Guest commentary: Social media lights up Blues plans – literally

Lynde O'Brien

The health insurance industry has realized the enormous potential to reach members through social media. By using Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites, we can give our members the information they need to address their overall health and well-being.

One way to increase access and help members achieve better health outcomes is through education. 

Figuring out how to best use social media has been a challenge for many industries. Health insurance is no exception. U.S. online commercially insured consumers remain largely apathetic to apps and mobile sites, according to FierceHealthPayer. And PwC has published survey results showing that insurers are at a disadvantage compared to doctors and hospitals in terms of how well consumers trust information posted on social media, as FierceHealthIT has reported.

While it's safe to say that most people don't want to think about their health insurance until they need medical care, by using social media to connect on the topics your members care about you can  provide valuable information and engage them in new ways.

HCSC's headquarters in Chicago

The Blue Cross and Blue Shield Plan in Illinois and our parent company, Health Care Service Corporation, has taken a unique--and attention-getting--approach by using its 54-story building (pictured at left).

The tower overlooks Millennium Park, visited by thousands of people every day and thus a prime viewing spot for messages promoting preventive medicine and social causes.

To promote colon cancer awareness month, for instance, we posted the Twitter hashtag #CRCA across the building in lights. Anybody with a Twitter account could punch in the hashtag and learn about preventing colon cancer.

In March we put a huge "#S4K" across the building. It directed Twitterers to a site for a local charity, the Mercy Home for Boys & Girls. S4K, or "Shamrocks for Kids," refers to Mercy's fundraising festival that takes place around St. Patrick's Day.  

The impact was immediate. Over three days starting March 16, the initiative generated 41,000 impressions on Twitter and reached 25,512 different accounts. The charity's fundraising soared. Mercy actively responded to tweets, explaining its work and talking about the support of the Illinois Blues for its work.

"It was a huge home run," Mimi LeClair, vice president for advancement at the Mercy Home, says. "We exponentially increased our social media visitors, therefore educating a new audience about our mission. This truly shows the impact that private-public partnerships can make through innovation."

We see Twitter and Facebook as tools to push out vital messages, such as information about diseases or health threats that might be in the news.

The people who are most likely to engage in social media to seek information about their health are those have been recently diagnosed with a condition. They're looking for guidance or trying to find a community of patients like them.

One way we reach those members is through the My Blue Community, which give customers a place to find resources about common health topics. Members can create online profiles on the secure website, where they can talk to health experts, read blogs and seek support from others with similar health goals or concerns.

Our embrace of social media has changed our relationship with our customers and the public at large. Most of the interactions are positive, but the negative responses are just as valuable--they help us fine-tune our message and processes.

We're going to continue to work on devising ways to use social media to assist people who are shopping for insurance and navigating the changes coming with the Affordable Care Act.

Lynde O'Brien is the director of electronic media strategy for Health Care Service Corporation (HCSC), the parent company of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Plans in Illinois, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.