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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St. Joseph's social media goals include reaching out to people to carry on conversations about their health long after they've left the hospital, Solomon says. For example, the subject of a recent St. Joseph Facebook post was, "How do you use superfoods?"

The organization also uses Facebook and Twitter to drive users to a landing page where they can sign up for a newsletter, make an appointment or otherwise securely interact with hospital staffers. For example, a recent breast health campaign included posts on the hospital's Facebook timeline that directed women to a landing page where they could schedule a mammogram.

Physicians also use social media to relay credible information to patients who may be searching the Internet for medical information only to find bad advice from unreliable sources.

That's why Boston Children's Hospital makes sure all of its 60,000 pages of online content goes through a peer-review process, says Margaret Coughlin, senior vice president and chief marketing and communications officer at Boston Children's.

With over 741,000 likes, Boston Children's has the second-highest number of Facebook followers of any children's hospital -- St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis is No. 1.

Coughlin says Boston Children's "got ahead of the curve" by studying the way people choose hospitals and doctors. This involved developing a proprietary model based on primary and secondary research of patients and nonpatients to see how many social media sources they and their families and friends turned to when researching illnesses and healthcare facilities.

The hospital also tracked how people interacted with these information sources. "We wanted to know where and how patients were getting their information and the likelihood of them going back to a certain social media site for information," says Coughlin.

It became clear that word-of-mouth and references from friends and relatives were most important to consumers. "Social networking gives word-of-mouth a whole new meaning, as those friends could include their online friends as well," Coughlin says.

The research also yielded a surprise. Whether a child had cancer or hip pain, the number of sources searched was not that different, says Coughlin. "This made us realize we needed to expand the information we provide to patients in as many social media platforms as possible."

Interestingly, some patients aren't concerned with their own privacy. "We have patients who want their lab test results via Twitter, which isn't appropriate," Coughlin says, "but it tells us that people are interested in fast information." In response, the hospital created a secure portal called MyChildren, where patients can get their lab results and other information.

As for employee social networking rules, no one outside of Coughlin's department is allowed to blog as a representative of Boston Children's Hospital. And no employees can dispense medical advice via social media, although general information and links to helpful sites is fine.

When social media first came on the scene, some executives at companies in regulated industries resisted, in what Prescient's Ward calls a knee-jerk reaction to new technology. But with a few precautions, these companies can engage, connect and converse with customers as effectively as organizations in any other sector.

Melone is a freelance writer based in Orange County, Calif. She specializes in consumer topics ranging from health to technology and business. Contact her at Linda@LindaMelone.com.

This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an article that appeared earlier on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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