Featured Health Business Daily Story, Dec. 14, 2010

Blues Expand Use of Social-Media Tools, but Some Warn Insurers Trail Other Industries

Reprinted from THE AIS REPORT ON BLUE CROSS AND BLUE SHIELD PLANS, a hard-hitting independent monthly newsletter on new products, market share, strategies, conversions, financing, profitability and strategic alliances of BC/BS plans. (Not affiliated with the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association or its member companies.)

December 2010Volume 9Issue 12

The Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans that have made the leap into social media to augment their marketing messages are in deep — and excited about what they can get out of their online presence. But one expert cautions that Blues plans overall are still, along with the rest of the health insurance sector, falling behind in the social media space at a time when consumers are starting to value exactly that kind of interaction over standard ads and other means of marketing outreach.

Indeed, “the big picture is the whole insurance industry is very conservative,” says Thomas Harpointner, CEO at AIS Media, an Atlanta-based interactive marketing company (that is not affiliated with Atlantic Information Services, Inc.). “And if you compare Blue plans to other insurance companies, they’re way behind. To say they’re coming along kicking and screaming might be an overstatement — but not much of one.”

He adds, “We anticipate that will change in the near future, now that consumers turn to the Internet first to do their research. And with all the concern over health reform, this would be an ideal time for Blue plans to have a better presence, where consumers can educate themselves for better buying decisions.”

Some Blues plans already have invested heavily in social media.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, for example, has gotten on the text4baby bandwagon, offering the free mobile information service designed to promote maternal and child health to its members. An educational program of the National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition, text4baby provides educational and preventive health information to pregnant women and new moms, the Massachusetts Blues plan says. Women who sign up for the service receive free text messages each week, timed to their due date or the baby’s date of birth, on topics ranging from health care access and immunizations to oral health and car seat safety.

Jenna McPhee, spokesperson at the plan, notes that almost 90% of Americans over the age of 13 own a cell phone and that “the text4baby program was [thus] a perfect fit for us to begin exploring texting as an emerging communication channel. It’s the way people communicate today — and it’s a great way to provide information in a timely manner.”

Among other efforts, the Massachusetts Blues plan has “utilized social sharing and bookmarking functions on our web properties,” McPhee tellsThe AIS Report, “and we’ve advertised on social networking and mobile websites and utilized mobile text messaging.” Just this summer, the plan launched its first mobile app, called “Goal Getter,” a plan-branded pedometer for the iPhone that “helps members engage in healthy behaviors and increases brand awareness,” she adds. “We will be adding new applications to continue to promote member health engagement and build our relationship with our members. Additionally, we have grown our social media listening capabilities and view listening as as much a part of our strategy as executing.”

Still, McPhee says the insurer is proceeding cautiously. “Social media environments are relatively new for our members and our organization. We are being very cognizant of member needs, privacy issues and protecting our brand identity, but we do have a working model in place to continue to evolve and enhance our presence.”

Regence Uses Twitter, Facebook

The Regence Group is leveraging its marketing outreach across several social media platforms, including a separate Twitter feed for each individual plan, a page for its corporate foundation, one dedicated to conversations about health care costs and one for job seekers. “We all collaborate on ideas for tweets,” reports Joanna Fief, the plans’ strategic communications specialist.

The plans also are in the process of developing a Regence Facebook page, but, Fief says, “as part of our effort to create a dialogue about health care costs, we already have a page called ‘What’s The Real Cost,’ which has nearly 1,000 fans and is connected to our @TheRealCost Twitter page and our ‘What’s The Real Cost’ blog.” In addition, myRegence.com, Regence’s member website, is designed to be an online community for members that offers an online forum where they can discuss health care topics ranging from weight loss to broken bones. Members also can instant message with a customer service representative through the site.

“We started using social media because conversations about our company and our products were happening without us,” Fief explains. “As a company, we recognized that the way society communicates was changing, and the way we communicate with our members and employees needed to reflect that change. We’ve also been able to answer questions from members who might not have called customer service directly.”

Highmark Focuses On iPhone App

Pittsburgh-based Highmark Inc.’s Health@Hand iPhone app “gives members access to health and wellness features at their fingertips,” the plan says. Because iPhones know exactly where their users are, the app can supply a list of nearby Highmark network providers, including hospitals, urgent care facilities, retail clinics and pharmacies. The app also provides interactive information about illnesses, symptoms and medical conditions, as well as health coaching tips and details on programs available to Highmark members. “Mobile phone apps open up an entirely new channel for interaction with our members,” comments Matthew Childs, the plan’s web strategy and development vice president.

Highmark partnered with ADAM, an online information and technology vendor, to create the app because the iPhone “is one of the fast-growing mobile devices,” the plan says. Adds spokesperson Kristin Ash, “We did not specifically go looking for a social media strategy, but instead wanted to provide a strategic mobile tool that would be useful for our members.” Using an app that focuses on health and wellness, she adds, “aligns with our corporate strategy.” The plan also maintains several Facebook pages.

Overall, Blue Plans’ Efforts Underwhelm

Despite these efforts, the 30,000-foot view of Blues plans’ social media involvement looks less than cutting-edge to some observers, such as Harpointner. He points to a survey of insurance consumers his firm recently completed. “One question asked, ‘If you received an offer in the postal mail, would you be more inclined to respond by phone or visit the website?’ And 59% said they’d prefer to visit the website.” That indicates that traditional ads going out from carriers, agents and brokers may not be leveraging interactive marketing to the degree they should be. Facebook, Harpointner notes, now gets more traffic than Google.

If Blues plans balk at embracing the future, he warns, smaller plans may outmaneuver them. “A battleship is less nimble than a speedboat,” he says. “Bigger plans make a bigger impact over the long term, but a smaller plan can implement a social networking strategy more quickly. It doesn’t take much time to set up a Facebook page.” And while it’s never too late to get with the social media program, the longer Blues plans go without a robust social networking presence, the more they risk getting left behind — because “consumer sentiment against a lack of social media presence is going to be high.” Companies that don’t invest in social media, Harpointner cautions, are “giving their competitors an opportunity to jump in and say, ‘We understand your needs. This is a personal decision, and we’re more connected with you than the big guys.’”

Still, Harpointner says he understands why Blues plans have been slow to embrace social media. “Of all interactive marketing efforts, social media right now is the most difficult to measure as far as return on investment [goes], even though it’s the most talked about.”

Contact Harpointner through Vlad Gorenshteyn at vladg@aismedia.com, McPhee at jenna.mcphee@bcbsma.com, Fief at joanna.fief@regence.com and Ash at kristin.ash@highmark.com.

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