The Power of Online Communities: An Evolving Service Line Marketing Tactic

April 19, 2022
Posted by: Danny Flamberg, VP Strategy- HCP

We live in a brand-new world—and I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that the way we view hospitals, healthcare systems, medical clinics, and the like is forever and irrevocably changed. The COVID-19 pandemic, of course, is the reason behind this tectonic shift, and institutions that used to be historically trusted and revered for their life-saving capabilities are now feared and viewed with unease and anxiety.

Which impacts the way hospital service lines are marketed, inherently so.

The pandemic neutralized and stymied traditional hospital service line marketing tactics. And today, as COVID wanes, restrictions are lifted, and surgeries and treatments of all sorts are rescheduled, marketers are faced with a new conundrum.

How do you create messaging, expand reach, and persuade patients, caregivers, and other key stakeholders to once again engage, trust, and opt-in after the two years of collective trauma and anxiety that we have all experienced?  How do you once again create a community around a hospital or healthcare facility when its audience is still feeling nervous and jittery at the prospect of once again being in a place that served as the epicenter to the virus and all that went along with it?

It appears that we need to take a new approach to community building.

The Creation of an Online Community

Here at LiveWorld, one emerging tactic that we have discovered that combines genuine levels of service with measurable marketing impact is the creation of online communities. Living on social media platforms, such as Facebook, these online forums are employed to connect with patients and their caregivers in specific geographies while addressing disease states or conditions. Furthermore, these communities are key in showcasing the strengths associated with a hospital or hospital network.

The communities appeal to individuals and family members who are facing a variety of conditions, including:

  • Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Pain Management
  • Dementia
  • Orthopedic Joint Replacements
  • Maternity
  • And many others…

The forums are structured in such a way to help patients and their caregivers deal with anxiety, worry, uncertainty, and unanswered questions by offering a safe space to connect with others facing the same issue while also allowing the hospital and its skilled providers to be viewed as a trusted resource with one-of-a-kind expertise.

Online Communities Form Significant Connections

When patients and their caregivers have the ability to interact with their peers as well as professionals in a moderated online environment, valuable connections are formed, which leads to offers of validation, sharing of truthful information, and human-focused emotional support. This has the power to transform the hospital-patient relationship and create a new bond that is built on empathy and compassion—the hospital realizes a transition from being a faceless institution to a place where community members feel valued, heard, and seen.

Ultimately, offering an online forum shifts the texture of the relationship and moves the hospital from simply providing random medical transactions to a place where sustained interaction produces a value exchange and a halo effect.  And really, it also builds a patient pipeline that places their trust, first, in the hospital. This ongoing relationship is critical for rebuilding institutional reputations and managing revenue.

Why Online Communities Are Valuable

There are three primary reasons why online communities are valuable to hospital service lines, as well as patients and caregivers. These reasons are:

  1. They deliver new resources to patients and caregivers in the form of support, information, and solidarity. They are able to connect with other people who understand what they are going through.
  2. New insight is offered to non-patients, such as clinicians and providers. By tuning into and participating in an online community, a clinician or provider can gather new information and insight into patients’ symptoms and experiences. This could trigger new research and help improve patient outcomes.
  3. Traditional power dynamics between patients and their providers are challenged. Online communities give patients and caregivers a voice that goes beyond the examination room, which is empowering.

How is an Online Community Created?

Creating an online community takes strategic planning as well as a laser-like focus on the targeted audience. Here are six steps that go into online community creation for a hospital service line:

  1. Pick your shot. Determine exactly where patient needs intersect with the strengths of the hospital’s clinicians and staff members. Assess the size and the needs of likely populations while figuring out the business and service delivery objectives. Then, check the competitive landscape and decide where time and energy should be invested. Also, establish business, relationship, and productivity criteria for measurement and how success will be identified through metrics.
  2. Assemble your team. Identify an executive champion and an operational project owner possessing social media skills. Enroll supportive medical staff for topline direction and for participating in community conversation. Then, find a skilled and empathetic community manager. Finally, mobilize marketing to develop a multi-channel member recruitment campaign.
  3. Build the infrastructure. Decide on a technology or social media platform, such as Facebook, and determine if the community will be public or private. Analyze the IT needs that are required to support a robust and active community and then integrate with EHR, CRM, and other existing systems. Establish a timeline and flesh out governance, compliance, and management plans. Embed appropriate technology to count the total number of members as well as the most active, track attrition, and monitor the number and quality of user-generated responses to posts. Assemble a response library and an escalation protocol by anticipating likely questions, issues, or problems faced by community members. Finally, establish the criteria required for membership.
  4. Develop content. Depending on the therapeutic category of your service line, identify the dominant and trending issues. Consult with your leading practitioners for detailed guidance and feedback. Create a welcome video as well as introductory posts in an effort to recruit inaugural members and encourage conversation. Design infographics, quizzes, live virtual events, and polls to engage early recruits and to assess how the content resonates with members.
  5. Manage the community. This is an ongoing effort and includes continually welcoming new members as well as seeding the conversation with universally applicable questions or facts in an effort to ensure constant engagement. Then, schedule special events, such as inviting medical staff to participate in a virtual “Ask the Doctor.” Reach out to your membership and ask for content suggestions while monitoring the conversation on a daily basis. It is appropriate, in this regard, to gently promote hospital service offerings occasionally as well as post relevant content and research by trusted third parties. Finally, remove vulgar or inappropriate user-generated posts to guarantee the community is a welcoming, inclusive, and judgment-free safe space to all participants.
  6. Measure the results. Engage in ongoing measurement and monitoring based upon the technology you implemented at the beginning stages of the project. Keep an eye on the frequency and timing of posts to see what gets the best response and is most successful. Establish what is working and what should be phased out related to cadence, creative resources, and content. Some hospitals track to see if there is an uplift in service inquiries and others count the number of doctors’ appointments set or the conversion rate of community members or family members into active patients.

An Innovative Approach to Hospital Service Line Marketing

Right now is the opportune time for service line marketing leaders to make online communities a strategy-critical business competency. There is a simple fact: The healthcare industry is in transition and hospitals face myriad challenges—the post-pandemic world, healthcare reform, service restructuring, consumer expectations… the list goes on. Online communities present the opportunity to raise the bar, attract new customers, establish critical relationships between patients and providers, and develop a results-oriented service line marketing function that drives revenue growth and profitability.

And I would love to speak with you about how LiveWorld could help you introduce this elegant, HIPAA-compliant solution at your organization as well as the results we have achieved for a hospital client. I also invite you to check out our free Community Planning Checklist—I believe you will find it to be a valuable resource. Of course, reach out to schedule a chat or connect with me directly.

Our work with Mt. Sinai received an award, see below!

Author: Danny Flamberg, VP, HCP Strategy, LiveWorld