Advertising Age, Hospital Marketing and Social Media

Advertising Age has an article this week in the print edition about hospitals, advertising, marketing and social media, and relates it all to health reform. I was glad to get to talk with the writer, Rich Tomaselli, last week to discuss some of the things we’re doing at Mayo Clinic, and our philosophy relating to social media. Rich had said the article would run either this week or next, and so I was glad when Jane Sarasohn-Kahn (@healthythinker) alerted me to it with her tweet linking to her blog post about it.

I think both Rich’s article and Jane’s post are good and make some valid points, and commend them to your reading.

Here’s my Advertising Age quote, upon which I want to expand a bit:

One of the most famous health-care facilities in the country, the 118-year-old Mayo Clinic, now has a social-media manager, Lee Aase. “Social media is the way word-of-mouth happens in the 21st century,” he said. “Twitter is just one of the most powerful networking tools that I’ve ever seen. It enables you to make connections with people that have a common interest.”

Quotes in mass media (like magazines, TV or radio) are always taken out of context. That’s not a criticism, it’s just a reality. Space and time are limited and expensive. Rich and I talked for about 15 minutes, and it was a great conversation. I’m sure he likewise had good talks with the others he quoted (and he did incorporate elements of our interview in his narrative.) There’s no way all of that is going to fit in a print article.

One of the benefits of social media, however, and why these tools are so powerful, is the opportunity they afford for more in-depth content and discussions. They provide a way to get more in-depth information to (and feedback from) people who are interested.

Given the fact you’re reading this, you must be one of those interested ones, when the topic is advertising, health care or social media. So here is some of the context of my conversation with Rich, and some reaction to the messages I saw in the article.

First, I’m quoted as saying “social media is the way word-of-mouth happens in the 21st Century” which is true and accurate, but the real point, and what I emphasized in the interview, is the continuity of social media with how Mayo Clinic’s reputation has been built over the long term. For more than 100 years, the number one way people have found out about Mayo Clinic is through the recommendation of a friend or family member. It’s also consistent with Thesis 1, that social media are as old as human speech.

Mayo Clinic hasn’t advertised nationally in the traditional media outlets. As Jane says in her post:

It takes information PLUS a “life moment” PLUS a “care connection” to a friend or loved one to deeply engage in health.

Paying for advertising (information) to be sent to a broad, undifferentiated group of people who aren’t currently experiencing the “life moment” or “care connection” is an iffy proposition. You’re paying to reach a lot of people who just don’t have a current need.

As I told Rich, the fact that 25 percent of our Mayo Clinic patients come from more than 500 miles away adds another layer of difficulty to the advertising equation. People need to be much more motivated before they will travel that distance for care. By definition, those patients are “deeply engaged.” But traditional advertising in mainstream media isn’t likely to be a great way to reach them because they are widely scattered across the nation (and even the world.)

This brings me to my other major observation, that the connection of all of this increased social media activity to health reform is significantly overstated. At Mayo Clinic, we have been involved in social media since 2005, starting with podcasts. We launched our Facebook fan page in November of 2007. We have been in Twitter since early 2008. We have been actively uploading videos to our Mayo Clinic YouTube channel for more than two years as well. And our Sharing Mayo Clinic blog for stories from patients and employees is nearly 18 months old.

I believe health reform legislation is essentially a non-factor in the growth in social media adoption among hospitals. Instead, as I explain it in my 35 Social Media Theses, the reason hospitals are using social media is because this is the defining communications trend of the Third Millenium.

As my good friend Ed Bennett (@EdBennett) said in the Advertising Age article, the number of hospital Twitter accounts has more than doubled in the last year, which indicates that this isn’t mainly spurred by health reform legislation. He also offers great advice on the “why” hospitals should be involved in social media:

Hospitals realize that word-of-mouth is the most significant driver you can have, so social media is an opportunity to humanize what can be a scary, complex institution… I tell hospitals “Don’t get into social media because you think you’re going to get more patients. Do it because you’re helping be responsible to people reaching out looking for answers.”

Social media in health care is about much more than just marketing. As for the increase in advertising spending that’s being reported, maybe health reform is playing a role in that. It’s not really my area of expertise, so I don’t have a strong opinion on the matter.

What do you think? Do you agree that increased social media interest among hospitals is essentially unrelated to health reform?

What relationship, if any, do you see between health reform and the reported growth of spending on hospital advertising?

Author: Lee Aase

Husband of one, father of six, grandfather of 15. Chancellor Emeritus, SMUG. Emeritus staff of Mayo Clinic. Founder of HELPcare and Administrator for HELPcare Clinic.

12 thoughts on “Advertising Age, Hospital Marketing and Social Media”

  1. Lee,

    Thanks for posting this, and your kind words towards me. I also had a good conversation with the Ad Age reporter, but I believe he got my quote a bit wrong. I think I said:

    “Don’t get into social media because you think you’re going to get more patients. Do it because you’re helping be responsive (not responsible) to people reaching out looking for answers.”

    Other than that slight change, my comment is the same – hospitals shouldn’t get involved in social media because it will bring them patients (although that may happen.) They should be in these communities because it’s part of our mission to care and educate. That may sound idealistic, but the basic success factor for social media is to give and share – our value, reputation and earned trust depend on authentic, human connections.


  2. Lee —

    Nice ink/bytes.

