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Social Media Manager on The Information

slim young adult holding a black blankboard

What’s been the biggest business mistake you or your clients have made? Today we kick off a new series where experts talk candidly about where they went wrong – anonymously, of course. Our experts learned something the hard way so you don’t have to.

The first in our confessional booth today is Madeleine, who discovered she should have done a better job of educating her superiors in the health industry.

What was the nature of the project and what kind of client was it?

My task was basically to create a mini-Facebook for a local, disease-specific patient group. I was a member-patient of the advisory board, so this was a volunteer project for me.

The risk of spreading germs is such that we aren’t allowed to spend time together in person. But members of the patient group in question really wanted to get to know each other. This was in 2008, and 2.0 virtual communities like Patients Like Me were taking off. Two things were attractive about creating such a community for ourselves:

  • The camaraderie and understanding of people “like us”
  • The opportunity to share and learn from each other’s experiences

You may ask, why not just create a Facebook group and make your life easier? At the time not everyone wanted to join Facebook (I was one of them). More importantly, the medical providers involved had patient privacy laws to deal with. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA , mandated how much providers could reveal about who their patients without specific, written permission.

My solution was to create a ning group. Providers could privately invite members of our care center which allowed them to opt-in to sharing their information.

I’m a communications person so I created what I thought were really great communications pieces for it. The site had a catchy name, the advisory board all said they’d join, a survey of center patients said they were interested and would want to use it, I created instructions and a flyer, and I personally welcomed every person who joined and invited them to conversations.

How was this project problematic?

It was a classic case of if you build it, they may or may not come. And they didn’t. About half of our center joined, but after a couple of months, it was still me and two (yes two) other people using it on a daily basis.

  • People liked it and thought it was “cool” but weren’t really sure how to use it. The ning user experience was not completely intuitive at the time. When I look back now, it was pretty clunky.
  • The disease is considered an orphan disease, with only about 30,000 patients in the United States. So the care center in question only had about 50 patients at the time. Achieving critical mass would have meant nearly everybody needed to use it, and that’s never a likely scenario.
  • People who were interested in belonging to such a group were already members of national groups that were thriving. Or, they were already on Facebook. Why go to yet another website?

Was the problem resolved?

I think I shuttered the site after approximately nine months. Just this year – six years later – the providers figured out how to create a private Facebook group and regulate it. It involves filling out a lot of forms and faxing them! But it happened.

If it’s successful, I have no idea. I just haven’t joined because I’m too lazy to fill out the forms. Barrier to entry, man.

What did you learn? Did you change your approach after this project?

Yes, definitely. I learned:

  • If you build it they probably won’t come
  • Even if they say they’ll come that’s no guarantee
  • Functionality has got to be good
  • Go where people already are, not where you want them to be
  • Not everyone loves figuring out new technology
  • Something can’t take off based on forced shares

What would your advice be for someone facing a similar situation?

It’s a cliche, but don’t reinvent the wheel. The way I see this play out in 2014 is that everyone wants to start a new hashtag. Social media managers in particular want to have a new hashtag because it’s easier to measure.

My question is always, which is more important? Leveraging the power of an existing conversation, or being able to count things? I’m sympathetic to the social media managers because they’re under enormous pressure to gather metrics and demonstrate success. But the opportunity missed is huge. We need to do a better job of educating our superiors as to which is more valuable.

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