Succeeding With Social Media in Mental Health & Addiction Services: Six Dos & Six Don’ts

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Recovery Systems Institute

Earlier this month, we wrote on how Gremln’s new compliance tools can help companies in the financial services and healthcare industries adhere to social media guidelines set by regulatory agencies. This week, guest writer Cecile LaBore brings us a practical look at how healthcare providers can effectively use social media as part of their communications plans.

Cecile LaBore is Administrator for Recovery Systems Institute.  RecoverySI focuses on bridging the gap between treatment and recovery by providing information, tools, and resources for people in recovery and their families, clinicians, and addiction treatment programs.

It’s a big field, and includes everything from prevention to long term recovery services, nonprofits with no paid staff to big companies with dozens of facilities, and approaches that vary from the medical to the spiritual and all points between.  But we all have one goal in common:  If we’re going to help, people have to know who & where we are– and what we can help with!  That’s where social media comes in.

But many of us have been putting off diving into the social media arena, or have maybe just “dipped a toe in.”  Maybe a Facebook page with hardly any posts.  Or some staff presence on LinkedIn.  A dormant Twitter account.  We know we should do better, but we’re worried:  Will social media become a “time sink” that uses up effort for an insignificant return?  Will it even work at all?  Worse– will we make a terrible mistake that could get us in trouble, precipitate a lawsuit, lose us a contract?

Here are six “Dos” and six “Don’ts” that can help you get started on the right track with Social Media:

Do invest some time in planning.  Do some homework, and then sit down with key decision makers to identify what you want to achieve and what you will need to invest.  For the “homework” part, nothing works as well as getting in there and seeing it firsthand.  If you don’t have personal accounts, set some up (there are great online tutorials to help, and to address your concerns about privacy and security) and spend time exploring.  Search hashtags in Twitter (#recovery, #anxiety, #prevention…); look up competitors’ Facebook pages. Think about what you want from your audience and what they want from you.  Social media services have different strengths.  Think about how you might use each one, which seems the best fit.  Research best practices for data security, and implement them from the start.  Develop a social media policy that defines your own “dos and don’ts.”  The more time you spend studying “how it works,” the better you’ll be able to make it work for you.

Don’t “stick it over there.”  As in, don’t regard social media as a separate, stand-alone segment of communications/marketing that can run in its own little vacuum.  To be done right, it will have to be hooked into everything else.  Even if your “IT Department” is one computer-savvy staffer or volunteer who knows how to use email, they’ll need to be involved in setting up your social media accounts, maintaining them, and making sure they’re used safely and easily.  Your program people will have to be involved- they need to know what’s going on, and they’re a source of ideas.  If you’re offering a discount, your billing and finance people need to know.  In fact, with the possible exception of building maintenance, there aren’t too many aspects of what you do that don’t connect somehow to your online presence.

Do establish reasonable expectations for your return on investment.  The good news is that you can establish a compelling presence in most social media without having to front a lot of cash.  Basic accounts are free.  Most third-party apps and management tools (like Gremln!) have free introductory levels or periods.  There are plenty of good free “how to” resources & tutorials online.  But using ‘free’ stuff does cost something:  Time. Time to learn, time to practice, time to create.  You can trade off time by spending money to buy expertise- there are plenty of good paid services & consultants to help.  Either way, you’ll invest, so think about what you want in return, and be realistic about the time horizon.

Don’t mistake quantity for quality.  If you’re Coca-cola, or Nike, you’re operating in an arena where more is better, sure.  But buying a soda or a pair of shoes is a very different kind of transaction than what we deal in.  Even for the big treatment providers with dozens of facilities, we’re talking about “conversions” that are based on establishing a high level of trust.  For those of us trying to be effective in prevention, in getting research funded, in changing policies or building community resources, the measure of success is “informed & engaged.”  We need to develop reach to find people -I’m not dissing numbers!- but our success devolves to finding the right people.  Numbers are nice.  Quality is better.

