Much more than the latest craze, it?s the new way imaging centers are capturing health care consumers.

Even the Don Drapers of the world have long known that the best advertising is “word-of-mouth.” Social media is the newest and most enhanced form of “word-of-mouth” marketing. Businesses across categories are using it and health care facilities are, too. Social media is shifting the standard model of communication in the health care world. Information is being shared, evaluated, and dispersed more rapidly than ever before. Think about this fact: Over “41% of the population uses social media to specifically choose a hospital/medical facility” (PwC HRI Social Media Consumer Study 2012). Now ask yourself this: Would potential patients choose your imaging facility or one of your competitors based on your online presence?

Think about how you look for a restaurant, toy store, or even a potential referring doctor to your imaging center. Often, we start with one of the big three search engines, evaluating and reading up on the businesses and what others have to say about them before making a decision. While we often visit a Web site to check out a business, what we’re really hungry for is information on how the business works and serves its customers, and, more importantly, what others are saying about it.

Start thinking of social media, and the Web, as an extension of your overall marketing efforts. With reimbursements falling, imaging centers need to be creative to attract and retain their patient base. Tap into the world of social media to create new avenues and opportunities for potential patients to discover your facility and come to your office versus the facility or hospital that they were originally referred to. Leverage online platforms to highlight your facility, your services, and your self-pay rates. Introduce patients to your staff and medical team, and communicate consistent messages to your patients about the comfortable experience they will have once they schedule an appointment with your center.

Selecting the Right Platforms

The social media world has multiple platforms to choose from that fulfill a variety of different objectives. Which platforms should your center use? Begin by mastering the following three and then slowly expand to other platforms and tools, as you feel more comfortable:

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+

These platforms are among the three biggest in the online world and will allow you to create a comprehensive and engaging presence that will be attractive and useful to your customer base—both referring physicians and patients.

Aalap Shah, Cofounder, SoMe Connect

Social Media Essentials

Before embarking on a social media strategy, there are a few items you need in your toolkit. First, create a comprehensive Web site that gives your potential patients an understanding of the overall look and feel of your imaging center. Second, have a clearly defined search engine optimization (SEO) strategy. Third, and most important, use clear and consistent graphics and visuals to leverage to create a consistent online presence among all your platforms.

There are a variety of tools available, including HootSuite, Sprout Social, and Buffer, to manage your social media networks. These tools, among others, allow you to schedule and manage content throughout the week. However, think carefully about who will be writing the content and distributing it; social media is not something best left on autopilot. Rather, the true purpose is to create an authentic and engaging personality that will draw interest and traffic to your center. While you can prewrite a few tweets or post days in advance, plan to spend at least 30 minutes daily to check in and interact in “real time” with your followers.

Why Invest Time and Money?

Social media is an essential tool and traffic generator for your business. Think about your patient mix. How many are self-pay or patients with high deductibles? Let’s dig deeper—how many patients are savvy about their insurance and want to pick an imaging center in their network? A critical error is to overestimate the power of a physician referral and underestimate what lengths patients will go to, to ensure a medical procedure is covered by their insurance. Therein lies the opportunity. If a potential patient can research your facility and determine if it is in network, the next step is to figure out how close your facility is to them. Capture your patient’s attention by leveraging social media to clearly demonstrate your advantages versus those of another facility. Do you offer same-day appointments? A spa-like environment? 24-hour report turnaround? These are all strengths that you can promote consistently among your social media networks.

The major benefits of social media include the opportunity to brand your imaging center online, provide valuable patient education, retain patients, and stay top-of-mind for future imaging or diagnostic needs.

Dealing with Negative Comments

Many businesses are concerned about receiving negative feedback via social media channels. That brings us back to good old-fashioned “word-of-mouth.” Remember, your patients are talking about you already—whether you know they are or not. In other words, the virtual world and the real world can both be forums for negative feedback—your job is to generate positive feedback.

Embrace social media as a way to generate positive content and information before negative content appears organically in searches. If you do receive negative feedback from your patients, acknowledge it and try to resolve the situation in a transparent manner. Moreover, take a hard look at your internal operations to ensure that it doesn’t happen again no matter where the fault lies.

Goals for Your Social Media Campaign

It’s easy to get lost in thinking about content, generating photos, and encouraging reviews. Here is a short list of goals to focus on as you set up your social media strategy:

  • Advertise and brand your imaging center as the center of choice in your local community.
  • Provide a forum for community outreach to engage with and identify potential patients and introduce them to your center.
  • Provide valuable education to both your patients and physicians. (For example, do you have specific instructions for contrast media? Share it! How about a quick video on what your open MRI looks like for patients? Post it!)
Handling HIPAA Constraints Online

It’s important to be aware of the complex and restrictive regulations and remain HIPAA compliant. When you are posting content or engaging with patients and doctors online, always remember to keep patient-specific information and results confidential. Follow the same guidelines you do for all your other marketing efforts. Never share confidential patient or procedure information online. Also, stay away from answering specific questions about procedures, results, and exams and direct patients to consult with their referring physician or an MD for more information.

Social Media Starter Plan

Now let’s set up a basic strategy and plan for your social media efforts. We will go through it step-by-step to outline the important tasks.

Your first step in creating a social media plan is to identify one person to be the primary source of content generation and hold them responsible for collecting, distributing, and scheduling the information. Choose this person wisely and do not overload your front desk staff with this task.

Once you have identified your social media manager, your next step is to claim your account on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. To set up your accounts, follow simple step-by-step guides:

Or, for a step-by-step social media account guide for all platforms, visit:

Next, identify and create a standardized set of static information for your business, like your logo and a short description to be used across all platforms. Use similar imagery and colors among your platforms to create trust and credibility for your patients.

