Social Media: Small Biz’s Holy Grail

I’ve been reading with great interest all the pros, cons and hype surrounding social media. I lead a small, in-house agency for a healthcare system, responsible for conceiving and executing all marketing communication and creative content, and in my experience social media is a dream tool for us and other small clients with limited budgets and resources.

We certainly don’t claim to have the best or most sophisticated strategy, but we are building a digital presence that will enhance our brand for many years to come. Hospitals are brands that people typically choose not to interact with and, in fact, avoid unless they are under some kind of duress. Social media has given us a new forum to interact with our patients and prospective patients in their homes, where they feel more comfortable physically and mentally.

With no budget dedicated to social media, we were unable to outsource to an agency or even bring in someone to train our staff. The challenge, then, was to overcome our lack of internal expertise. Our response: Each member of our marketing team was designated “CEO” of a social media site that complemented his or her skills and interests.

While we did create a blog for our CEO, we largely relied on existing platforms. For example, our designer has a passion for photography, so we linked him up with Flickr. One of our PR team members has a strong interest in video pitches (versus traditional press releases), so she took on the responsibility for YouTube. Our consumer insights manager took on Twitter as he has a great grasp on short, concise, meaningful interactions.

We quickly developed our expertise the old-fashioned way — by getting our hands dirty. Each team member was given complete autonomy to build his or her online presence and to develop content around our overall brand strategy.

The benefits of our “divide and conquer” approach have been enormous. Not only did we quickly establish a presence on sites such as Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, Delicious, YouTube and Flickr, we also challenged ourselves to think and act outside of our core areas and, in some cases, comfort zones. As social media sites tend to be all encompassing from a communication perspective, each team member had to assume greater responsibility for the end product — he or she had to become a visionary brand manager rather than operate within the constraints of a single agency role. We had copywriters who made design decisions, traffic specialists who developed content and research folks who stretched their legs in the real world. This truly was a one plus one equals three phenomenon.

The people on our team developed confidence, expanded their skills and began to contribute on a much wider scale. This, in turn, has benefited our other, more traditional forms of advertising and communication. Our team members have made the connection that good marketing truly is a blended exercise. We are at our best when everyone contributes.

What we have learned from our respective audiences is incredible. It’s a real-time focus group that runs 24/7. I would speculate we are much closer to our target audience now than all the traditional research in the world could have taught us. How much closer can we get than patients tweeting us directly from their hospitals beds, whether it’s to tell us what they think of the level of care, or that they want to make a follow-up appointment before they’re discharged.

That, for us, is the Holy Grail — the opportunity to develop authentic relationships with our customers long before they need us, and to make meaningful changes that ensure future interactions are more satisfying and hopefully life changing.

Peter Taylor is marketing director of Sarasota Memorial Healthcare System in Sarasota, Fla. He can be reached at Peter-Taylor@smh.com.