Meet the Experts – Marc Needham

Our next profile is with Marc Needham, Director of Web Technology for Scripps Health in San Diego. I’ve known Marc for many years via Webiscope, and always look forward to his comments and insights. Marc is smart, witty and down to earth at the same time. What follows is some good,marc_final common-sense advice from one of the pros in our industry.

Please introduce yourself

I’m Marc Needham, the Director of Web Technology for Scripps Health in San Diego. I’ve been with Scripps for two and a half years now. My work here is a mix of long-term web strategy planning, project work and the usual day-to-day politics of a large health care organization.

Tell us about Scripps and the department where you work.

Scripps Health is an amazing organization to work for. We’re a four hospital system spread across five campuses with 19 outpatient facilities all supported by almost 13,000 employees. We’re led by an award-winning executive team that have a great vision for the future of Scripps – one that I’m proud to support with the work we do on the web.

What got you interested in social media?

I think that I have always been interested in social media. One of my first web experiences was messing around on IRC into the wee hours of the morning back in 1994. The idea of frictionless interactions with other people really appeals to me and I’ve spent the last 15 years (dang that’s a long time) very actively participating in message boards and social media of some form or another.

Social media on the web is, to my mind, just an extension of any other sort of human conversation. Thinking of it in its most simple terms makes it easier to recognize emerging opportunities and to analyze their associated risk.

Would you approach an irate patient with a billing complaint that was shouting in the lobby of one of your hospitals? If so, why wouldn’t you reach out to that same person when they’re doing their shouting online? In the same vein – would you interrupt an overheard conversation about someone’s recent surgery to interject something pointless about your brand? Probably not.

People are people and, for the most part, the same rules apply online as off.

What aspects of Social Media do you focus on at Scripps?

We try not to focus too hard. My team and I do social media things off the side of our desks and our strategy consists of: try new things, be nice to people and don’t say anything that our legal department would object to. Some things fall flat (we had some tangles with Wikipedia administrators which I would rather not revisit) and others grow and develop organically like our Twitter presence.

As a result of the ‘be nice to people’ part of our social media strategy we have found that our time on Twitter is mostly focused on customer service. Twitter is a microcosm of the web at large and as such there are plenty of opportunities to reach out to smooth furrowed brows.

I’m sure everyone reading this knows that there simply aren’t the hours in the day to do everything you want to with social media; as such it always feels like we’re falling short of the real potential. Part of my budget recommendations for FY10 was that our customer service department develops a new position – an ‘Electronic Customer Service Representative’. Someone who would spend their day reaching out to angry and confused patients through social media, responding to negative (and positive) online reviews and appropriately handling the slew of emails we get through

Things on the web have a tremendously long and deep footprint – especially as more and more of our target demographic turn to Google first. I think that it is desperately important for an organization to have a good handle on their online brand perception. What you say about yourself matters much less than what everyone else says about you. The broken window theory is even truer online than it is in the real world: one negative review on Yelp makes it that much easier for the next disgruntled patient to post their rant. Unaddressed complaints fester and lead to online reputation rot.

We haven’t used social media explicitly for marketing as I think the medium demands more authenticity than most marketing is capable of. Social media is a tough nut to crack because it blurs the lines between PR, customer service, marketing and risk management. It seems to make sense that you always lead with your customer service hat on but have the other three disciplines in your back pocket.

Is there a particular Social Network that you prefer for your hospital program?

Not yet. We’re spending the lion’s share of our efforts on Twitter simply because it has the best effort:reward ratio right now. We’re experimenting with Wikipedia, YouTube, Flickr, LinkedIn, Facebook, Google and Twitter but have plans to expand across to other sites as appropriate. Each site offers its own unique challenges and opportunities – you find a different audience waiting to be engaged at each. We’re looking at Facebook for recruitment, LinkedIn for employee connections, Twitter for service recovery and all of the above for syndication and general outreach.

What are the goals of your social media program?

If you approach social media with goals in mind you are almost sure to come away disappointed and/or frustrated. Every time we set up a new account to experiment with the idea we had for it fall by the wayside and it ends up becoming something else. It is generally something defined by the audience and their wants.

Social media is changing the fabric of the web and as such needs to change the nature of the work we do. For the longest time everyone has been exclusively focused on their website – driving people to it relentlessly, pushing conversions, optimizing user pathways, adding transactional capabilities and making everything shine. I think we’re going to see a shift away from that in the next few years. There is too much work to be done beyond the walls of the castle. It isn’t enough to cater a feast inside – you need to offer a delivery service for people that will never cross the moat.

A great example of this is Google Local. If you haven’t already, go to and search for one of your facilities. Google lets you claim a listing (via postcard or phone) and everyone should do this at least once. Once you own a listing you can see just how many people found what they were looking for in the Google Local listing (generally a phone number or address) and never bothered visiting your neatly-trimmed and manicured website. You’ll also notice that these thousands of people were also treated to negative reviews of your staff, incorrect or out-of-date information and sometimes ads for your competitors. How do you manage a problem of that scale when you’re already working with limited resources? That’s something we’re all going to have to figure out these next few years.

What’s your opinion on trying to measure ROI for your social media efforts?

There are little things that you can do to justify your social media efforts – sending executive management success stories and tracking people following links back to your primary web presence are good starts. The true benefits of a concerted social media effort are difficult to measure as they’re more about soft things that can’t be expressed as a ratio.
Everything we do in the space is measured and tallied and analyzed on a regular basis but knowing how many people clicked on a link doesn’t mean you’re seeing the full picture.

How much staff time do you and your team devote to social media a week? How much do you think is right?

Social media is a flexible but insatiable mistress – she will take as much or as little of your time as you can spare. It felt like we were making a difference when my team spent an hour or so a week poking around. It feels like we’re making more of a difference with the three or four hours a week we spend now but there is so much more that we could be doing.

There will always be more that we could be doing no matter how much time we invest. How much time is right will vary depending on the ways you find to use social media and where you prioritize that in your list of things to do.

Did you need to “sell” social media to upper management?

There has never been a need to justify the little work we actually do. We had a meeting with our VP of Marketing when we first started exploring the potential depth of the need. To help illustrate problem I brought a printed out stack of reviews and comments about our organization and facilities to the meeting. It was a pretty heavy stack and it didn’t even represent a sliver of what was really out there.

Can you share a success story? Something that has proved the value of social media for your organization.

There are no single instances that really stand out as glowing examples yet. There have been lots of little instances of gratitude that make what we’re doing worthwhile. Raging angry fires put out, people passing around our wellness stories, horrible reviews retracted and replaced with stories of great customer service – every little victory feels like a warm hug.

What advice do you have for Hospitals considering a social media program?

Do it now. Search for your brand and you will find people that need your help. You have no excuse for not helping them.

Start there and see where your efforts take you.

Any final thoughts?

Social media is there with or without you. People won’t stop having conversations just because you stubbornly refuse to participate – better that you’re there to defend your honor. Better that you’re able to put out the small fires before the smoke overwhelms you.

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