Do frame your goals in terms of your mission and services.  If you’re a treatment provider, you want to expand your customer base, obviously.  But remember that “referents” (people who refer clients to you for services) are customers, too.  Maybe you want to add value to your services by establishing an alumni program for families & clients?  Social media is your tool- and a great one.  If you’re in prevention, getting the information disseminated as widely as possible might be a goal.  Match your mission goals to social media strengths.  The easiest things to measure are reach (how many people are you making contact with?) and engagement (are people clicking on links, attending events, downloading information).  Direct conversions can be measured but may require a little more investment and creativity.

Don’t take big bites.  “We’re a high quality Eating Disorders program!” isn’t compelling.  “We provide individual nutrition planning and follow-up meal coaching” is compelling.  “Support our efforts to reduce the stigma of mental illness!” doesn’t generate action.  “Come to our Survival is Strength rally (and print out this coupon for a free coffee while you’re there!)” gets action.  A 30-page .pdf full of dense text on how to recognize the symptoms of a disorder may be popular with a few clinicians. That’s fine if that’s who you want to reach.  But even they are more likely to click on a 1.5-minute slide show with engaging music and graphics on the same topic (then maybe download the .pdf!).

Do put a premium on creativity.  Creative thinking is critical to success.  If you don’t have it, import some, even if it means recruiting volunteers or paying outside help.  Here’s a great idea for nonprofits:  Find some young people engaged with the issue and recruit them as social media consultants.  Here’s a great idea for smaller for-profits:  Tap the local community colleges or adult ed programs, offer some paid internships or prizes for design & strategy ideas.  Use “Crowdsourcing” resources on the Web to help.

Don’t leave out the details.  While your social media communications need to focus on short, sweet & snappy, if you’re all surface, you’re not trustworthy.  Somewhere in your online presence (a blog or website is a good place for this,) be sure that your audience can access all the important information about you, including how to contact you directly by phone, email, etc.  Be sure that your social media profiles have a clickable link to take folks there.  And be sure that it goes all the way “to the top.” If you’re a branch of a larger entity, link to the larger entity’s information, too.

Do remember that the first word in social media is “social.”  As in, not business.  Not advertising.  Not even marketing.  We may be using it for those purposes, but it won’t work for those purposes effectively unless it’s done, well, socially.  People spend time on social media notbecause they want to find a particular product at a particular location or price (they could do that with a search engine & save time!) but because they want to interact.  So tell stories, give information, feature real examples, bring your own experience online and share it. Of course, protect anonymity and respect HIPAA (Gremln can help), but engagement depends on authenticity.

Don’t bait and switch.  “Click for info about dating in the recovery community!” may get you 100 clicks.  But if clicking that link takes them to a sales pitch for your new sober living house and a sidebar of dating tips, 95 of those folks will never click on another link from you.  “Click to learn about our sober living house and get sober dating tips!” may only get you 50 clicks.  But they’ll all be willing to click another link from you (unless your link led to boring or off-putting information, of course.)

Do give it time.  We get deceived by the short time horizons of the online world, and it feeds our desire for instant gratification.  Many of us do work that depends on establishing a “therapeutic relationship” with our clients.  We can’t expect them to move along a spectrum of learning and recovery unless that relationship happens, and deepens.  Social media is like that, too.  The “thousand followers overnight on Twitter for $15!” are not likely to click our links, support our work, access our services. The three hundred followers we build up by engaging with them will.  And they’ll pass on our tweets to friends.  And our follower base will grow.  It takes time.  But it’s worth doing right.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.  Social media has blossomed into a multi-faceted tool, and each service is more effective when it’s coordinated with other services.  Tweets drive clicks to your blog.  A Pinterest album drives clicks to your Facebook page.  Facebook “meet the staff” posts can drive interest to your LinkedIn profiles or discussion group.  Don’t try to do everything at once, naturally, but your long term goal should be to build a multi-layered social media presence with each aspect reinforcing the effectiveness of all the others.  Start with your blog and a Twitter feed.  Or your website and a Facebook page.  As you get comfortable and learn the tricks of managing each source effectively, branch out.

We’re in an important business.  Never has there been a greater need for our information, our services, our presence in our communities.  Mental illness and addiction affect millions, cost lives and money and untold numbers of tragedies.  We’re here to bring hope and health, and we should use every tool available.  Social media can boost our effectiveness in so many ways.  Let’s get started!

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