4 tips to increase audience engagement on social media

The integrated media team at MD Anderson Cancer Center defines its audience and finds its voice.

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Before you can expand your social media audience, you have to know your audience.

If you don’t, your social media efforts will languish and new opportunities to communicate with customers will be lost, said Megan Maisel, director for integrated media communications at University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

“We didn’t have a lot of growth over several years, because our audience wasn’t fully defined and we weren’t really targeting that audience in our communications,” Maisel said in this Ragan Training session, “How to write for social media consumption.”

Though the cancer center was known for having a good social media program, the reputation was not deserved, she said. With just 13,000 “likes” on Facebook and 8,000 followers on Twitter two years ago, “the presence was not that big,” she said. “There was not a lot of strategy behind it.”

Maisel changed that when her integrated media communications team was created to focus on social media, Web content, and multimedia for the center, which treats more than 100,000 cancer patients a year. The center has 20,000 employees, 1,300 volunteers, and 1,600 faculty members—mostly doctors and scientists.

Many questions to answer, a single voice to find

As her first tip of the session, she said organizations should define and standardize their organization’s voice across social platforms. To do that for the cancer center, she said her team first had to answer some basic questions: Whom are we trying to reach? Who is following us? What do our metrics tell us? When we write, who are we trying to be? Whom does our audience care to listen to?

Without answers to those questions, it wasn’t surprising to find that a 23-year-old man hired to run social media was “talking like a 23-year-old on Twitter”—emoticons and all, she said.

“Our audience, you know, they are people who are in the fight of their lives. They’re cancer patients; they are people who have loved ones who are fighting cancer. This is not a trivial matter, so an emoticon is not really going to do well with that audience.”

This is excerpted from a Ragan Training video titled “How to write for social media consumption.”

After answering those questions, Maisel’s team produced a document that states who they are and with what voice they speak.

“We’re actually a woman between 45 and 50 years old—it gets down to this level of detail,” she said. “We are expert, but we are also warm—and we don’t use emoticons. That is actually on our document. If you see the use of emoticons, you’ll know I’m not at MD Anderson anymore.

“Once we fully defined our audience, then we could focus on the writing—what is really resonating with our audience.”

Make content searchable, accessible

Her second tip: Turn complicated information into content that is searchable and easy to understand.

Their audience includes doctors and scientists, but also many people who do not have a high level of health literacy, she said. Her staff refers to this list of good practices for writing for social media:

  • Optimize for search engines
  • Put numbers and tips in headlines and posts
  • Produce a mix of stories
  • Write in first and third person
  • Use subheads and bullets to break up copy
  • Keep paragraphs short
  • Write like you talk
  • Use question-and-answer posts

“Everything we do, we optimize for search engines,” she said. Posts to Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and YouTube are all written with search in mind as they include popular keywords and phrases.

Readers click on tips and numbers

Using lots of numbers and tips in headlines is paying off for Maisel’s team.

“We tend to get the most clicks and the most traffic to our website when we use numbers and tips,” she said, adding that headlines like “6 tips to quit smoking” or “4 tips to reduce stress” do engage readers.

In searching for a mix of content, the team monitors social media and reaches out to cancer patients, caregivers, and others who may be posting about their cancer-center experiences.

“We contact them and ask them if they’d be willing to blog for MD Anderson, and in most cases they do, because we have that kind of relationship with these people that we care for,” she said. Some 25 to 30 bloggers are now “telling their stories from their own point of view.”

To produce their Q&A pieces, the writer hands questions off to an expert with the goal of receiving answers that are brief and understandable. It is the easiest way to tackle complex topics, Maisel said.

Video is also a crucial component piece for the social media effort. Her team shot 170 videos last year, and some “may just be a short talking head, just to get a reaction from one of MDA’s experts on something that’s in the news,” she said.

Many presentations possible for content

Her third tip: Tell one story several ways. She said that with all the channels and formats available to their group, they work to build audience by varying the presentation method.

“We take every piece of content we have, and we post it a bunch of different times a bunch of different ways,” she said. For example, they may post a patient profile as a story and photo, just a photo, a standalone video, or a pull quote incorporated into a branded jpg.

A final tip that Maisel offered: Have clear calls to action. She sees the most engagement when the audience is urged to respond-tell us, share this photo, read this, fill in the blank.

“We get a huge reaction for this, and we take the responses and build a story around it.”


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