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I moderated a panel yesterday at the JW Marriott hosted by MediaPost titled “Slip Of The Tongue: Pitfalls and Potential in Social Media.” On my panel were Kriste Goad, CMO, ReviveHealth, @kristegoad; Carrie Kerpen, CEO, Likeable Media, @carriekerpen; David Kopp, EVP/General Manager, Healthline, @kopportunity; and Jenny Vance, Co-Founder and President, LeadJen @jennyvanceindy — all specialists in the healthcare space and social media mavens in their own right.

I learned quite a lot, both in the half-hour interviews I had with each of my panelists and during a very quick forty-five-minute panel discussion.

The description of the panel was telling, focusing primarily on how scary, volatile, and dangerous social seems to be to the healthcare industry:

Social media has caused an explosion in health-related information sharing, but this is one arena where “word-of-mouth” is not always a good thing. Misinformation can be dangerous to consumers, but real-time and over-zealous correctives from industry players can put companies at risk. The FDA is only beginning to offer guidance on how the pharma segment should handle social media communications, so it is unclear how regulations apply here. Yet online forums and social networks have become the go-to sources for many consumers. How are healthcare providers building policies and procedures for engaging the social media space? Who will shape this conversation – providers, regulators, consumers?

Yikes!

To be honest, in a world where there are so many “safe” channels for promotion, branding, advertising, and dissemination that exist — that are so well-understood, are completely legal, effective, and time-tested — why would anyone be the first (second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth) into market?

Print ads, television commercials, drug reps, banner and contextual ads, radio spots, and even a little shameless shilling from paid docs. These are all so predictable and reliable and only require some budgeting and some check-writing.  Plus, they’re legal and their outcomes are known. It’s not the same with social media.

One thing we do know about social is that no matter how much we prepare for the release of our messaging into the wild, we can never be 100% sure as to where it’ll go. Like children, we can do our very best job raising them but when they they leave the nest, we can only hope they’ll continue on the road we set them on.

But sometimes things go sideways.

Every marketer needs to decide for herself: is it worth the risk? Besides, who wants to talk to lawyers if you don’t have to? Nobody!

I say yes; however, whether or not it’s worth the risk, playing it safe is no longer possible: people online are already talking about you, your drugs, your medical devices, your drug reps, your docs, and your patients already, in ad-hoc communities, groups, and on Twitter and Facebook — primarily because of what they might have heard from their doc, their friends, or even from the commercials and ads they’ve seen — and they’ve come online in order to see if anyone’s actually tried the new therapy or cure and how it worked for them.

So, based on what I learned yesterday, here’s some advice — both for folks in the healthcare industry as well for everyone else.

Whale Watch Marketing

Whale-close-upContent marketing is hot, and here’s why — and let me explain it by way of an analogy: whale watching.

Whales are protected. Even so, there’s a huge market for seeing them up close and in person. In order to have a whale experience. Gray Whales, Right Whales, Minke Whales, Humpback Whales, Blue Whales, Fin Whales — whales in general.

So, because there’s such a market, there are hundreds and thousands of boats dedicated to bringing tourists — whale watchers — out to sea to see the whales they’re seeing.

approachWhale-watching rules are very clear: stay 100 yards away from the whales. Don’t move into the path of or move faster than the whales. Don’t make erratic speed or directional changes, unless to avoid collision with a whale. Don’t get in between two whales or chase them or feed them. That’s it.

That said, the rules completely change if you stop your whale watching tour boat a hundred yards away from a pod of Humpback whales during whale season, turn off your engines, and sit there. And, while you’re sitting there bobbing on the whitecaps above the blue pelagic zone, the whales, in all of their clever curiosity, might very well come a callin’ — to you.

Now there’s a loophole you can drive a tour boat through. No matter how well-protected the whales — or your target market — may be, there’s nothing restricting the whale — your prospect, potential client, or future customer — from pursuing you and coming right up and popping the tip of its nose right into your boat, availing itself for a rub and a pat — and an experience of a lifetime.

The reason why social media marketing — and marketing, PR, and advertising in general — doesn’t work for most folks is because they’re under the gun, because they’ve made promises, because times-a-wastin’, and because there not all the time in the world.

