Why it’s worth developing a social media strategy, evaluating it along the way

I’m fascinated by scars. They map our medical histories and are clues to some of our best stories. I often ask people for their scar story. I’ve only been sorry once (the man who started sobbing in the grocery line was from Rwanda.)

So when I was thinking about ways to build a patient community on WBUR.org, the station where I’m a health care reporter, I created Your Medical History in Scars. It’s a timeline with compelling individual stories and pictures, as well as milestones in surgery and other body mending techniques.

When you open the timeline, slide down to 1960 and find out about Jay McMichael’s dozen scarring events — not counting his emotional injuries. Check out Oct. 20, 1965. Can anyone add a thought about why LBJ showed the world his gallbladder surgery scar? Slide up to 2011 and the film about Catherine Musinsky’s breast cancer recovery. These are captivating individual stories.

As my first stab at community-building, Scars was a modest success. The timeline has rich stories, but it drew only about 1,100 unique page views over the course of a week. WBUR.org gets just over 500,000 unique visitors a month, with most of the traffic is driven by shows and stories produced by WBUR.

Scars was largely a Web-based project, which brings me to lesson number one. I did not effectively promote it on the air to the nearly 500,000 listeners who tune into the station during a typical week. The Scars project was only mentioned once on air, in a segment I describe below in “Day One.” I experimented with a number of ways to promote Scars using social media, but neglected our main product, the radio.

Here’s my social media strategy and what I learned. …

Day One: The traditional approach

I launched Scars on a Monday with two on-air conversations. First, I talked to our Morning Edition host about what we were doing and why. I asked people to send their stories and pictures to scars@wbur.org or to post comments to Facebook and Twitter. The Facebook and Twitter responses didn’t include pictures, so they didn’t help me build the timeline.

In the second conversation, we spoke to a surgeon about major changes in his field over the last 30 years. We neglected to mention how listeners could participate (it was a rough day). We did promote Scars on WBUR’s Facebook page and sent out one Tweet. The timeline was on WBUR’s homepage for the first day. I should have used Twitter and Facebook several more times during the week to highlight scar stories and encourage more submissions.

Day Two: The Klout Offensive

I asked five friends and colleagues with reasonably high Klout scores to retweet my call for contributions. (Klout measures levels of influence in social networks.) I tried to get Charlie Sheen to retweet my call, but no luck. My daughter told me to send Lady Gaga a short vlog. I’ll save that ace in the hole for next time. The Klout Offensive produced a second day traffic bump that was 30 percent of the first day traffic peak. It was the easiest and most worthwhile traffic expansion strategy; but I’ll have to expand my list of friends with Klout if I expect to use this technique often.

Day Three: Eye candy

I had some good stuff to lure eyeballs: partially naked women, gross open wounds, a split tongue, etc. But posting these eye-catching images on health blogs didn’t translate into much additional traffic. Maybe I delivered the wrong goods to the wrong sites or maybe voyeurs are, by nature, not participants. In any case, there was no significant third day bump.

Day Four: Using the crowd (volume vanity?)

I asked everyone who submitted a picture and story to post the link on their Facebook wall and send out a Tweet. I’m not sure how many participants did this, but I read four very involved conversations on Facebook. These were closed conversations, among the individual friend groups, and did not lead to additional timeline submissions. So this strategy expanded the conversation, but not in any measurable way.

Day Five: Repackage submissions for the air

This didn’t happen. I did not feel at the end of four days that I had a cohesive story or a few individual stories that warranted time on the air. I had been covering other stories during the week and lost momentum for the project. I imagined other ways to build out Scars (through the Massachusetts Medical Society or some Victims Rights groups, for example), but I didn’t feel that I could justify the time.

A few more lessons on the project as a whole

People love to tell stories about their health, no surprise. But getting all the people who stopped me in hallways or on the street to show me their scar or tell me their story to then send in a picture and paragraph was difficult.

About one-third of the stories I heard or read on Facebook and Twitter became posts on my timeline (38 by week’s end). It seems that asking people to take a picture, send it in and write a short story was too much to ask of even very vocal potential participants.

We had several angry comments from readers/listeners who said the project was a waste of time. “Why don’t you ask people for pet stories next time?” one man asked. Fair enough, but has he seen the traffic pet sites get?

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