When filling out the basic information for your business, make sure to use selected key words to further optimize your presence and make it easier to appear in local search results on these platforms. For example, you may want to include “medical imaging,” “diagnostic center,” and “x-ray services” in your business description. Also, don’t forget to consistently use the same brick and mortar address as you are claiming each profile (ie, 441 N Main Street vs 441 North Main Street).

Once everything is set up and filled out, take photos of your center and your team so potential patients can get familiar with your imaging center. Professional photos are highly recommended; however, don’t let that stop you from taking pictures from your camera and posting them.

Last, but, not least, post informative and valuable content on your platforms. Here is an example of how to package and deliver the same message for different platforms, capitalizing on the unique features of each one:

  • Twitter: “Acme Imaging Center has a few same-day/walk-in appointments available today.”
  • Facebook: “Acme Imaging Center [photo] offers same-day/walk-in appointments”
  • Google+: “Acme Imaging Center has same-day appointments. Click here for a video of our facility!”

Recommended posting frequencies:

  • Twitter: Generally post between three and four tweets daily on this network. Twitter is a real-time service and you want to catch your audience whenever they are logged in.
  • Facebook: The standard posting schedule is about two to three times a week. Every “like” is valuable as it allows you to reach your customers constantly.
  • Google+: Post two to three times a week on this platform as well, not only because it’s a valuable search engine tool but a great way to leverage Google Places and the “Hangout” feature (a video tool) to reach more patients.

As with any social media platform, do not be overly promotional. Rather, talk about your community, health care articles, useful tips, general service information, patient education opportunities, and in-center events. Does your facility offer free mammograms for unemployed women or participate in community health fairs? If so, Tweet about it! This is good content to share with your patients. You want to show off your center’s personality, setting, and mission, and social media is a great way to differentiate your facility from those of your competitors. Finally, remember to separate your personal and business presence—always. It is never smart to mix the two.

Evaluate Return on Investment

Setting up and maintaining a comprehensive social media plan is a time-consuming endeavor. Not only do you need to constantly update and maintain your content, but you also will need to keep track of ongoing changes to each platform and adapt your materials and graphics to fit.

Is that time worth it? With more and more patients turning to online reviews, research, and their peers for recommendations, the data suggest that you should have been working on your strategy months ago. According to PwC HRI Social Media Consumer Study 2012, “over 1/3 of consumers are using social media for health-related matters” and with over “half of all the adults (50%)” online, you’d be remiss to ignore this important sales channel. Couple social media use with an increased patient sensitivity for health care costs and you can easily start seeing the potential returns an investment in social media will create.

Imagine an average employee (or freelancer) working on a social media campaign spends 5 hours a week on three platforms. If 20 hours of work yield at least 10 patients, you can now see results. Will it happen immediately? Most likely not—social media takes at least 3 months of constant engagement to begin paying off. However, that time is well worth it and will differentiate you in any type of market.

To measure your results, consider using tracking tools such as HootSuite, Sprout Social, and Google Analytics to track behavior, leads, and conversions. Use specific tracking phone numbers and e-mail addresses to attribute what percentage of referrals arrive via social media. Concentrate on the long-term goal of building your brand for a world that now consumes and wants information 24/7.

Beyond the Basics

Once you have begun posting, sharing, and responding on social media, start thinking about other tools you can use to drive traffic to your business. Google AdWords and Microsoft AdCenter are targeted pay-per-click campaigns that can attract new patients as they are searching for an imaging center near their location.

Search engine optimization is another tool to leverage specific key words or search terms that your patients use to find centers like yours. SEO revolves around quality content, so write blog posts geared toward patient education, highlights and key benefits of your imaging technology, and other important health care-related information and commentary.

E-mail marketing is an additional tool that is great for staying in touch with both referring physicians and past patients. Be sure to segment both lists and create specific messaging to each group. Sending an e-mail once a quarter or every other month is a good frequency to simply stay in touch and drive patient growth for your facility.

A Tool for Our Time

In the face of limited reimbursements, complex health care regulations, and a decline of independent physicians, imaging centers need to adapt and appeal directly to health care consumers and disrupt the current system of simply relying on physician referrals. Social media, combined with other online tactics and tools, can create that engaging and authentic presence that highlights your practice, creates top-of-mind awareness, and allows your brand to extend beyond the typical 10-mile population radius of your center.

Aalap Shah is the cofounder of SoMe Connect, a social media agency based in Chicago. Shah works with businesses to help them grow revenue and traffic and differentiate themselves from their competitors.

Real World Results

Advanced Imaging Center (AIC), with three locations in central Florida, is a pioneer in using effective and engaging social media strategies. According to Sarah Mcfarland, the social media consultant to AIC, the key in thinking about social media is “how it can be leveraged to create greater brand awareness and patient outreach.” Mcfarland has seen a “tremendous increase” in visits to the AIC Web site in the past year since the group created its Facebook and Twitter accounts.

How is AIC so successful in its social media strategy? The number one factor is the use of specific and strategic campaigns tied to the community and important issues. For example, one innovative campaign is its annual “Pinky Swear” efforts tied to Breast Cancer Awareness month. The campaign asks patients to spread the word about discounted cash pricing for women who need their annual exam but may otherwise not be able to afford it. Another key factor is “supporting local community events” and cross promotion of other businesses online to become a resource guide for patients.

Mcfarland’s strategies not only attract the typical Facebook user but a large number of adults over the age of 40. She finds that particular demographic more willing to “participate in contests, promotions, and comment” on AIC’s Facebook wall. Her effort to engage and build a community has led to more visibility and traffic to AIC this year.

—A. Shah