. "Through this communication, O.D.s understand why a patient may need low seg height bifocals to play golf, or special lenses for computer-intensive jobs. Isn't it only natural to connect to patients and potential patients in social sites and start the communication before they enter the exam room?" OM

Ms. Murphy is a freelance writer and editor based in Fairfield County, Conn.


Optometric Management, Issue: September 2010

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