Diving Into Social Media

Posted on Nov 1, 2009 :: Features
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Cold feet about how to tweet?

When new employees start at Affinity Health System, they are together for a couple of days during orientation and then go their separate ways throughout the Menasha-based health care system. For many of them, it’s often the last time they interact.

Until now. This past spring, Affinity launched a Facebook page for new employees, allowing them to connect and share thoughts and stories long after orientation is complete.

“As employers, we need to be attuned to what our workers want — and that’s using social media to connect,” says Sue Edminster, Affinity’s director of human resources.

Edminster’s role is just a piece of Affinity Health System’s social media puzzle. The organization’s robust social media program connects employees to each other, providers with patients and the community with health care information. In addition to Facebook, Affinity’s social media campaign uses YouTube and Twitter.

“It’s all about sharing information. It’s a whole new way of communicating,” says Jennifer Wagner-Mauk, Affinity’s executive director of branding and marketing communications. “Where else can you immediately connect with 300 people and receive feedback the same way you can with a Tweet?”

When the national buzz around social media soared early this year, Affinity decided to jump in. “My main advice to anyone starting out is ‘don’t wait until you have everything figured out. Just start small and go from there,’” Wagner-Mauk says.

While Affinity’s social media plan began small with a Facebook fan page and a Twitter account used to share information about health issues and upcoming events, Wagner-Mauk says. Affinity is now marrying its traditional media strategies to social media. Right now, Affinity has a billboard along U.S. 41 encouraging people to visit its YouTube channel to view a story about a heart patient at Mercy Medical Center.

“Social media is not a silver bullet. It’s something that should be used with your traditional marketing campaigns,” she says.

Getting started
While interest is high in social media — 90 percent of businesses surveyed last spring by the Green Bay Area Chamber of Commerce and MarketingSavant said social media will be a part of their future strategic marketing plans — many businesses don’t know where to start, feel daunted by what policies they should have in place or wonder how to get it all done.

For Cindy Herbert, vice president of marketing at Hoffmaster in Oshkosh, hopping online and seeing what other people were doing was a great way to start. She also researched social media and discovered Hoffmaster’s main customers – the restaurant industry — were already on Twitter and Facebook.

“You have to go where your customers are,” she says. “When I saw the restaurant industry was getting involved, I knew we had to be there. I really did my homework.”

When Herbert realized Hoffmaster needed a social media presence, she wasn’t sure which way to go. She connected with the Weidert Group in Appleton and launched a campaign featuring Nate, a spokesperson, who “talks” through Twitter and other social media to Hoffmaster’s customers.

“It’s a way to be involved with social media and not have as much worry about who’s ‘talking’ for you since there is one ‘person’ it’s coming through,” she says.

Affinity’s chief information officer, Will Weider, was one of the first people in Wisconsin to be on Twitter and brought his enthusiasm for social media to the organization’s leadership.

“A lot of companies have a knee-jerk reaction that starting something like this will lead to a decrease in productivity or that key information will be shared where it shouldn’t be,” Weider says. “Fortunately, Affinity’s leadership didn’t see it that way. There have always been workplace distractions and companies that are trying to shut out social media, I think, will find they aren’t going to be successful.”

This past summer, the organization conveyed a social media council that meets monthly to discuss issues surrounding the new forms of media and contains employees from throughout Affinity, including physicians, representatives from the marketing, legal and HR departments and information systems. “It’s a great way to brainstorm and bounce ideas off of each other,” says Lisa Cruz, owner of Red Shoes PR in Grand Chute, which is helping Affinity with its social media planning.

Susan Finco, owner of Leonard & Finco Public Relations Inc. in Green Bay, says businesses need to realize employees will be using social media whether there’s a policy in place or not, so it makes sense for organizations to discuss it.

“It’s important for a company to communicate its expectations and guidelines regarding social media whether it’s a formal policy or just sitting down and talking about what’s appropriate and reminding everyone that what they say is public,” Finco says. “You can also go over confidentiality rules or what’s proprietary and shouldn’t be discussed.”

Finco says businesses who try to shut the door on social media will lose out.

“You can’t ignore it. If you’re not out there talking about your business, someone else will be,” she says.

That’s what Jeff Gahnz, vice president of marketing and public relations for Nicolet Bank in Green Bay, was thinking a year ago when the financial institution launched its social media initiatives.

“We wanted to talk with our customers and not at them. Our customers want information and this is an excellent way to do that,” he says. “We want to be a part of the conversation going on out there.”

But while Gahnz knows it’s important for Nicolet to be involved in social media, he says finding the time to do it is tough. “It’s something I struggle with, but it’s important and needs to be done so you find time to do it,” he says.

The time commitment involved with social media is one factor that keeps some organizations from launching a program. With businesses keeping a tight lid on spending, hiring one person to handle social media is likely not going to happen.

In light of that reality, Wagner-Mauk suggests finding people interested in social media and empowering them to get involved. “You may already have employees who are using Facebook or Twitter. You can work them into whatever your company is doing,” she says. “If communicating with your customers is a priority and your customers are on social media, then reaching them should be a priority too, so you need to make the time to do it.”

Once employees start tweeting, some organizations may be worried about what’s being said. Cruz admits there aren’t firm rules out there for employers to follow.

“My advice is if you find someone is badmouthing you online, you need to address that just as if someone was badmouthing your business in person to one of your clients,” she says. “You just need to use common sense.”