What a difference a decade makes. Mark Zuckerberg and his college friends famously launched Facebook in early 2004, and their first stab at the social media platform was open at first only to a few thousand of their fellow students at Harvard.
In nine and a half short years, Facebook made the journey from unheard of to ubiquitous. More than one billion people around the world have Facebook accounts, and three out of four of them say they login every day. Altogether, they click “like” some 4.5 billion times every day.
The nonprofit Pew Research Trust started including questions about social media in its survey project, “The Internet & American Life,” back in 2005. At the time, less than one in 10 U.S. adults with online access reported using Facebook. Today, that number is more than 7 in 10—and still growing.
An alphabet soup of social media sites now runs across the online landscape. The list stretches from Asian Avenue (for Asian Americans) all the way to Zoopa (for creative types in advertising). The phenomenal rise and spread of these social networking options in recent years has introduced a new piece to the marketing puzzle small businesses need to solve as they try to retain current customers and reach out to new ones.
This is as true in orthodontics as it is in any other field. At the moment, the social media habits of orthodontic practices are all over the map. On one end of the spectrum are practices that remain skeptical about setting up even a Facebook account; on the other are practices that are tweeting and posting and pinning like wild, day in and day out.
“The phenomenal rise and spread of these social networking options in recent years has introduced a new piece to the marketing puzzle small businesses need to solve as they try to retain current customers and reach out to new ones.”
In recent weeks, OrthoWorld waded through the latest posts, articles, and blogs by some of the top social media experts around—Social Media Examiner, Social Media Today, the aforementioned Pew Research Trust, and quite a few others—in an effort to help practices get a feel for the current lay of the land.
Among marketing experts, there is little doubt that social media can play an important role in a well-rounded marketing plan that includes more traditional advertising outlets and public relations efforts. That larger effort will help drive decisions about which social sites to use, as will a number of factors—including geographic location, the types of patients being targeted, and the particular strengths of each practice.
This may all feel like uncharted territory to some in orthodontics, but the bottom line question about social media is really not that different from the more traditional marketing challenges from pastdecades—and even past centuries. John Wanamaker, a much-celebrated entrepreneur from the 1800s, pioneered the development of department stores. He once delivered this classic, tongue-in-cheek quip: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.”
The online marketing decisions facing orthodontic practices here in the 21st century aren’t just a matter of the dollars spent advertising on social media sites. In many cases, the questions about return on investment will focus as well on the time and effort it takes to craft and share all those tweets and posts and pins.
While there are hundreds of social media sites out there, only a handful hold genuine potential for orthodontic practices. Take a look at the snapshot summaries of the major players of the moment.
Facebook is the 800-pound gorilla of the field. It’s hard to imagine an orthodontic practice in the current environment that would jump into social media without including Facebook in the mix.
But be aware that things can change pretty quickly on lists like these. The social media world can be a fickle and fast-moving place. MySpace would have ranked as a sure-fire contender back in 2008, when it was drawing 75 million visitors a month. Three years later, that number was in free fall, down to 35. MySpace is now being reinvented as a music-sharing site that’s just now trying to get off the ground.
One great resource in making decisions about how and where to get started with social media is your current patients, as their social media habits will likely resemble those of other customers your practice is trying to reach. When an orthodontist in New Mexico was sorting through the social media options for his practice, he conducted a survey and found that while 65 percent of his patients and their parents were using Facebook, only 7 percent of them had Twitter accounts.
That kind of baseline information can be invaluable in setting social media priorities. A little research into the demographics of the various social media platforms can help as well. There, you can pick up tidbits like the fact that women are five times more likely than men to use Pinterest, while Instagram seems to be particularly popular among Hispanics and African Americans.
One other important consideration in starting up on social media is making sure any accounts you set up are registered properly to the owner of the practice. If they’re set up in the name of an ambitious twenty something office assistant, you’re risking a whole lot of complications when he or she moves onto another job.
Getting It Done
Another key decision early on is deciding who will handle the various social media tasks on the horizon. Anyone who’s searched for small businesses on Facebook knows that the site is littered with failed pages, ones that haven’t been updated in two years and now list hours, addresses, and contact information that are out of date.
That’s one of the potential downsides to social media, and it’s one reason not to jump in without thinking things through. Failed pages like that can make your business look bad—are you sure you’re going to follow through?
Even the best practice has an occasional dissatisfied customer. Have you thought through what you’ll do if and when one of them posts a negative comment about your business for all your other fans and followers to see?
Some practices work with outside consultants to help manage their social media work. There are specialists out there who focus exclusively on social media consulting, but it’s also important to keep in mind that social media is just one piece of a well-rounded marketing strategy. Some practices might find that full-service marketing firms are better positioned to help them make sure that social media activities are coordinated seamlessly with advertising and public relations efforts.
Other practices will choose to keep most or even all of the work of social media in-house. Here, it’s important for the supervisors of staff members assigned to social media tasks to set expectations and priorities. How many Facebook posts per week is the practice going to shoot for? How will we work to attract more fans or followers? Is the practice going to spend advertising dollars to try and draw new fans who fit the targeted customer profile? The answers to these and other questions will evolve over time, of course, but it’s critically important to have a set of expectations on the table at all times—and to take the time at regular intervals to review your progress.
Getting It Right
For the most part, social media is not a place for hard sales pitches; in fact, such pitches have a tendency to backfire. The marketing work in this area is more about building up a reservoir of trust and good will that’s focused on the strengths of an individual practice, whether that’s price point or the patient experience or the latest technology or some other area of excellence.
Over time, good social media work can help set the stage for a boost in patient referrals. And it can help your practice establish a reputation in the community that in turn helps improve the results of an advertising campaign or the launch of a new e-newsletter.
It’s also important to make sure your social media work is tailored to the platform you’ve chosen. Though they can be subtle at first, there are often real differences among what fits which sites. Pinterest, for example, has grown into a very popular way to share and store recipes. A tempting photo of a braces-friendly entrée or snack that links to a recipe is likely to work much better there than it does on Twitter.
Similarly, many practices are having success on Facebook with the very simple strategy of posting fun, playful photos of happy patients showing off their new braces free smiles. Those sorts of joyful moments of passage in life are tailor-made for Facebook.
In recent years, many of these social media sites have significantly improved some aspects of their customer service. You’re still unlikely to ever get someone from Facebook on the phone to help with a problem, of course, but this past summer Facebook released a greatly improved version of its “Facebook for Business” user’s guide.
The most vexing challenge in social media marketing gets us back to the bottom line. How many likes and followers and comments and retweets your practice attracts are good day-to-day measures of progress, but it’s also critically important to keep surveying current and new customers about how they came to hear about your practice and why they chose to bring their child in.
You probably won’t ever get the crystal clear answer John Wannamaker was looking for back in the 1800s, but you’ll eventually get a rough feel for whether and how much your social media efforts are paying off in profitability.
This article published in 2013 OrthoWorld.