Article Date: 4/1/2010

What Role Should Social Media Play in Your Practice

What Role Should Social Media Play in Your Practice?

Blogs, Facebook and Twitter excite, while new capabilities help websites and email shed their old-school images.

By Mary Pat Whaley, FACMPE, Roanoke Rapids, N.C.

You're probably using social media in your relationships. Using social media in business is all about relationships, too.

According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 8 out of 10 Internet users have looked online for health information. Social media is the vehicle that can guide them to you and your practice. It's also a way to keep your current patient base engaged in your practice and build a viable community of loyal, repeat customers.

Lay a Foundation: Your Website

Start by establishing your Internet presence with a quality website. Even if you don't have any idea where you'll practice, or with whom, I suggest buying a few domain names now. You may or may not use them, but they're cheap (less than $10 per year), and everyone should own his or her own name.

Consider a registrar such as goDaddy.com or Register.com and look for a few names to start. For example, if your name is John B. Smith, you could purchase johnbsmith.com, johnsmith.com, drjohnbsmith.com, drjohnsmith.com, drsmitheyedoctor.com, or perhaps something more flashy, such as besteyedoctorinVA.com.

You can buy .net names too, but more and more extensions are out there, so I would concentrate on domains with the familiar .com extension. If you never use a certain domain as your site name, you can always help drive traffic to your actual website by “pointing” the other domains, such as your name, to your actual site.

Keep It Interactive and Changing

Websites aren't just billboards anymore, so patients expect your website to be interactive. In addition to finding your location, hours and phone number, patients want the ability to pre-register as a new patient, make an appointment as an established patient, and communicate with you about prescriptions, eyeglasses and contacts.

As a patient, I would appreciate the convenience of getting an email from my optometrist when my next exam is coming up or when I'm about to run out of contacts. In that email, there should be a link to connect me with your site to schedule my exam or to purchase my eyeglasses or contact lenses on the spot. (See “Buying Glasses and Contacts Online — Through Your Website.”)

Finally, you need to keep improving your website. On a regular basis, ask a cross-section of patients (all ages, male and female) what they'd like to see on your website. Ask a group to come to your practice. Show them your website and ask for their feedback. Then give them a gift certificate for lunch or the movies to thank them for their time and opinions.

Extend Your Presence on Facebook

Facebook is the ideal extension of your website presence. The site is frequented by more women than men,1 so it's the perfect practice-builder because women make more healthcare decisions than men. Facebook is similar to a mini-blog, and you can use some of the same material for it that you would for a blog.

Make a personal Facebook account under your own name, and then start a fan page for your business. These things are ideal for your Facebook fan page:

■ Announcements about your practice related to staff members, occasions, milestones and so on
■ Promotions in your practice, such as deals on contacts or eyeglasses
■ Patients' questions about eye issues and your answers
■ Photos from practice events, promotions or holidays
■ YouTube videos on relevant health topics or videos you've made to document a child's first visit to your practice or a patient's first day with contact lenses
■ Before-and-after photos of your patients' old versus new eyeglasses or eyeglasses versus contact lenses (with the patient's permission, of course, or patients can post to your fan page themselves)
■ A contest for the person with the ugliest glasses — your fans can vote and you can provide a gift certificate or a discount incentive to the "winner," so he can purchase updated eyewear.

A practice manager or other employee can handle your Facebook page. The important thing is to get started and plan to regularly dedicate some effort to the page. Rather than just putting it up, actually make it work for your business.

Update Facebook Consistently

If you check, you'll find no shortage of optometric practices with Facebook pages that end in a back-to-school sale or a 2009 Christmas promotion. It's spring! You or someone on your staff needs to update your Facebook page consistently so it doesn't look forgotten.

DeAnne Witherspoon, OD, is in private practice in Rogers, Ark. (visionsource-drswitherspoon.com). She and her staff discuss possible blasts for the practice's Facebook page (bit.ly/ODFacebook) at regular office meetings.

"Our goal is to update it twice a month, and we always do it at least once a month," she explains. "Whenever we think of something new or different, it's an idea for Facebook. We do sales or promotions, such as a Valentine's Day 2-for-1 sale and a St. Patrick's Day sale on green frames. We might do something for computer users or target college kids who are home from school."

The practice also uses its fan page to announce new product lines, point friends to articles that feature the practice and conduct question-and-answer sessions.

"Facebook definitely limits your audience compared with advertising, but instead of addressing the whole public, we're addressing our existing patients and others who are genuinely interested in the practice," Dr. Witherspoon says. "After less than a year, the page has 120 friends, but it's hard to say how many others might read and see it. I tried a test at 4 o'clock one afternoon and offered 50% off frames to the first person who showed up the next morning with a prescription. Someone was waiting at the door!"