    I agree that the growing attention to social media tactics is not driven by health reform. If it were, then I think a greater proportion of US hospitals would have a more robust social media presence at this time. However, the attention paid to the health care sector — including its use of social media (Look, Mom: hospitals on Twitter!) — by the public at large IS driven by the federal health reform debate and legislation, and the tremendous chunk of the national psyche (and pocketbook) and output of talking heads that is now focused on this sector.

    Setting aside the question of use of social media as one set of tactics for hospital or health system marketing, it is clear that hospital/health system advertising/marketing budgets as a whole are likely to be increasing as individual providers calculate the downward pressures on reimbursement for services resulting from health reform, and strive to “make it up on volume” – with the first step on the path to higher volume being more advertising/marketing. (There are other ways to tackle the problem, but let’s stick with this one for purposes of this post.)

    It remains to be seen whether any of the advertising/marketing (even social media) tactics employed by health providers actually have a direct effect on volume. As you wrote, the tactics to be employed by any individual provider need to be tailored to its target market.

    — David

  3. I think Lee is spot on about this — the vast majority of hospitals are not incorporating the effects of health care reform into their marketing plans, including social media. Frankly, I don’t think anyone knows enough about those effects to intelligently craft a plan at this point.

    As an advocacy organization, IHA is still analyzing the potential impacts and hospitals are turning to us for answers. This is something that will take years to play out.

    I will say that social media did play a role in health care reform advocacy and will continue to do so. We will certainly use these tools to continue advancing IHA’s message.

    And we will monitor the thoughts and ideas of experts like Lee and Ed to help our hospitals thoughtfully respond to all the changes coming down the pike.

    Scott McIntyre
    Director of Communications
    Iowa Hospital Association

  4. Dear Lee and Ed,

    Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on the AdAge article. I read both the article and your blog posts and am in agreement that the reason we are active in health care communications and social media is not because of health care reform – or even marketing.

    Like you…at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, we have been communicating with patients using all different types of mediums – including social media – for a few years now…and for reasons other than highlighted in the article. The article, although well written, does not capture the true mission behind our communications programs and health education outreach.

    As I was able to share with Elisheba Muturi (@shebamuturi), who kindly featured PAMF’s communications efforts and philosophy in her blog (…At the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, we see social media as a natural extension of our two-way communications, ongoing conversation, information sharing and patient empowerment. Listening and having discussions helps us to continue to learn and improve upon the quality of our organization’s health programs and services. Having these newer social media tools now available to us gives us another way to connect with people – in a way some people like to receive information – and allows us to hear from them, listen to them and respond more personally and in real-time.

    Ideally, social media activity is seamless with our traditional communications. Hopefully, they work jointly to help bring people health information and connections – in the way they want to receive and use them, so they can be active partners in their own health and health care team.

    Similarly, in a recent interview with Ed Bennett (@edbennett), I was able to share the philosophy of Mills-Peninsula Health Services in using social media to communicate with people about the building of the new hospital. In “Community Outreach Blog Tracks the Building of a New Hospital” (, Ed generously gave me the opportunity share our feeling that in all communications, we are patients too, and we know what if feels like to want to know what is going on at the medical center where a patient or their family member receives treatment. So, in recently creating a new online newsroom to share news about the building of the new community hospital, we wanted it to be more than that. Our goal was to create a “live” connection to the community – so people can participate in an exciting neighborhood hospital building project and when the new hospital opens its doors, feel like partners in the building process – and in their own health care. We wanted them to be part of the process – from beginning to end – and beyond.

    Again, at the heart of every communications decision and discussion is the people – and keeping the “welcome mat” out, the door open and the conversation flowing. Not marketing, not health care reform. Yes, both of those are big issues in today’s health care arena, but what we are hoping for in using social media as part of our health care communications and education, is to help people and give the information they need and want…to be part of their own health care decisionmaking and team.

    Thanks again for sharing, your thoughts!

  5. I agree that hospitals’ interest in social media is not related to healthcare reform. I interviewed staff at our leading hospitals for the Omaha World-Herald Healthwise magazine last year and healthcare reform never came up. It’s driven by wanting to connect to healthcare consumers/patients.

  6. Crediting the federal government for the increased use of social media in the healthcare industry would probably be a mistake.

    Technology can bring about change if the people choose to adapt it. Twitter has helped bring about change by making perceptions, attitudes, experiences between patient and provider a little more transparent.

    I believe your Social Media Theses no. 15, point out the most valuable action a physician or hospital can take: “You can hear a lot just by listening.”

    Physicians have a simple choice, they can opt not to participate in social media and be at the mercy of 3rd parties, or they can join the conversation and influence/build their online presence.

    Then again, I believe the increased use of social media in healthcare is a consequence of its transparency and how easy it is to just “listen in, and actually hear”.

  7. Mr. Aase,

    You mentioned that the Mayo Clinic has been involved in some aspect or another of social media since 2005. Would you say that the Mayo Clinic is out ahead of other healthcare systems in the US? If yes, have you found any reason why healthcare organizations would hesitate to use social media as a communication tool?

    I look forward to reading your 35 Social Media Theses!

    Catherine Ford
    Doctoral Student
    Management and Organizational Leadership

    1. I think Mayo Clinic has been ahead of most others in using these tools, and the reasons for others hesitating to become involved are various. Some don’t see the value. Others don’t feel they have the resources to spare, and want to focus on other means of communicating. Many are fearful or uncertain of the ramifications. Still, there has been lots of growth in use of social media in the last year, as @EdBennett has shown with his hospital social networking list.

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