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Exploring online marketing

October 29, 2009
by Terry L. Stawar, EdD
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LifeSpring surveys consumers about their use of the Internet and social media

Like most behavioral healthcare organizations, LifeSpring, a community behavioral health center in Southern Indiana, is exploring how to best take advantage of social media and the Internet in pursuit of its mission. People clearly are flocking to this new form of communicating. In March, more than 9.3 million people used Twitter. As of September 2008, there were 33 million U.S. and 200 million worldwide Facebook members.

Many psychologists in private practice have discovered social media’s potential for practice building, marketing, educating, and socializing. In addition, in Behavioral Healthcare's February editorial, Editor-in-Chief Douglas J. Edwards indicated how behavioral healthcare executives might use social media to exchange ideas, ask for assistance, and recruit top-level talent. He also pointed out social media’s potential to promote the recovery model by encouraging consumer involvement and breaking down traditional barriers between providers and consumers.

LifeSpring has experimented with a blog on its intranet, which was intended to open up internal dialogue among staff. We also have a blog on our Web site ( www.lifespr.com/wordpress) aimed at consumers and the general public. LifeSpring also has Web sites for its fund-raising foundation (www.lifespringfoundation.com) and its used bookstore (www.jeffbook.org), which serves as a transitional employment program for its clients.

The organization also has developed a mini-podcast studio and piloted an internal podcast that served as a monthly audio newsletter to staff and board members, featuring organizational news as well as staff interviews. Board members responded very positively to this podcast, and staff’s reaction also was encouraging, although some believed the interviews made the audio newsletter too long. After about six months of the podcast, LifeSpring returned to issuing a monthly electronic newsletter that resides on its intranet, but we are planning to resume the audio newsletter in a streamlined format.

LifeSpring's mini-podcast studio. Photographer: Terry Stawar. On its Web site LifeSpring sponsors a monthly entertainment podcast ( www.lifespr.com/podcast) featuring commentaries on psychology and popular culture based on my weekly newspaper column, and we plan to have an interview-format public education podcast in the future.

LifeSpring’s foray into social media is new, and we only recently created a Facebook page ( www.facebook.com/pages/Jeffersonville-IN/LifeSpring-Behavioral-Healthcare/45247968166) and established a Twitter presence ( http://twitter.com/lifespringinc). Many senior staff also participate in work-related networks such as LinkedIn and Spoke. An internal taskforce has been looking at ways to market the center’s brand more effectively and to increase consumer access. As the group was considering implementing an online application-for-service mechanism and was exploring ways to expand the center’s social media presence, the team decided that more information was needed about LifeSpring clients’ Internet access and online activities.

In early May the center conducted its annual client satisfaction survey. This year 10 social media/Internet use questions were added to the survey, which was administered over five days in nine outpatient locations. Responses were received from 585 clients, which represented 10.15 percent of the center’s active caseload at the time. About 44 percent of responses came from clients in urban settings and about 46 percent from those in rural settings (data were missing on the other 10 percent).

The survey revealed that about 41 percent of clients had Internet access, and about a quarter of them access the Internet away from home. Public libraries (60 percent) were the most frequent places where clients accessed the Internet away from home, followed by family members’ (36 percent) and friends’ (22 percent) residences. Only 16 percent reported having access to the Internet at work. Less than 25 percent knew about LifeSpring’s Web site, and only 40 percent said that they would be influenced by online advertisements when it came to selecting a behavioral healthcare provider. When clients were asked what would be the best way for LifeSpring to advertise, the results were inconclusive. Only 6 percentage points separated the top four responses: cable TV (41 percent), newspapers (39 percent), Internet (37 percent), and phonebooks (35 percent). Billboards were seen as less effective.

Social media use was higher than anticipated. About 20 percent reported that they used MySpace, and about 13 percent were Facebook members. Only 3.5 percent used Twitter. The vast majority of clients (79 percent) spend less than five hours per week online. However, more than six percent said they typically spend more than 15 hours per week.

Overall these survey data were very encouraging in regard to the potential for online services and social media communication to be effective with a sizeable portion of community behavioral healthcare center clients. LifeSpring already has adjusted its strategic marketing plan and now publicizes its Web site in all locations, as well as through media like Facebook and Twitter. We are moving forward with the online service application to expedite access.