Article Date: 11/1/2009

Facebook and Patient Loyalty
social networking

Make a Difference — Improve Your Practice

Can you build stronger patient relationships through social networking websites?

DAVE ZIEGLER, O.D., Milwaukee, Wis.

You and your staff affect patient loyalty with every patient interaction. In the office, the process begins with the staff greeting. You, the doctor, continue the relationshipbuilding process as you take an interest in the patient's lifestyle, visual needs and personal life. At every point of contact, your practice has an opportunity to build strong relationships and increase patient loyalty.

Relationship building occurs outside your office as well. For example, patient newsletters written by you and your staff — as opposed to the mass-produced newsletters that you place your name on — are an excellent way to keep your practice's name in front of your patients. Newsletters let patients know what's new in your office. They help your patients get to know your practice. This internal marketing effort shows patients that you're interested in helping them. It encourages patients to connect with your practice several times through the course of the year.

New ways to stay connected

Today, patients have found new ways to stay connected with friends, family and organizations. Social networking websites, such as Facebook and MySpace, are used by tens of millions of people who often log on multiple times a day. Not only do users stay in contact with their existing network, they also build new relationships.

For more than a year, my practice, Ziegler Leffingwell Eyecare, has been using Facebook to connect with our patients. We initially created the page to reach out to our college-age patients. We invited them to "friend us" — the phrase used when one Facebook user connects with another. Our patients do this through a link on our office website, www.zleyecare.com.

In addition, we sent a direct mail postcard to all our 18- to 25-year-old patients, inviting them to connect with us through Facebook.

Facebook is a valuable communication tool because it allows these patients to have constant contact with us, and it provides them with a location where they can find out how to refill a contact lens prescription, ask questions about their eyes, or schedule appointments.

For instance, we occasionally post answers to commonly asked questions on our "wall" — the place on Facebook where you communicate with your "friends." Also, we create "events," or contests in which we've posted an eye trivia question and given away prizes to the first person who's answered the question correctly. We have given away Starbucks gift certificates, tickets to soccer games, and we've even awarded an iPod. Our goal is to build a solid relationship with college-age patients that will continue after they leave college.

Parents have told us they like the connection that their children have with us through Facebook and appreciate our availability while their children are away at school. As for the students themselves, they say they're impressed that our practice is up-to-date with new social networking technology!

Ziegler Leffingwell Eyecare has used facebook to connect with patients for more than a year.

Widening the net

We plan on reaching out to more patients as other age groups migrate to social networking. We've even tried searching Facebook for all our existing patients in the 18- to 25-year-old age group. But when we did, Facebook shut our profile down. (Facebook doesn't approve of companies using the networking website to build their own marketing platform.) Fortunately, my college-age kids have friends who work at Facebook and with their help, we were up and running again in a few days. Shortly after this incident, Facebook announced its "fans" designation. A fan can connect with your practice, but unlike friends, fans don't provide access to their user information, such as age, location and gender.

Scratching the surface

We haven't used social networking very much to market our practice, but we are using it to build patient relationships. We intend to do more direct marketing through Facebook when we have a critical mass of patients with whom to work.

Facebook profiles contain personal information and interests posted by users. These profiles are like scrapbooks of users' lives with photos of what they have done lately, music interests and sports affiliations. Profiles also contain a lot of other information — much of it personal — that makes you wonder why users would publish it.

When companies try to use the personal information about their network of fans or friends to try to sell something, a backlash often occurs. People use social networks to keep in touch with friends, and the content is usually light and casual. They don't appreciate being sold something every time they hear from you anymore than you would like it when an acquaintance tries to sell you something. So, we have avoided this tact and instead just recently started posting excerpts from interesting encounters that occur during our day. For example, I traveled to India on a medical mission last month, and each day I posted notes of what we did and photos. We received a lot of positive feedback from that.

While it seems like Facebook is a marketing tool just waiting to be developed, I think it's more of a connecting tool that you use with your patients to continue to develop long-term relationships. It gives them a chance to get to know your practice in a way that they probably wouldn't during their office visit. Facebook represents a work in progress for us, as we weave social networking into the fabric of our practice. Even the social networking companies have yet to figure out how to monetize their sites. We're riding the wave with them, as we figure out how this will all work.

I encourage you to look into this communication tool that costs you nothing. As it evolves, you will be in a position to benefit from it while building valuable patient relationships. OM

Dr. Ziegler is senior partner in a group private practice in Milwaukee, Wis. and is on the faculty of the Management Business Academy. E-mail him at dziegler@ameritech.net.


Optometric Management, Issue: November 2009