Mayo turns to social media to reach out to potential patients

  • Article by: CHEN MAY YEE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 29, 2009 - 10:27 AM

Mayo Clinic's manager for syndication and social media has emerged a rock star in that space where social media and health care marketing overlap.

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Lee Aase, Communications manager at Mayo Clinic, Twittered to Mayo followers from a reception for members of the Military Health System Traveling Fellowship Program. Later in the day Aase held a Twitter Camp for Mayo staff and allowed others to take part online and via Twitter.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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ROCHESTER - A few years ago, Lee Aase was just another flack for the Mayo Clinic, issuing press releases on cue and calling news conferences for doctors to present carefully scripted messages.

These days, Aase is a walking, talking, blogging, Twittering, Facebooking, YouTubing force who's blasting Mayo into the social networking world faster than you can say "Mayo Brothers."

Corporations across the country, from Starbucks to Dell, are using social media -- free online sites where users connect with thousands of others -- to reach customers. But hospitals have always been conservative in marketing to patients. And Mayo, more than 100 years old, may be the most conservative of all.

Yet out of Mayo has come Aase. Officially Mayo's manager for syndication and social media, he has emerged a rock star in that space where social media and health care marketing overlap.

A grandfather from Austin, Minn., Aase now travels the country to speak at conferences and runs his own virtual Social Media University, Global (SMUG), a website with courses such as Blogging101. Allina Hospitals and Clinics in the Twin Cities invited him in to show them how it's done. He was interviewed by Shel Israel, a Silicon Valley media guru, for the upcoming book "Twitterville."

"Mayo Clinic is definitely a leader in this," said Ed Bennett, director of Web strategy at the University of Maryland Medical System. "What they've decided is that social media is nothing more than word-of-mouth extended into the electronic world."

Pioneers

Bennett compiles what is regarded as the definitive list of hospitals using social media. The latest tally: 128 hospitals nationally have YouTube channels, 87 have Facebook pages, 140 have Twitter accounts and 23 have blogs.

That's a sliver of the more than 5,000 hospitals around the country. But the pioneers are experimenting energetically.

Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit has begun live-Twittering surgeries, with surgeons answering questions from medical students. During the recent floods in Fargo, N.D., Innovis Health had four people Twittering in shifts around the clock, telling people the safest routes to the hospital and where the local blood center had relocated. Others are using Facebook for recruiting.

But many hospitals are simply posting official press releases. Others won't mess with social media at all, worried about patient confidentiality, worried about a giant time suck for employees -- or just plain worried.

The caution is understandable. Until 10 or 15 years ago, most hospitals didn't think of themselves as a brand, said Chris Bevolo, owner of Interval, a Minneapolis health care marketing firm. That changed as hospitals began to compete for patients and lucrative medical specialties.

Bevolo sees Mayo's social media efforts as a big shift. "The fact that they trust Lee to go out there and tweet ... it's a giant organization that's letting go of control," he said.

"Now when our clients say, 'Why the heck would we do something like that?' we can say, 'Well, Mayo Clinic is doing it.'"

For his part, Aase says Mayo is simply spreading its reputation as it always has: through word-of-mouth.

Even in the traditional advertising world, Mayo has avoided campaigns such as those by Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, with close-ups of patients' faces and the line: "Cancer. Where you're treated first can make all the difference."

In fact, Mayo spends very little on advertising. It has had the same logo -- three overlapping blue shields symbolizing research, education and clinical practice -- for years.

The Web, however, seemed a natural move to Mayo executives. "As we see people communicating in new ways, we want Mayo Clinic to be part of the conversation," said Dr. Thoralf Sundt, chair of Mayo's marketing committee. "We know the conversations are happening out there. This is a chance for us to join.''

'A little scary'

Aase has 1,615 followers on Twitter. That's tiny compared to the reigning Twitter champ, actor Ashton Kutcher, who beat CNN to reach 1 million followers. But it's a lot for a modest 45-year-old from southern Minnesota.

The son of a school principal and a nurse, Aase has worked at Mayo for nine years. Before that, he was spokesman for then-U.S. Rep. Gil Gutknecht and communications director for the state Republican Party.

Blond, 6-foot-6 and with a sunny demeanor, Aase is hard to miss. On a recent day, he helped host a lunch for military doctors at the former home of Dr. William Mayo in Rochester. He darted around, Twittering updates on his iPhone and shooting video on his Flip cam to post later on a blog, Sharing Mayo Clinic.

Dr. Nina Schwenk, a physician and head of information technology at Mayo, leaned across the table as Aase explained what he was doing. Her eyes widened.

She wanted to know if Twitter is blogging and how to find people to follow.

"The fact that I know nothing about this," Schwenk joked, "is a little scary."

Later, Aase taught a Twitter class -- TweetCamp. More than 30 Mayo employees showed up, as did a camera crew from "Good Morning, America."

"Facebook is for the friends you already know," Aase told the class. "Twitter is for the friends you don't know yet." He makes it clear that he's learning like everyone else, admitting: "Nobody knows what best practices are."

The payoff

Does any of this actually get patients in the door?

Several patients with rare diseases have told their doctors at Mayo they came after watching another patient's video on the Sharing Mayo Clinic blog. But numbers are hard to pin down, Aase said. What he does know is people are watching.

Recently, Aase found a six-month-old YouTube video of an exuberant white-haired couple playing the piano in the clinic atrium, to the surprise and pleasure of onlookers. He posted it on Sharing Mayo Clinic. In two weeks, the number of views soared from 1,000 to over 68,000.

What this produces in patients and revenue remains to be seen, said Bevolo. But since Web tools are free, he added, "the risk of it is so little."

Sometimes, the stories come to Aase.

After Al Errato brought his wife, Mary, to Mayo for orthopedic care, Aase shot Errato on video, posted it on YouTube and linked it to the Mayo blog. The result is something no copywriter could replicate.

"I've asked several people 'What planet are we on?'" Errato starts out in the video, looking slightly stunned. "This is not the Earth I'm used to."

He continues: "We don't come from some backwater community. We come from Connecticut, where we have some very world-renowned medical facilities ... and they're country hospitals compared to the Mayo. The Mayo, even though it's in the middle of nowhere, it's Planet Mayo.''

In the month since, almost 2,000 people have viewed Errato's testimonial.

How far is Aase's reach?

Julian Matthews, a digital media trainer in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, stumbled on some of Aase's online slides while preparing to train marketing staff at a local hospital. He contacted Aase, who sent more links.

"As a social media evangelist, he is doing great stuff for Mayo," said Matthews, who owns Trinetizen Media. "By promoting the myriad free resources on the Net, he is fishing where the fish are."

What does Aase's family think?

They think it's cool, he says. He's Facebook friends with five of his six kids. The sixth is too young to be on Facebook.

Doesn't his wife get angry that he's staring at a little screen all day?

He pauses. "That is a problem."

With that, he ducks into what's presumably the last refuge from social media on Earth.

The men's room.

Chen May Yee • 612-673-7434

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