Chances are you don't associate the words "social networking" and "Facebook" with medical care. But the Mayo Clinic wants to change that mind-set.

Eager to take advantage of a modern-day marketing tool, in November the Mayo Clinic, a world-renowned medical facility, created its own Facebook page."This is a new reality and one way that people are communicating now and in the future," says Lee Aase, manager, syndications and social media, Mayo Clinic. "We need to be present."

Like any Facebook user, the Mayo Clinic's page allows the not-for-profit organization to post information about itself, link to its three websites (for patients, consumers, and research and education), display "wall post" messages and photos, offer video and audio podcasts, provide updates on news and events, and connect with friends. Beyond that, Aase says, "what we really hope to have it be is all about people telling their own stories—describing what their experience was like here and connecting in that way."

The opportunity for patients to directly tell their stories online is an important word-of-mouth component for Mayo Clinic. "Social networking sites like Facebook are one means by which people stay in touch and share experiences," says Ed Keller, CEO of the word-of-mouth research and consulting firm Keller Fay Group. "Allowing people to express themselves—telling their stories in their own voice to their friends, family, and other members of their social network—is proving to be a powerful way for brands and organizations to join the consumer conversation and to help improve their own brand position as a result." Consumer self-expression brings authenticity and impact, Keller adds. "If consumers are happy with their experience with the Mayo Clinic, and they tell others, it will undoubtedly help Mayo to grow its reputation and market presence."

That's certainly Aase's hope. "When [patients] are telling their stories, their friends will see that and may be likely to check [us] out," he says. "That's like the word of mouth that happens over the back fence."

Aase says the Mayo Clinic plans to promote its Facebook presence in the coming weeks, getting the word out through existing print channels for patients and to employees in their house publications Mayo Today and Inside May Clinic. In the word-of-mouth tradition, he adds, "[increased activity on the site] will just happen naturally."

Multimedia medicine
Facebook isn't the Mayo Clinic's first brush with social media, however. The organization had been producing syndicated radio and TV programming and, in August 2005, began listing 60-second audio podcasts on Apple's iTunes store. Last July it began offering longer-format podcasts, too -- conversations with Mayo Clinic doctors on such subjects as women's health, heart disease, and cancer.

Given Aase's title, the organization clearly is committed to social media. Convincing his higher-ups to start the Facebook page wasn't difficult. "We've never done any national advertising," Aase says. "What has built Mayo Clinic's reputation is word of mouth. It's people going home after experiencing care here and saying, 'You won't believe what it's like there!' Because social networking is an electronic version of that, it was a pretty natural progression."

Aase also demonstrated the downside of not having a social networking presence: "If you go to Myspace.com/mayoclinic, it's a band in the United Kingdom," he says. "The Mayo Clinic domain doesn't belong to the Mayo Clinic that everyone would think of. And that helped provide the impetus to get a page going in Facebook." (The MySpace page features an image of a man in an electric chair—not exactly an ideal image for a world-renowned health care organization.)

For the Mayo Clinic, social networking "is not about advertising, it's about connecting with people," Aase says. "It's a way of letting people interact and share their own stories. This is in keeping with the way the Mayo Clinic has unintentionally marketed itself in the past. It's just a natural fit for us, and we're excited about how technology makes it easy for people to talk about their experience here."