Highly regulated companies tiptoe into social media

Healthcare companies, financial services firms and others are taking advantage of social media, even while awash in rules. Here's how they do it.

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Similar Rules

Insurance industry regulations also require due diligence regarding social media interactions. Generally speaking, these are "the same rules that apply to advertising," says Michele Wingate, social media manager at American Family Insurance in Madison, Wis.

Conversations or interactions posted by agents -- or anything on a social network -- must be archived in case they are needed for a response to any future legal challenge, Wingate says. To do that, American Family uses social media management software from Shoutlet, a provider of cloud-based social marketing tools.

Wingate admits it can be a challenge. "Our agents are eager to tap into other networks, but in order to comply with regulations, we can only use those for which we're able to archive content," she explains. Currently that list includes Facebook and Twitter, and it may be possible to archive LinkedIn content later this year.

Interestingly, the largest response to an American Family corporate Facebook stream had nothing to do with insurance. Instead, it was tied to the company's "Celebrating and Protecting" social media messaging effort, says Wingate. Conversations about National Chili Dog Day in July garnered more than 1,000 engagements (likes, shares and comments) -- a record number, says Wingate. "It was a happy thing, and those interactions kept us top-of-mind," she says.

The Need for Speed

Social media has changed not only the way people interact, but also the speed at which customers expect problems to be solved. "Prior to social media, people wrote snail-mail letters if they had a problem," says Leslie Youngdahl, social media analyst at Consumers Energy's digital care team in Lansing, Mich. "Now, through social media, they expect an immediate response."

Like other utilities, Consumers Energy is regulated by various state agencies, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and other entities. The company has a digital team made up of Youngdahl and two other employees who strive to acknowledge customers' remarks within an hour. They do this via a special email account that each team member can access.

The team members also post content on social networks, and when they discover a customer concern, they notify people in the company who can address the matter. "Even if it's two or three people talking about a subject, we always forward it to the appropriate people," says Youngdahl.

A recent social media conversation, for instance, alerted the digital team to a problem with the wording on the company's website that made it difficult for customers to log in. Youngdahl relayed the posts to the company's Web team and IT department and showed them a report on the trending topic and related keywords. The Web and IT teams then made the necessary changes.

"The conversation on that topic died down within a week after we made the change," says Youngdahl.

Consumers Energy primarily uses social media for customer service and to post updates about outages during storms. But as it reaches out to customers via social media, the company must ensure that it protects their privacy. For example, says Youngdahl, a customer might reveal his account number during an online conversation. When that happens, she says, "we delete it immediately and take the conversation offline."

Healthcare: Patient Privacy First

"As a healthcare service, our No. 1 concern is protecting our patients," says Susan Solomon, vice president of marketing and public relations at St. Joseph Health, a 14-hospital healthcare provider serving California, West Texas and Eastern New Mexico. "It's mainly about privacy issues, but there absolutely are ways to stay within the regulations and make social media work. You simply have to set boundaries up front."

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