Should Hospitals Add Google+ to Their Social Mix?

by Brett Pollard on August 2, 2011

The following post is a point/counterpoint piece addressing the potential benefits Google+ may offer hospitals and health systems. Should hospitals jump in now, or simply observe for future consideration? Is Google+ the next big thing in healthcare, or just one more social network to manage?  I will make a case for getting involved right away,  while Mark Miller (@mmiller20910 / +Mark Miller) from Children’s National Medical Center will argue a “wait and see” approach.  The purpose of this post is simply to provide both sides of the argument to help others weigh the pros and cons.  The thoughts reflected in our arguments do not necessarily represent our own personal views, as we both see opportunities as well as unanswered questions.

GROWTH

Point:

With an estimated 20 million users in the first three weeks, the Google+ project is making a strong case for social media relevancy.  Google’s leadership is clearly committed to adding (and supporting) a social layer to their existing products.  Hospitals and health systems already invested in social media should allocate some of their existing resources now in order to benefit from the early growth of Google+.  Is there a risk those resources will ultimately be wasted on Google+?  Of course, but it’s a calculated risk.  Google+ is worth the attention and poised for long-term growth.

Counterpoint:

This isn’t a question of whether Google+ may have value for hospitals – it surely will for some, if used strategically. But many hospitals and health systems have created Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube accounts that are not being used strategically – many are still communicating one-way instead of truly engaging their constituents (patients, employees, partners, and others). And Ubicare estimates that 68 percent of hospital pages have fewer than 1,000 fans, and 44 percent have fewer than 500. For hospitals that have a grasp on social media and know what’s working and what they want to do, Google+ may fit into their strategies right away.  But for many others, now is a good time to evaluate your current efforts. First, determine what’s working, what’s not, and how you’re measuring your social media efforts. Then ask, who do you want to reach, and how do you want to engage with them? That will help shape your strategy for Google+.

SEARCH

Point:

Social search is real and Google+ is likely the best opportunity to make an impact on SCO (social content optimization).  When it comes to search, Google is still “king of the hill” and any opportunity to positively impact search results must be taken seriously.  A hospital’s online content, social relationships and the conversations those relationships foster are paramount to the success of the overall online presence – not just social media presence.

For some time now, Google has been working towards more personalized search results.  This includes search based on existing online relationships and real-time search rankings.  In fact, the impact of the +1 button, Google+ connections and Google+ shares is already impacting search results.  These two articles from SEOmoz and Search Engine Land are just two examples of the impact of social search.

Counterpoint:

If there’s one area where Google dominates, it’s search. For that reason alone, it’s hard to ignore the potential of Google+.  But it’s one of many tools that can enhance search results.  Hospitals and health systems should first tackle SEO basics – such as optimizing content, keeping content fresh, naming and designing pages appropriately, keyword analysis, link building, using Google Ad Words, and measuring results – before thinking Google+ will instantly push them to the top of search results. See “Social Media Marketing Vs SEO – Which Is Most Important?”  by Pam Lawhorne (@PamLawhorne) and the latest on search ranking factors from from SEOMoz (@SEOMoz).

BUZZ

Point:

Businesses (motivated by social search/analytics) and news media (motivated by real-time search and the absence of a 140 character limit) will likely drive more consumers to Google+ fueling growth.  Google has promised to “fast track” the launch of business profiles and when that happens there will be a frenzy of activity.

The overwhelming success of Facebook and Twitter can be partially attributed to the immense amount of free advertising businesses and news media dole out daily.  You can no longer peruse a magazine, read a print ad or listen to a news cast without some mention of Facebook and Twitter.  Due to the aforementioned search opportunities, it’s logical to expect similar advertising for Google+ with compelling consumer incentives attached.

