Social media can be the ultimate focus group

August 1, 2013

Create a valuable social media presence.

Social media platforms are emerging as an effective marketing tool. For health plans, social media can be the ultimate focus group.

Pew Internet reports that 67% of adult Internet users are on social media. Of all social sites, Facebook is the frontrunner with 1.11 billion monthly active users, followed by Twitter with 500 million.

When starting out, the goal is not to launch channels at random and push messages, but to evaluate how the content can be relevant to consumers, says Andrew Hetzel (@andrewhetzel), vice president of corporate communications for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan (BCBSM) (@BCBSM).

“Social channels allow us to actively listen to what our customers have to say about our company, about their health insurance product, about their concerns as they relate to healthcare and health insurance, and how we use that data adds value to our business,” he says. “Social enables us to support the conversation we have with our members across all other channels-marketing communications, member handbook, magazine or advertising-and engage us when they hear information from the company communicated elsewhere.”

BCBSM is currently active on 18 channels, but Hetzel says the number of channels is less important than how you use them. Instead of “talking at your members” he recommends listening first.

“Social media done right is 80% listening and 20% content development based on the listening,” he says. “You develop your content, you get engagement from your community, and your community will tell you whether or not it’s relevant or how it needs to change.”

The worst thing a business can do is launch a self-serving campaign rather than engage with consumers. 

“Companies don’t need megaphones in social because the audience is comparatively small,” Hetzel says. “Social is about engagement. It gives you an opportunity to deal with people one-to-one, learn and listen, which advertising doesn’t allow.”

This is why establishing a social-media roadmap before launching any account is imperative, according to Danica Kombol (@DAnicaKombol), managing and founding partner of Everywhere (@beEverywhere), a social media company.

She says Facebook is critical. Twitter and YouTube are close behind, and she also recommends Pinterest because it’s more visually-based and can link directly to a plan’s website. Pinterest logged 70 million users as of July 1.

John McClung, vice president of advertising and creative services for Independence Blue Cross (IBC) (@IBX), says strategies must lead to sustainable programs rather than short-term events. Running contests will certainly attract followers, but a majority won’t engage after finding out they didn’t win a prize.

“It’s really about consistently providing engaging content so people find value in coming back to us,” he says. “We look at our content very seriously, not just to create volume but to create some quality behind what we push out there.”

Build a community of health and wellness

Consumers go to social media to feel part of the community, and that’s the best way for plans to leverage the tool.

“No matter what channel you’re using, you’re building a community around a common subject and there’s no better subject than people’s health,” she says.

For example, IBC sponsors the Blue Cross Broad Street Run in Philadelphia. In preparation, the plan posts training tips and information on fitness gear. Olympic runner Vicki Huber Rudawsky-an IBC member-provides a 12-week video training program.

“People love the training program,” McClung says. “It’s content people gravitate to and actually find valuable.”

In November 2012, as part of “Movember,” a national effort to raise awareness for prostate and testicular cancer, BCBSM handed out fake mustaches at community events across Michigan.

“We had people tweeting pictures of themselves with the hashtag #ShoYoMo,” Hetzel says. “It made a serious topic fun for people, and that’s what a good social engagement campaign can bring to a traditional communications or marketing activity.”

Manage customer service

Insurance companies often receive negative feedback from consumers. Kombol recommends using social media to improve customer satisfaction.

“Just as you have someone manning your phones, you need to have someone manning your social media channels,” Kombol says. “Address complaints with a personal voice and name, so customers aren’t just talking to a corporation.”

She also recommends dealing with complaints quickly. Even without an answer, acknowledging that a concern has been heard and a resolution is being worked on is best practice. Consumers will be grateful for having been heard.

For example, Michigan recently passed an autism coverage mandate and BCBSM saw posts on its Facebook page from members who were frustrated by the shortage of approved providers.

“It was negative on our page, but it was such valuable insight,” Hetzel says. “As we were working on contracting with the providers, we were able to analyze the sentiment of the autism community based on people’s frustrations.” 

Another benefit of having a robust social media presence is it enables members to communicate with plans in real time. In 2011, for example, an IBC member broke his leg water skiing in a remote area of Mexico. Although he didn’t have his plan ID card on him, he was able to reach out and connect on Facebook.

“We were able to assure him that we would handle his care, and it was all through social media,” McClung says. 

Attract a younger demographic

An ad campaign called “Live Fearless” was launched this summer by IBC to speak to young adults needing health coverage under the individual mandate in 2014. The campaign communicates ways to live a satisfying life, while having the security of health coverage when it’s needed.

“We’ve got lots of brand allegiance with the older demographic, but with younger groups, it kind of dissipates,” McClung says. “We need to find creative ways to connect our brand to that younger demographic and meet them in spaces and channels where they live.”

IBC views its digital strategy as the key to reaching a younger demographic.

Educate members on reform

Like most plans, IBC usually waits until fall open enrollment for an ad campaign. However, this year, the plan wanted to get its brand name out there and establish a presence in light of health reform.

“As we want to find new and interesting ways to connect with the consumer, we’re looking at health reform and the need to educate and inform consumers what it’s about,” McClung says. “We’re starting to create educational content to help people understand because we’ve learned that there’s a big gap there.”

The website careforme.ibx.com contains four areas to explain the healthcare law, what it means, what IBX is doing and the future under reform. The content is promoted across IBC’s social platforms.

McClung says IBC’s strategy is a two-stage approach of education and awareness. But when exchange plans open for enrollment on October 1, however, the focus will shift to enrollment support.

“Certainly we’ll promote benefits and products and services as part of that education process, but it will move when we get into October into more sales support and help them actually enroll for the products that they’ll need,” he says.

Facilitate exchange outreach and enrollment

On Twitter, users seem to be looking for information on health reform, says John Reich (@reichjc) public relations officer of MNsure (@MNsure), Minnesota’s insurance exchange. MNsure began its social media presence in May and is active on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and LinkedIn.

“For folks to take advantage of the benefits through MNsure in the fall, they need to know what it is,” he says.

Because exchanges are new to most consumers, he says MNsure is posting educational material relating to the basics of insurance, healthcare reform and benefits such as exchange subsidies. A series called #WordsToKnow features various health insurance terms and definitions. MNsure also plans to host a Twitter chat with the hashtag #AskApril so people can ask its executive director questions about the exchange. 

“As folks start to navigate the world of health insurance on MNsure, if they have been following some of our ‘know your words’ postings, they will be more informed consumers once they do start shopping for insurance,” Reich says.

There is still a great deal of trial and error with social media, but it can be a worthwhile and powerful tool for plans in terms of member engagement.

“Your customers really are there,” Kombol says. “People spend more time on Facebook and Twitter than on your website.”