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A Healthy Dose of Customer Strategy

Closing the Chasm Between the Insurers and Insured

The spectacular successes of sites like Facebook, and even PatientsLikeMe, have the healthcare industry abuzz with plans to take the social media world by storm. But crafting a viable social media strategy for players in the industry is not as simple as setting up a Facebook page or a Twitter stream. Forrester conducted a survey in the second quarter of 2010 asking consumers about various healthcare-related issues, including their engagement with social media for healthcare. Only about one quarter (24 percent) of U.S. online consumers said that they had used any social media resources for health-related activities at least monthly during the past 12 months. That's certainly a start, but it means that health plans, hospitals, and other healthcare companies still have to choose their paths carefully.

Forrester recommends following an approach we abbreviate as POST (people, objectives, strategy, technology) to identify an appropriate approach to social media. POST not only defines the elements that companies should use to outline their social media opportunities, it also defines the order in which they should examine those elements. In other words, if your process looks more like STOP, what should you do? The answer is in the question.

People. The first step is to understand the people you are trying to reach. What are their social media habits? What needs can you help address for them? What are their attitudes towards your company? In our survey, for example, we learned that 32 percent of U.S. online consumers are interested in using a community at their health plan's website that helps answer questions about their coverage, while 29 percent are interested in a plan-based community to discuss medical conditions or treatment options. To understand their opportunities, health plan providers should delve deeper into data like this to understand who these consumers are, and whether they are the types of people that the providers want to reach through social media.

Objectives. Depending on how they're implemented, social media solutions can help companies achieve a number of objectives, including listening to what customers are saying about your brand, spreading marketing messages, energizing enthusiastic customers to speak on your firm's behalf, enabling customers to support each other, and sourcing new product ideas and existing product feedback directly from customers. Many of the health plans I've encountered are pursuing social media "strategies" because someone in senior management thinks they should, or because it seems like everyone else is doing it. But defining your objectives clearly is crucial to determining exactly what kind of social media experience you want to deliver.

Strategy. Honing your social media strategy involves looking for alignment between your organization's business objectives and its customers' experience and goals. Knowing, for example, that you want to help your customers support each other, but that only your younger customers are comfortable contributing (as opposed to simply consuming) social media content, you might decide to focus your first community forays on issues that target younger users— such as childbirth, family health, and managing job stress. Many of these will also appeal to vanguard older users, allowing your community to branch out over time. As you set your social media strategy, you'll also need to decide what success means, and how you'll measure it.

Technology. Only when you know who you're aiming at, what you hope to achieve, and how you'll align your customer goals with business objectives through a specific strategy can you determine what technologies to invest in. For example, a solution aimed at reducing administrative costs might require you to line up plan experts to contribute, as well as indexing or search to help customers find what they need. One aimed at changing health behaviors, on the other hand, might need a series of subcommunities that let people with similar health goals find one another. Because the technology decision is the last step, health plans should look back at their strategy to make sure their budget stretches far enough to enable a complete picture of success.

The groundswell is here to stay
Forrester believes that over the next five years most online experiences will have social elements. Healthcare will be no exception. From "product" reviews of health plans, doctors, supplements, and medications to communities designed to ease the communication challenges of preventative health and diseases or boost motivation to stay healthy, the groundswell1 will be a very powerful force in healthcare. Following the POST method, health plans, hospitals, and other healthcare companies can boost their likelihood of success as they invest in social media.