Counterpoint:

The +1 button is already gaining in popularity and soon may be as omnipresent as that familiar “f” and the blue bird. But just because users can click +1 doesn’t mean they will. The key is providing content that users want to share. Now’s the time to do some analysis – based on your website, Facebook, and Twitter data, what types of content are your audiences responding to? What types of articles, videos, or photos do they click on, comment on, or share? Adding the +1 button is a good way to get started with Google+ while you wait for the launch of business pages, but focus on giving your users a reason to click.

MOMENTUM

Point:

Google+ is already relevant.  With an invite-only launch, Google+ has experienced explosive growth.  However, the most promising indication of future success is the public support it has garnered from a wide variety of social media thought leaders such as +Chris Brogan, +Steve Rubel, +Robert Scoble and +Brian Solis.

Another thing to consider is the inevitable integration of other Google products.  Lurking beneath the surface of Google+ is a whole host of technologies waiting their turn for Google engineers to integrate.  These are products millions of people already use such as Voice, Calendar, Analytics, Translate, Adwords, Docs, Reader, Music and more.  Treating Google+ as a “social layer” on top of these products puts it in a unique position among other social networks.

Counterpoint:

While the numbers for Google+ in such a short time are impressive, 20 million is a lot less than 750 million on Facebook.  Many people and organizations that have spent years building Facebook and Twitter followings are asking: “Does Google+ mean I need to start all over?” Not surprisingly, there is early momentum on Google+ among thought leaders in technology, social media, and health care. It’s already proving valuable for sharing ideas, comparing notes, and networking. But the real value will come with the mass adoption by “regular” people, which I don’t see happening quite yet.

FOCUS

Point:

Google+ is different.  It offers a better platform than Twitter for communicating your message by allowing for threaded comments, inline photos/video and no character limitations.  It also delivers better control than Facebook of your social relationships and the opportunity to easily craft a specific message to a targeted audience.

Counterpoint:

It’s great to be able to craft a specific message to the people you choose to send, but social media should empower recipients to choose what they receive, how they receive it, and what form they receive it in. One function I’m hoping to see in business pages that’s not currently offered on individual pages is the ability for people to “opt in” to the kind of content they want. If Google makes this a priority, Google+ will provide a valuable service that Facebook and Twitter do not.

I have some concern when I hear health care professionals talk about how great it will be to be able to create “circles” of patients. Physicians have generally been reluctant to connect with patients online, but that cautious approach is often thrown out when people discuss Google+. Health practitioners need to remain vigilant against privacy violations. Through human or technology error, many “private” or “limited” messages on Google+ will surely be shared more widely.

BUSINESS PAGES

Point:

Healthcare organizations are already getting involved.  According to the preliminary data collected by Ed Bennett (@edbennett), there are several hospitals already using Google+.  Presumably these accounts are temporary as they await business profiles but in the meantime, they are busy building connections on a social platform with tremendous potential.

Counterpoint:  Google has specifically asked businesses and nonprofits to refrain from creating organizational accounts, but the positive reception to Google+ makes me think it will be worth the short wait. In the meantime, hospitals and health systems should discuss how they will use Google+ — relative to Facebook, Twitter, and other social media channels – and prepare content so they’re ready to hit the ground running when Google launches business pages.

SUMMARY

Point:

Although Facebook is not likely to be dethroned any time soon, the potential Google+ promises has a good chance to level the social media playing field.  Historically, early adopters taking calculated risks are rewarded with recognition as industry innovators.  Sure business profiles haven’t been launched yet, but jumping in and getting a head start is not a bad idea.

Will your hospital be the first to answer patient questions as you live stream a Google Hangout with a handful of surgeons?  What about live-streaming a surgery with expert commentary?  It’s an opportunity to innovate.  In the worst case scenario, Google+ flounders and your organization gains valuable insight into the future of social search.

Counterpoint:

With the use of any new technology, there are advantages to being first. There are also advantages to letting other people work out the kinks while you learn from their experiences. The question isn’t whether all hospitals and health systems should or should not invest time and resources into Google+ — the question is whether Google+ is right for your organization. Who are your priority audiences? Where are they? How do you want to engage with them, and (perhaps more important) how do they want to engage with you?

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