Social media empowers consumers – including your patients

At the end of the movie Terminator, a Mexican boy says, “Viene la tormenta.”

Sarah Connor asks the gas station attendant what he means, and he explains, “There’s a storm coming.”

The fact that patients can leave comments about their doctors or health care organizations on rating sites has been talked about to death, and I’ve been interviewed on the topic on a couple of occasions.

My take: the genie is out of the bottle, and while there are all kinds of legal and ethical issues to consider (how do you know that an anonymous bad rating wasn’t made by a jealous competitor), social media is empowering consumers – and your patients – more every day.

While providers like to think of themselves as a privileged class, Google doesn’t see it that way. In fact, Google and other search engines LOVE ratings and social media when they display search engine results pages (SERPs).

Consumers are now empowered, and some are getting aggressive. The best anecdote I’ve heard about involves a country singer whose guitar was broken by baggage handlers working for United Airlines. When United refused to pay for repairs, he created a very funny video, United Breaks Guitars, on YouTube.  Upon seeing the video, United came around and offered to pay him after all, but by then the damage was done. He suggested they give the money to charity. Worse, this was only his first video on the topic, and as of today it has had more than 7,600,000 viewers. Ouch.

Jeremiah Owyang recently wrote that companies should give priority attention to highly visible web savvy customers. He cites a woman who had a million Twitter followers and warned Maytag to solve her maintenance dispute. When they failed to do so, she asked her followers to boycott the company.

Owyang admits that such consumers can use their new-found power irresponsibly, but how do you stop them once they have such a large podium? Besides, who will be the referee to determine which actions are “power of the people” and which are exploitation?

What really struck me about Owyang’s article, however, was that he reminded us that companies give preferential treatment to celebrities all the time, so we shouldn’t feel bad about recognizing social media leaders.

I have always found it a little annoying that celebrities, who already have everything, get the best gifts and treatment from us all. Still, this phenomenon goes back to at least Biblical times, so it isn’t going to change anytime soon.

So even if you hate the idea of newly empowered patients having a voice, you aren’t going to change it.

Some are trying to litigate this problem away, but frankly, I think that is naive. Our country was founded on “free press,” and “free speech,” and providers aren’t going to get a special pass. (United Airlines didn’t get one…)  Besides, the Groundswell is too big.

So what should healthcare marketers, providers, pharmaceuticals and manufacturers do?

Well, if you have the time and budget, getting into the conversation may be a great idea.

That’s what Johnson and Johnson did with their JNJ Health Channel on YouTube. After all, consumers are going to talk about you whether you like it or not.

However, joining in on the fray may be hard for you to do. If you work in a small organization, you may not have access to the talent, time or budget required. If you are with a large organization, there will be legal and internal issues to deal with. (Rob Harper explains Johnson and Johnson’s experience here.)

I recommend you give your own situation some careful analysis and planning. Don’t just rush in to do it like the rest of the herd – come up with objectives and decide how it fits into your larger strategy.

But one thing is for sure. It is fun to be working in marketing during this revolutionary time period.

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