Dr. Witherspoon initially started the Facebook page herself, but she found an excellent person to handle the page — a former employee with a pre-optometry education. “You start something because you think it's a good idea, but then you realize that you don't have the time or staff to follow through,” she says. Now this former employee adds all the content that Dr. Witherspoon and her staff want to use on Facebook to keep it looking current, not neglected.

Buying Glasses and Contacts Online — Through YOUR Website

When patients started replenishing their contact lens supplies through discount websites, practices lost money. Some responded by adding online ordering capabilities to their own websites. Short of selling an annual supply, it's the best way to keep that business in your practice. But now some practitioners are exploring a similar avenue for contact lenses and eyeglasses that requires far less infrastructure and investment.
For the past four months, Kim Castleberry, OD, CEO of Plano Eye Associates in Plano, Texas (PlanoEye.com), has been part of a trial system initiated by Essilor that enables him to sell eyeglasses and contact lenses through the Online Optical Store on his practice website.
He stopped selling contact lenses years ago, but he has seen “a very large number” of patients buying contacts online in just a few months. “We're selling contact lenses without selling them in house — so there's no overhead, just a check — and I'm excited about the potential in retail eyewear,” says Dr. Castleberry. “Patients can try on frames here and order them online through our optical kiosk, which has a 55-inch screen, or they can use a virtual try-on online. Soon, they'll let patients upload their own image to see how new frames will look on their face. Our patients can also use the system to order frames that we don't carry, like Oakleys. Our optician walks them through it online.”
Dr. Castleberry wanted to try the Essilor system to avoid past mistakes. “This is a big-box city of 250,000 people. Years ago, I didn't think people would look at those stores as legitimate places to buy eyeglasses. I was dead wrong,” Dr. Castleberry admits. “Now there's increased pressure in Internet sales of eyeglasses — a fairly low segment, but one of the fastest growing — and we're not ready to concede that market. I have patients coming in with two, three, even four pairs of eyeglasses that they ordered online.
“I wanted to get in front of the curve. To do that, I needed a tool that would help me compete, and now I've got it.”

Blog About Your Practice

You can draw potential new patients to your website with a blog about your practice. A blog extends and enhances your relationship with existing and future patients. It also can help establish you as an expert if patients can find the answers to routine questions or read your opinions about relevant news stories on your site.

Starting a blog about your practice is not nearly as hard as you might think. You can write it yourself or appoint your office manager, a staff member or another doctor who has the ability and time to write the blog once a week.

As an alternative, there are writing professionals who can create and write a blog for you. Professional bloggers get to know your practice and your patient demographic and create a voice for your practice that is unique and fits you.

Blog to Build Your Reputation

Another way to approach blogging is to focus on your area of interest. This focus may bring in patients, and it also helps you build an expert reputation among your colleagues.

Leslie O'Dell, OD, FAAO, practices at the May Eye Center in Hanover, Pa. (mayeyecare.com). Since January 2009, she's been writing a dry eye blog (helpmydryeyes.wordpress.com), which patients and colleagues also can follow on Twitter (twitter.com/helpmydryeyes).

“A blog is a great way to grow professionally, especially if you're just opening a practice,” she says. “With a blog, I offer patients more information, update them regularly about dry eye and get my name and specialty out there.”

Blog posts address how to live with dry eye and keep comfortable, cover anything that's new with dry eye treatment, link to other people's blogs and magazines and answer readers' questions.

Dr. O'Dell started the blog to help her dry eye patients, and she handed out cards to drive patients to the site. She also points patients toward the blog through the practice's email lists. Her colleagues, both ophthalmologists, have been very supportive of her blog, which may become even more important to the business as the practice sets up a special dry eye treatment center.

So far, new patients haven't been the payoff, but that doesn't mean there isn't one. “No one has come in because they saw the blog,” Dr. O'Dell says. “But it helps me promote our dry eye services. It lets patients know that we're on the cutting edge, and patients who subscribe to the blog require less time in the chair because they've already educated themselves about dry eye.”

Other ODs began following her on Twitter, as well, and now she also has a professional link on her blog for colleagues. She can even send direct messages to colleagues through the blog if she has a question about treatment. Based on the exposure that blogging has given her, Dr. O'Dell also has been asked to do podcasts and write a column.

So, how much time does this take?

“My husband would tell you that I spent a lot of time on it at the beginning! It takes a few hours a month right now, and I'd like to do something substantial once a month now that it's more established,” she says.

Use Twitter for Convenience

Social media can make your patients' lives easier. Patients that need your services are looking for easy. They have busy lives, lots to remember and lots to do. If you can make eye care and vision products easy and convenient for them, they'll utilize your services.

