Could social media be your pharmacy’s secret weapon?

Gary Paragpuri, former editor of C&D and ex-pharmacist, led the building of the UK’s biggest, most active online pharmacy community.  In the first of our series of expert blogs he explains why even the smallest trusted local health professional can engage far more deeply with its community by capturing and uniting people with common interests and earning their loyalty on social media.

 

At an industry dinner a few years ago I had a 'robust' debate with two senior directors of a large pharmacy chain about community pharmacy's engagement (or lack of) with local populations. 

The point I was trying to make is that, however you cut it up, the industry's oft stated tagline of being at the heart of the communities it serves just doesn't stand up to scrutiny. The directors were having none of it and, justifiably highlighted the range and quality of the services they provided, the record number of prescriptions they dispensed, and the great results they got from their patient surveys.

But not so fast.

Look, I'm not decrying a single point they made – they clearly run a great business and deliver a great service to their customers – I just don't agree they, or most other pharmacies for that matter, can claim to be at the heart of the communities their businesses operate in and I'll tell you why.

Let's take a typical pharmacy – whether a multiple or your own independent shop – in a town of say 50,000 people. I'd wager you run a damn good service – customers are warmly greeted, prescriptions are quickly dispensed and advice is readily available. Your regulars walk out the door having enjoyed the experience and they'll be back regular as clockwork next month.

But if we drill down into the numbers and try to measure this engagement it paints a different picture. Say your pharmacy is an average one in terms of prescriptions and so dispenses around 6,500 items every month, which means you probably serve around 3,500 to 4,000 patients. So you provide a great service to the 4,000 odd individuals who walk into your shop but, as I pointed out to the two directors, what about the 46,000 other people in your town who never come through your front door?

I know what you're thinking and it's what the directors said too – a single pharmacy just doesn't have the resources to cope with a whole town's needs nor can it reach them. But equally is it acceptable that a pharmacy restricts its reach to those who walk into its premises? And if you did want to showcase your pharmacy to the wider community, how do you do it easily and cheaply?

The answer is through social media.

And now you're thinking how can something that is an endless stream of cat memes possibly help patients or my business? Well, once you realise that the real strength of social media is the ease with which it can unite people with common interests, you can then use it reach ever more potential customers. Whether it's mother and toddler groups, sports clubs, carers, GP surgeries, youth clubs or retirement centres, social media has allowed specialist groups (read potential customers) to come together and flourish. And why wouldn't they welcome advice and input from a trusted local health professional?

Now you're thinking that it's still impossible to do for a small business, but start small and you'll be surprised at what you might achieve. Start with the 4,000 loyal customers who visit you each month – what does your patient data tell you about them and their needs? Do you have groups of patients with specific long term conditions and, putting yourself in their shoes, can you see how your business can use social media to support them? Whether it's a Facebook group, a regular Tweetup or a Tumblr blog, there are a myriad of ways to connect with patients and if they like what you do, they'll do your marketing for you through personal recommendations. The benefits can far outweigh what you input.

Start with a clear objective of which patient group you want to support across your town, decide how you're going to support them (and don't forget to ask them for their input!) and then have a go. Encourage feedback and respond to it and once you've refined what you've done, try repeating the process with a different patient group.

Now you're really on your way to being at the heart of your community. Good luck!

 

On the blog tomorrow, Gary explains: The art of social media for pharmacy – how to do it well.