While they may very well put themselves into the perfect position to be effective, they probably just haven’t been patient enough to allow the magic to happen, to become calm and quiet enough, over a little time, to allow the whales we’re pursuing to respond to our appeal and then come to us.  To approach the boat, say hello, and accept a friendly greeting.

I could use a lot of analogies: fishing, whale watching, deer hunting, turkey hunting (in fact, I think I will end up using all of them before the end).

11841-3In all of the analogies, it’s all about designing and building the best lure possible well before going out into the woods, lake, river, pond, ocean; then, searching out somewhere you’ve seen fish, whales, deer, or turkeys before; create a compelling environment, be it through baiting lures, using calls, or just turning off the rumbling diesel props; and then waiting for them to come to you.

You’ll always start to get worried that nothing will end up happening, after all that prep and all those promises — especially if you have a micromanaging client who’s lost confidence. Don’t do it! Don’t start madly blasting away into the woods, chasing shadows into the forest, give up on every fishing hole because “there’s no fish here!”

It’s really sad! Most social media campaigns tend to wrap just before they’re about reap all sorts of benefits and successes. The Internet is fickle but there’s also a lot of latency — it’s not real time. Messaging takes some time to become fully baked.  Just because you’re impatient doesn’t change that fact at all.

Kriste Goad, Carrie Kerpen, David Kopp, and Jenny Vance would probably all be fantastic anglers. They would all make a killing were they to open up a whale watching business because they’re more interested developing long relationships with their communities, with their clients, with their influencers, and with the healthcare market than they are with just their short game. They’re less interested in the campaign then they are with the war.

And so they’re committed to creating value for their clients and communities, even if and when the value isn’t directly related to their clients and their brands but will benefit the long term happiness of the communities their brands are most interest in reaching.

My panelists realize that they don’t get to define what value is for their clients, they understand that the need to produce lures that are specially designed to attract their particular quarry, that they need to carve each bird call according to the fowl they want to attract, and the need to choose the size and type of fishing hook — as well as the fishing style and line test —  based on what kind of fish they want to land.

Like I always say, you’ve got to give the gift the recipient wants and not just the gift you want — or are prepared — to give.

The tom wants a hen, the buck want a doe, the fish wants a worm, and the whale wants a playmate. It’s not all about being pretty, compelling, loveable, or having an irresistible call or lure, though.

WhaleWatching 100 webIt’s more about humping out into the wild and finding a good place to hunt in the first place. Ain’t no Minke Whales on Broadway, ain’t no Walleye on Main Street, and ain’t no Humpbacks on Kalakaua Avenue, either.

You’ve got to visit an outfitter, gear up, get up zero-dark-thirty, get into the woods, to your favorite fishin’ hole, or well out past the breakwater, well before you can start casting your lines, making your calls, or being coy and compelling enough to attract a big Blue right up to your boat for a pat, a pet, and a big hello into a very large, warm, and curious eye.

Let me bring this home and back to plainspeak, away from my rampant analogizing:

Social marketing works as long as there’s value in the content; however, it’s not enough just to create that content and then announce to the world, “look what I made, here it is, love it, it’s genius and exactly what you need!” It’s better than you learn what your target market’s catnip is and create your content marketing campaign directly to that because no matter how much value, talent, brilliance, insight, and direct inspiration from your Muse you’ve compounded into your content, if you’re trying to convey your message through poetry when a picture of a kitten would be better received, you really should do your poetry somewhere else and not just resent your target market for being a bunch of idiots who can’t appreciate poetry (and probably have never even heard of the New Yorker).

Don’t message over their heads, message right at them. Make every message a kill shot (you can save your contempt for the public for later, over a drink, at a fancy cocktail party, in New York, where the people do read The Times and The New Yorker and also have disdain for the public, too, well after your campaign was a raging success and you were paid handsomely and then rewarded with the sort of bonus that allows you to continue living in Manhattan).

And, once you have the messaging right, make sure you know the rules. In Virginia, if you plan to hunt with a rifle or shotgun, you need to make sure you only hunt from behind a tree stand blind — you’re in a fixed place and not wandering the woods — and need to draw bucks to you using calls. With whales, there are the rules I told you above. Know the rules, especially if you’re in healthcare or in financial services.

