Are Facebook and Twitter the preserve of time-wasting youngsters or powerful tools to manage reputation, build loyalty and create engagement?

With dizzying speed, what was once the domain of geeks and nerds has entered the mainstream. Social media websites are now so established it seems impossible that they have been around for such a short period of time – YouTube, for instance, only celebrated its 5th birthday in May. Email is fast losing its dominance as a communication medium, hampered by spam and time delays. Meanwhile, social media sites are becoming virtual homes for many.

But what do we mean when we say social media? These websites allow the dissemination of user-generated content. Hitwise, the monitor for everything web, says social media sites are now more popular than search engines in English-speaking countries. Facebook was the most popular site, YouTube second and Twitter a close third.

With all the excitement of what’s new in technology, it’s easy to lose sight of what stays the same. For the last 350,000 years, humans have communicated through language. People, quite simply, talk: from caves to cafes and now on to the world wide web, conversations are common currency. The web hosts millions of conversations, often involving more than one person at any time. In fact, while social media sites haven’t changed human behaviour, they have enabled people to talk, and listen, more widely. Word spreads faster and wider online.

What does that mean for those of us who work in the aged-care sector? It would be a mistake to assume that just because the technology is young so are its users. Just as in real life, if our stakeholders, staff and customers are talking about us in the virtual world, it pays to listen. The joy of the web is that it gives us hard metrics and the numbers speak for themselves: 58 per cent of all internet users are 33 to 63 years of age. The biggest increase in internet use since 2005 is the 70 to 75 year-old age group. While just over a quarter (26 per cent) of 70 to 75 year olds were online in 2005, 45 per cent of that age group is currently online, and doing more while there.

As with any tool, the effectiveness of social media depends on the skill of the user. However, Facebook, Twitter and You Tube can be used to engage families, volunteer groups and staff, achieve knowledge sharing in real time, foster a sense of staff unity, provide a data pool for research purposes and build a reputation for genuine interest in your community and customers.

Twitter and Facebook capitalise on the value of relationships. We go to people we trust for information; for a second opinion. Our relationships are built on transfer of useful information – advice, knowledge, support – and with social media, sharing that wealth of information is not only faster and easier but also, often, a kind of broadcasting.

What’s the secret to harnessing the power of social media? The answer is simple: high-quality content. To be effective, content must be useful, relevant, fresh and invite dialogue. It pays to remember that Facebook and Twitter demand a conversational tone; you’re talking to people in their homes.

Where do we find this gold-dust content? Luckily, content is everywhere. Every day, aged care facilities produce a great range of content, the skill is knowing how to repackage and repurpose. Just ask, how many lives does your content have?

Social media sites are also great sources for unique and powerful insights. You can discover the number of fans, demographics, interactions per post, mentions (people who have shared your page) and what is of interest and concern to your stakeholders.

A smart social media strategy will enable you to respond to stakeholder needs, build relationships and market differentiation. For example, browse Lifespan’s RI Hospital Twitter feed – twitter.com/RIHospital – to see how they are providing outreach and care, in the broadest sense. With this in-the-moment insight, you can identify issues and manage them before they escalate. Twitter can also be an invaluable staff news update tool – reaching anyone with a mobile phone. Facebook or Twitter allows nurse managers to share advice in real time across multiple facilities. Facebook is also a great place to establish and manage volunteer networks.

With so many useful applications, it can be daunting to know where to begin. As ever, the business fundamentals remain the same. The first step in establishing a social media strategy or policy is to set your objectives – why are you doing this? Next, simply talk to your intended audience. They may not use Facebook now but you’ll be surprised how many people are keen to try. Once on, they rarely leave. Establish protocols: who in the organisation ‘owns’ social media activities – customer service, marketing. Are there any legal implications? Finally, resource content production and moderation, remembering that the quality of your content will determine your success.

What’s what in social media.
Facebook is a social utility connecting people with friends and others who work, study and live around them. Unlike email, Facebook allows account holders to speak to many friends at once and know when they’re online. With the Facebook “like” button, users can display their approval of a television show, chocolate bar or anything else that takes their fancy.

YouTube is a video-sharing website on which users can upload, share, and view videos. YouTube says that 24 hours of new videos are uploaded to the site every minute, and that around three quarters of the material comes from outside the United States. It is estimated that, in 2007, YouTube consumed as much bandwidth as the entire Internet in 2000.

Twitter users send short text messages 140 characters in length, called “tweets”, to their followers. The short format allows informal collaboration and quick information sharing that provides relief from rising email fatigue. Twitter is also a less gated method of communication: users can share information with people that they wouldn’t normally exchange email with, opening up their circle of contacts to an ever-growing community of like-minded people. Users send messages using the Twitter website directly, as a single SMS alert or via a third-party application.

A whole new world.
Aged care providers need to tap into social media in order to market themselves to the next wave of customers and to create positive brand awareness among a savvy online community.

Given Google ranks social networking content ahead of an organisation’s own website material, providers need to proactively engage with the growing numbers of users on popular networking sites, formats and blogs.

Fi Bendall, director of the Bendalls Group, told the recent ACSA national conference that a quarter of the population aged 65 and older are visiting social networks. “The usage by those 50 and older has doubled in the last year, to 42 per cent,” she said.

47% of 50 to 64 year olds and 26% of 65 year olds now visit social networking sites regularly.

In fact, there has been an 1150 per cent adoption rate of social media across the board in the past year. Social media is now more popular on the internet than pornography, she said.

Older people are using social media, like Facebook and Twitter, to reconnect with people from their past. Social media is also providing a gathering place for people from all generations.

Given that more than 90% of people say they do not believe advertising, and 78% say they are more likely to trust the recommendation of a friend – including those online – aged care providers need to actively engage in social media.

Social media users are turning to each other for advice and information, more than they use traditional sources such as mainstream news and organisation’s own websites.

Women, especially mothers, are the most powerful group on social media, Bendall said.

Social media is changing the way we live. “We are all publishers and we are all the audience. The language has completely changed. The shift is as radical as when the printing press was invented,” she said.

Providers need to have more robust conversations online. “Everyone is looking for you online, you need to speak to the online community and it needs to be relevant,” she said.

The smart organisations are those who will tap into this growing community and leverage off it.

“You need to understand what skill is needed. You should control what you can, and you need to understand what the community wants,” she told the conference.

This article was featured on Aged Care INSite on 4 October 2010. If you would like any more information on social media and how it can assist your business, please contact Ellis Jones.

image credit: Mehfuz Hossain