This is one place that Twitter can be an asset. Your staff can send a direct message to a patient to let her know:

■ The appointment schedule is running behind. Can you come a half-hour later?
■ The appointment schedule is running ahead. Can you come a half-hour earlier?
■ Your eyeglasses/contacts are in.
■ According to your replacement schedule, you're probably running out of contact lenses. Do you want the office to order more for you?
■ How's your first week in [new contact lenses, spectacles, trifocals] going? Remember, you should be experiencing [fill in the blank]. If you're having problems, be sure to call me at [your phone number].

All of these are excellent uses of Twitter because they facilitate patients' needs and desires. Bad uses of Twitter are ones that are too self-serving or too frequent. If people get annoyed with the way you tweet, they'll unsubscribe. In addition, have a system in place for patients to contact your practice directly – social media isn't meant to be one-sided. (See “Get Off the Phone with Email and Automated Text.”)

Tweet to Inform and Network

Twitter can be used as another method to get the word out about your practice. You can tweet when you post new information on your blog or when there's an event in your practice. You can also follow other local Twitterati (elite Twitterers with many followers) and start tuning in to the “word on the street.”

Omar D. Garza, OD, is the owner of Andros Eye Center in San Antonio, Texas (androseyecenter.com), which has a robust presence on Twitter (twitter.com/androseyecenter).

“I heard about Twitter at a speaking engagement. Someone told me, ‘You've got to get on this!’ so I set it up a year ago,” Dr. Garza recalls. “It's the new chamber of commerce. Our generation is using social media to connect with other businesses and fields of practice. But you have to be dedicated and know what things will or won't work for your patient population, or don't expect it to work for you.”

Dr. Garza set up Twitter accounts under his business name for those who are seeking him, as well as under San Antonio EyeCare to catch people who are searching for an optometrist. He culls his posts from the AOA news service, highlights various disease awareness months, and tweets about the practice's specials and new frame lines. He offers some advice for managing the work involved with Twitter.

“If you do it, you have to be committed to it, just like any other social media. You can't set up an account and tweet once a month. But other than your time, it's free advertising for a couple of minutes a day,” says Dr. Garza. “I do it myself because I want to be the one posting about my business. A program called Tweet Deck — one of several similar applications — helps me manage my time by posting to Twitter and Face book accounts simultaneously.”

Like Dr. O'Dell, Dr. Garza hasn't seen a lot of direct patient response to his social media efforts, but he has grabbed the attention of other local businesses, which he hopes will lead to new patients. He has drawn the attention of other mediums, as well. “I was asked to be the exclusive online blogger for my specialty in the San Antonio Express,” Dr. Garza says. “They found me the same way New OD found me!”

Get Off the Phone — Use Automated Email and Texting

Using social media increases your presence in the world, especially among intensive computer users. How do those computer users want to set up or confirm an appointment? Hint: Not over the phone.
David L. Kading, OD, FAAO, of Specialty Eye care Group in Kirkland, Wash. (specialtyeye.com), uses Smile Reminder, one of several patient messaging systems available on the market for automated appointments verification. “It digs into our practice management system and sends both email and text messages to patients to remind them that they have an appointment coming up”, he explains. “Patients have the option to confirm their appointment with the click of a button in the email.”
Only patients who don't confirm their appointments receive a phone call, which cuts down on phone time for Dr. Kading's staff. He says almost all of his patients are confirmed ahead of time, but it took some time to “train” patients to reply.
Dr. Kading encourages patients to email the practice, rejecting the idea that every interaction needs to happen over the phone. “All the messages have our email address, and the staff checks email first thing, every day. If a patient is confused or has questions or concerns, we can address the concerns via email or over the phone, if the patient prefers. In health care, we're moving toward patients using the Internet for all kinds of communication, and email is a good start for a broad sample of patients.”
Like other avenues, email systems also can be used to send marketing messages, but they're especially good for newsletters and individual messages, such as birthday wishes, holiday greetings and discounts or special offers.

Get the Wheels in Motion

As you make decisions about social media for your practice, think of your website as the center of the wheel that is your practice, while social media alternatives are the spokes that go out into the world. They introduce patients to you and keep you in the minds of your existing patients so they'll return to your practice.

Don't just list your website on handouts, appointment cards and receipts — mention your social sites on there, too. Even your automated communication, appointment reminders, on-hold messages, reception area kiosks or DVDs, email signatures and electronic newsletters should direct patients to your blog, Face book page, or Twitter account. Invite others to join you on those services. The more ways you find to introduce people to your social media efforts, the greater reach those social media spokes will have into your community. nOD

Reference

  1. Aronsson L, Male B. Is Your Target Audience On Twitter, Face book, Or LinkedIn? Business Insider. Feb. 19, 2010. Available at: bit.ly/dvujfC
Ms. Whaley is Board Certified in Healthcare Management and a Fellow in the American College of Medical Practice Executives. She is the author of “30 Days to a Front-End Patient Collection Program.” Read her blog at managemypractice.com.


Optometric Management, Issue: April 2010