Social media marketing can be a difficult space to navigate. Success requires timeliness and a certain degree of impulse, but also meticulous planning. You have to be authentic but calculated, consistent but flexible.

These challenges are compounded for healthcare marketers, who run up against an additional wall of regulations and legal issues when trying to operate in the social media realm, including:

  • Staying compliant in a heavily regulated industry
    Operating in healthcare brings its own set of rules that govern what brands are allowed to communicate, who brands are allowed to speak to, and what data or information brands must document and report.

  • Protecting the privacy of patients
    As people have grown more comfortable sharing more of their lives on social media, the line between personal and professional has blurred. Sharing any piece of data about a patient is a HIPAA violation, whether the account is private or not. Ignorance of this fact has tarnished careers for unknowing professionals and led to public backlash against their larger organizations.

For some healthcare organizations, getting involved in social media can seem like too much of a risk. It's easier - and safer - to just stay away. But that could be a mistake.

While it's true that social media brings unique challenges to healthcare marketers, it also offers unique opportunities.

For better or worse, social media is a primary source of information for today's audiences.

To anyone in healthcare, "fake news" is old news. Since the days of traveling snake oil salesmen, myths, false information, and "miracle" cures have plagued the healthcare space for time immemorial. Today, social media makes it easy for misinformation to spread widely and rapidly.

Becoming a trusted source of real and reliable information can make your brand invaluable to patients. Just look at Mayo Clinic or Cleveland Clinic. These brands have used social media to power their content marketing efforts and built a reputation for trust, credibility, and leadership as a result.

Social media marketing is essential to building an accessible brand identity.

Sixty-three percent of customers turn to a business's social media channels to find up-to-date information about that business. People expect to be able to find brands on social media.

["A website establishes that a brand exists, but a social media page establishes that the brand is active." - Inc.]

While a handful of notable exceptions do exist - Trader Joe's and Apple, for example - 88% of companies include social media in their marketing strategies. Especially relevant to the healthcare industry, the 50-64 age bracket has seen some of the steepest social media adoption in recent years, and baby boomers are the most likely to share content on social media.

Social media builds human connections with patients.

It may sound counterintuitive - building a human connection through a digital channel - but used the right way, social media has the capacity, more than any other channel, to do just that. Healthcare is a service everyone inevitably needs at some point, but no one looks forward to needing.

In the words of Paul Matsen, marketing director from Cleveland Clinic, "healthcare is bought, not sold." No one ever wants to need a hospital, but if a healthcare brand can build a strong and positive relationship - via social - with people when they're healthy, those people are more likely to turn to them when they do need care.

Social media offers direct, widespread, and immediate communication.

Because of its immediate, wide-reaching, and direct nature, social media is also an invaluable tool for communicating with large audiences during a crisis or when advocating for a cause.

For example, during the peak of the 2016 Zika epidemic, the CDC used social media channels to share information with affected communities and doctors, post tips for preventing the disease, and host #CDCchat sessions to answer questions in real time. Crises such as the Zika outbreak leave frightened communities vulnerable to misinformation, but social media presents healthcare organizations with the opportunity to share crucial information directly with the people who need it most.

So how does a healthcare brand overcome the challenges of social media to be able to take advantage of the opportunities? Here are some practical tips:

Always be listening.

Sensitive situations are going to happen. A staff member might overshare on Facebook after a tough day at work. An unhappy patient might take to Twitter to air a grievance. A physician might unknowingly post a well-intentioned but rule-breaking selfie on Instagram. The key to effectively managing these situations is catching them early. Social Studio can help brands listen for key terms and brand mentions across social media channels and show cross-channel activity in a single dashboard, making social media management easier for teams with limited resources.

Establish best practices for social media use.

These should govern teams managing corporate accounts as well as provide guidelines for staff members using social media in their non-professional lives. For teams managing brand channels, a policy should include a chain of command and guidelines for publishing content, responding to comments, and reporting adverse events. For employees, ground rules should cover the legal requirements for healthcare professionals communicating on social media - even in private channels - as well as any organizational policies the brand has in place.

Use a platform to manage multiple accounts.

Managing multiple social media accounts through a single platform offers several advantages. It allows different teams to work together to create consistent messaging for social media campaigns, analyze data and build cross-channel social advertising campaigns. Security is also a major concern for many healthcare institutions. For a healthcare brand, getting hacked could mean compromised patient data, the potential spread of false or noncompliant information, or an embarrassing PR mess. None of these situations is fun to deal with, especially if you're powerless to stop it as it's happening. Managing accounts through a single platform not only protects your account passwords, but it also allows you to see all activity at once and shut down accounts if necessary.

Social media is a challenging but exciting space for healthcare brands poised to seize the opportunities it offers!