Social Is Here to Stay: Now What?

By Dean Browell 

Now that we have come to accept that social media exists and every generation is using it, occupational health professionals should ask: “How do we manage the way it operates today and still stay ahead of the curve?” 

First, social media isn’t a marketing accessory or a last minute add-on to complement your campaign. Too often, organizations consider social media strategy only after they have set the course of a campaign, when their ideas for engaging a particular audience are set, and merely have to throw in a pinch of social to complete the recipe. That is not how you should view social media, and, more importantly, that’s not how your target markets, be they employers or patients, view it either. 

For example, you rarely hear a creative director argue against a billboard because a percentage of the target audience doesn’t drive or leave the house. Yet we field short-sighted misgivings about social media all the time, even acquiesce to arguments about its relevance to a particular market. As though social media’s birth and growth were only nurtured by the young, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. 


Ease of communication with peers facilitated by social media suggests that the role of the “traditional” digital brand content has changed. It is no longer (if it ever was) a one-way street of official content. We can often find peer validation or opinion faster than we can find and interact with the brands themselves. Not to mention that brand websites function more as showrooms––glossy presentations consumers may not trust. Your audiences are fully aware that your website is saying only what you want them to hear. Consumers want to hear what others are saying about your program. Listening to what customers are saying about your program is key. 

Institutional suspicion and desire for peer validation percolates through most interactions online. What separates most online audiences is how they choose to interact with others and their opinions. Consider, for example, how different generations deal with product reviews online. Years of ethnographic (see sidebar) study have showed us the following differences: 

  • Boomers (ages 51-70): They generally love to read reviews. It doesn’t matter if it’s a cruise they want to go on or a CD they want to buy, they are likely to diligently research their decision but rarely write reviews. 
  • Generation X (ages 35-55): They typically love to write reviews but don’t read reviews for the purposes of changing their mind. They tend to read reviews in order to validate an opinion they already have and often become irritated by an opposing one. 
  • Millennials ages (15-35): They love to read and write reviews. They are often criticized for believing everything they read. 

Social media’s usefulness as an occupational health marketing tool is less about knowing who is speaking and listening online but how they are speaking and listening online. 

Consider the various generations you target working in occupational health sales and marketing: How do they use social differently, or even the same? What do they have time for? 

  • You should view your social media world through the lens of your target audience, not just your own. 
  • This particular universe was not created by brands or marketing-smiths, but by people; it is up to us to find the best way to interact. A core guideline: listen to audiences and notice how they are using social media. It may seem obvious, but too often social media strategy is developed before a serious study of the intended audience has taken place. In all likelihood, the communities you want to engage are already gathering on some platform or message board. 


  • Be Channel Agnostic: Don’t get distracted by the shiniest object, i.e., the newest app. Recognize that social media includes the newest and the oldest user-generated content. It started way before Facebook, though that platform is one of the biggest players today. Consider what executives at target companies have time for social media-wise. What associations do they belong to? Do they frequent message boards for their industry or other local leaders? 
  • Listen to Twitter: There are some remarkable tools built into apps and sites that are rarely explored. For example, look at search-advanced and examine all of its options. You can even search for Tweets within a certain radius of a geographic point, allowing you to see what is being said about your ad and/ or your services from clinical and marketing angles. 
  • Don’t Forget Forums: In healthcare discussions, forums, and message boards are key because they influence our audiences. This isn’t only true for patients, but for nurses (AllNurses. com), physicians (Sermo), specialists (, and students ( as well.
What Is Digital Ethnography


Two examples of how social media is affecting real-world behavior are found in the responses of young mothers and new cancer patients. Young mothers are looking for, and finding, enormous amounts of information online today, posting what they find and sharing it with other mothers; from their experiences with pregnancy to product reviews, all aspects are covered and discussed and at times categorized on the basis of age, due date, geography and more. 

Likewise, when someone receives a cancer diagnoses they almost invariably turn to the Internet to research their diagnosis and verify what they learned from their medical team. Relatives and friends often turn to the Internet to learn how best to provide support. As recently as five years ago, community institutions like hospitals and government organizations lumped these two groups together. Now users don’t need to wait or to be introduced, they are likely to be, from the day they discovered they were pregnant or received their diagnosis, a member of at least one helpful online community. 

Consider how your employer targets will find out about occupational health services in-between the moments you are pitching to them. Chances are they are speaking to peers, doing searches of their own and/or comparing best practices. They do not need to wait for a conference to consult with peers when they are only a click away via Listservs, forums, Twitter, email, and LinkedIn. 

Communities are no longer defined by the physical space they occupy. The young mother has more in common with young moms across the county than the middle-aged bachelor next door who maintains a vintage train set. People with similar interests are no longer constrained by geography. 


  • As tempting as it may be for a social media savvy administrator to assume their audiences need them (and some actually might) the first step should always be to find out what communities are up and running already. They might be surprised what Facebook, LinkedIn and other forum groups or threads exist for their hospital, programs, staff and more. 
  • In practice, the geography of your audience (where they are interacting from) matters almost as much as subject. After all, even Google searches guide you on the basis of your location. When considering social media strategy, many neglect to account for geography. Factor geography into every social media decision and post: include your clinic’s street address on your YouTube videos, enable location on Twitter, use a location on every Facebook post and know what people see when they search for you. 


Recall one of your great off-the-grid moments this summer. Yes, they may feel like eons away by now, but it’s worth noticing how your normal, non-healthcare-related days played out and understanding that this is a much closer analog to your target markets.


social media words inside colorful balls
  • Make Your Posts Count: Chances are you posted a photo on Facebook at some point this summer. Recall who reacted and what they reacted to. Was it the forty shots of your kid doing a flip in a pool? Or was it that one great shot of the family by the pier? Emulate your own social media behavior: make your posts count, tie in location, involve tagged people, don’t post when people are not looking, and respond to comments because they drive engagement. 
  • Know How You Appear in Searches: When you need an answer, from the name of a movie to grilling tips, chances are you simply pulled out your phone and gave it a whirl. When you wanted to find the hours of a particular store––same thing. Now think about that same activity when one of your patients or a new employer client seeks out even the most basic information (including the location) of your department. 
  • Be Wary of Shortcuts: There are all kinds of dashboards and supposedly “easy” ways to track what people are saying. Unfortunately, widgets can’t read images, their algorithms are horrible at detecting positive and negative sentiment, and, worse yet, they don’t look at most forums and message boards. Do not substitute context for what may be just another shiny object of social monitoring. 

Social media is no longer new. Online behavior has been around a long time. What is new is the shinyobject syndrome that can cost us time and money in a field where time and money are scarce. In occupational health, we need to stay ahead of the competition, our audiences and often their audiences. Instead of being distracted by the newest app or getting in over your head on a new channel, try listening to your audiences and judiciously applying your ideas to the platforms and places your target audience is gathered and waiting. 

Dean Browell is executive vice president of Feedback, a Richmond, VA-based company that specializes in the use of Digital Ethnography as a market research technique, sifting through reviews, discussions and behavioral examples to find key insights. 

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