The challenges of using social media for marketing purposes — Catherine Tucker

MIT Sloan Professor Catherine Tucker

MIT Sloan Professor Catherine Tucker

In an era when marketers spend billions on managing social media, is that investment worthwhile? Should firms actively guide, promote and shape online conversations, or leave them to grow organically?

To investigate this, my colleague Amalia Miller from the University of Virginia and I recently studied what happens when hospitals started to actively manage their profiles on Facebook. We focused on Facebook because it’s the most visited media site in the U.S., accounting for 20% of all time spent on the Internet. We also chose it because the Facebook Places initiative created a page for every single hospital in the U.S., allowing organizations to choose whether to actively manage their pages or not.

We selected hospitals for two reasons. First, they are so regulated that we have far better data on them than for most other organizations in the U.S. economy. Second, there have been a lot of questions about whether it is wise for health care organizations to step into social media, both from a patient privacy perspective and from a cost-benefit perspective. We found that when hospitals started managing their Facebook pages, they began to receive a lot more likes, visits and comments – from their employees, not their customers. Conversations involving patients actually decreased.

This may have been because the posts were not, on the whole, client-focused. They tended to highlight things of interest to employees, like recent organizational achievements and events. Client-focused posts only made up around one-fourth of all posts. However, in the rare instances when a hospital did focus on clients in posts, client engagement did increase.

So when you’re thinking of whether to manage your social media presence actively, think carefully about your goals. If you want to encourage internal dialogue with employees, motivate them and improve communication flows, active management may be the way to go; but if so, HR should be in charge of it, not marketing or sales.

Our findings apply to sectors where the product is not naturally a “social product,” meaning that – unlike movies or books – it isn’t naturally something people chatter about online. For more sensitive areas like health care, those conversations tend to be very fragile and consequently easy to suppress.

Prof. Catherine Tucker is the coauthor of “Active Social Media Management: The Case of Health Care,” which was recently published in Information Systems Research.

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