Finally, wait for it. When it comes to social media marketing, PR, or advertising, timing’s everything. You need to spend the time building trust in a community — hell, building trust in order to attract a community in the first place and then building more trust every day in order to keep and maintain that community. Online communities in whatever their form, be it ad hoc communities of influencers or virtual online communities, groups, lists, pages, fans, followers, etc, are as fickle as your editor who asks you “what have you done lately” even though you’ve written many a successful novel, or the Dean who tells you, menacingly, “publish or perish,” suggesting you’ll never make tenure if you end up being a one-hit wonder.

You always need to be building trust, you need to constantly be building value, and you never ever make erratic speed or directional changes, unless to avoid collision. I know this feels like plate spinning — keeping all that dinnerware up and moving all at once — but you have to do it, even before you’ll even get close enough to start with the marketing.

In the past it was much easier because fish, deer, whales, turkeys, were plentiful. Just cast, hook, catch and land, cast and land! When everyone read either Time, Life, Saturday Evening Post, Readers Digest or Newsweek and watched CBS, ABC, or NBC for their evening news. Just cast, hook, catch, land. Now, the fish are smarter, overfished, and balkanized. Just having enough money to buy an ad on the 6 o’clock news won’t cut it any more. Maybe if you have the dough to grab 30-seconds on the Super Bowl you’ll make a mark, but today you can’t just drive your pickup into the woods and bag yourself a Goliath, the 28-point, 260 pound buck. You’ll need to saddle up, pack up, and go somewhere new, somewhere unspoiled.

Unspoiled?, you ask, there’s no such thing as unspoiled, either on the Internet or on the globe. That’s just patently untrue. To quote poet Robert Frost:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Whether it be online, on social media, on television, radio, terrestrially, in print — everywhere — most everyone is fighting over the easier quarry. Even jumping on a whale watching tour boat is much different than hopping onto a blue water-capable kayak and going out in search of whales or organically and naturally stumbling across a whale accidentally during the course of a blue water sail while cruising from Acapulco to Los Angeles. They’re all such different experiences, though most marketers, brands, agencies, and practitioners tend to only go as far as they can as a result of just throwing money at it.

Don’t have enough money, resources, time, or staff to compete? Dig a little deeper, work a little harder, find a better hunting ground, tie a better lure, carve a better call, or get there a little earlier or stay a little later. At the end of the day, all you need is a little more time, more persistence, and the ability to best get into the minds of those you need to land — without spooking them in the meanwhile — while still creating content with the sort of value that will draw them that last 100 yards.

What is it they say about the last mile? The last mile is the hardest in telecom. Wiring up the entire United States is easier than putting in that last mile of cable, wire, coax, or fiber that actually reaches the customer. The hardest part of social media marketing and digital PR is actually compelling the whale to make that final 100 yard bob from where the law prohibits you to actively cross all the way to alongside the ship where sixty expectant men, women, and children pretty much expect to have a real, true, personal, and even tactile experience with an ocean-going cetacean.

Every marketing, PR, and advertising practitioner knows this is true: if you can’t span that final mile to consumer — even if you have wired the entire United States with glass optical fiber — all your work up to then was for naught and whomever hired you to do the job (of wiring up the world, pretty much, but also every American household) won’t be happy. Worse than that, he’ll consider it all to be a big fat #fail.

Do you have what it takes to not only buy all rods, reels, tackle, the boat, get up in the morning, get out to the water, and then get those delicious pike out of the murky depths of the water, onto the boat, back to shore, into the house, gutted and scaled, dressed, battered, cooked, and then onto the table?

I know you do. Go git ‘em, tiger!

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Chris Abraham

About Chris Abraham

A pioneer in online social networks and publishing, with a natural facility for anticipating the next big thing, Chris is an Internet analyst, web strategy consultant and advisor to the industries' leading firms. He specializes in Web 2.0 technologies, including content syndication; organize search engine optimization (SEO), online reputation management (ORM), content marketing, online collaboration, blogging, and consumer generated media.

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