The number of people using the Internet around the world has doubled in the past five years and should surpass 2 billion users by the end of this year, according to a recent article on Computerworld.com. That estimate means that one-third of the world's population will be online by the end of 2010.
More than a quarter of those Internet users are on Facebook, and that number is growing every day.
What do these numbers mean for communication sciences and disorders (CSD) professionals? Well, several things. The growing popularity of online social networking presents both opportunities and threats for speech-language pathologists and audiologists. The preponderance of social networking sites makes it easier than ever to collaborate with colleagues online, as well as to reach current and potential clients using social media marketing. There are many social networking sites devoted specifically to SLPs and audiologists, as well as niche-specific groups on public social sites like Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. CSD professionals should be aware of the more popular sites and trends and how they can help—or hurt—their professional lives.
Facebook is the largest online social network with more than 500 million users, and it isn't just for "young" people anymore, either: The fastest-growing demographic on Facebook is adults ages 35–55. On any given day, 50% of Facebook users 'log in' collectively, user spend more than 700 billion minutes on Facebook each month. Chances are that peers, clients and potential clients are among them.
The ASHA Facebook page has more than 25,000 "fans" (actually, not called fans anymore but that original nomenclature works better than "likers"), making it a good place to connect with fellow CSD professionals and students. With more than 14,000 active users per month, the ASHA page has an active discussion board and wall.
Facebook allows people to interact both personally and professionally within a range of profile and privacy options. Users can have a personal profile page through which they interact with friends and family. They also can create a page or group for a business. Facebook pages—formerly called "fan pages"—allow users to "like" a business, thereby subscribing to any content posted on a business page's wall. Pages can be customized with personalized tabs and content, and the page's level of interactivity can be controlled—for instance, whether or not "fans" can post comments to the page's wall or add photos.
Businesses also can buy Facebook ads targeted to users who like the business's page and/or the users' friends. Facebook also offers plug-ins for blogs or websites that allow visitors to "like" the blog post or site; these action help spread content on Facebook. For example, PediaStaff, which focuses on job placements for pediatric SLPs, uses its Facebook page as an active part of its communications strategy.
SLP Elise Jacobs shares tips, photos, and links to her website on her professional Facebook page. Audiologist Julie Pabst uses her professional Facebook page to promote her practice, share information about media appearances, and to offer clients a place to post reviews of the practice.
For a more private way to interact with colleagues or clients on Facebook, try the new groups feature, which sets up groups of people so they can collaborate on documents, chat, post videos and photos, and more. Groups can be public or private, depending on whether a business wants to be visible to others or available only to designated members. For more information on Facebook groups, refer to Facebook's help center.
Although Facebook offers many useful features, there are also downsides to professional use. In a recent discussion on ASHA's Facebook Page, an SLP pointed out that she sees other SLPs or SLPAs making comments on Facebook about families they've seen for home visits—the conditions of their homes or remarks about the parents, for example—and asked for feedback on this practice. Others weighed in on their concerns about this practice being unethical and a potential violation of HIPPA regulations. This discussion highlights the importance of controlling privacy settings on Facebook.
Guidelines such as the Ohio State Medical Association's "Social Networking and the Medical Practice: Guidelines for Physicians, Office Staff and Patients" [PDF] give some good advice on what kinds of situations to look out for. Although developed for physicians, the guidelines also apply to SLPs and audiologists. One of the guidelines, for example, advises against being "friends" with everyone—what happens if a client who is also a Facebook friend asks professional advice on Facebook, for instance? Answering might seem benign, but the guidelines point out that doing so creates an electronic record of an exchange that could be construed as a provider/client relationship and, as such, all risks (malpractice, patient abandonment, and HIPAA) could apply.
Twitter is definitely about more than what you ate for lunch! With more than 150 million users and counting, Twitter has become a vital combination of news source, search engine, and social network. Mainstream news outlets, celebrities, brands—even President Obama—now use Twitter to connect with followers in 140-character bursts. Twitter allows people to follow others whose news they're interested in and communicate with those interested in what they have to "tweet." ASHA has set up lists of SLPs and audiologists who are on Twitter. To join the list, send an @ message to @ASHAweb on Twitter.
A growing group of SLPs who dubbed themselves "slpeeps" use Twitter to discuss professional issues and to socialize with peers. On any given day you might find the #slpeeps exchanging tips on organization, goals, treatment-related applications, industry news—or just offering sympathy or support to fellow professionals having a tough day. Read more about how they use Twitter on ASHAsphere.
Twitter offers a great way to meet and stay in touch with professional peers and potential clients, but it also is a public channel that anyone can view (unless you lock your tweets, which some feel defeats the purpose of using Twitter) and some struggle with how to mix professional and personal tweeting appropriately. Twitter profile pictures and Twitter page backgrounds are things to consider when using Twitter for business—or even if it's mostly for personal use. What seems like a fine photo during college might not be appropriate when interfacing with professionals or coworkers, for instance. Also it's important to be mindful when "tweeting"—beware of blowing off steam talking about a difficult client because what if the client or client's parent were to see it? Twitter can be great for professional networking—but what happens if a current employer sees tweets about a job search, for example? These examples illustrate that it's important to realize that Twitter is public and that tweets are searchable on Google and other search engines (to search tweets on Google, go to the navigation below the Google logo on the right side of the page, then click "more" and select "updates").
Twitter also gives individuals a platform for tweeting about businesses; it's becoming common practice for businesses to set up searches for their brand names and/or other relevant keywords to monitor what's being said about them. Hospitals or other large businesses may already have guidelines in place for monitoring and responding to comments, complaints, and questions on Twitter.
Make a commercial, host a video contest, create a show—for people and professionals who are more comfortable with video than with words, YouTube could be a good professional tool. YouTube is accessible to everyone (at home, at least—many schools and some businesses block it), easily embeddable in a blog or website, and easy to share via Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks. People can create their own channel and post videos, and/or follow videos that other CSD professionals are posting. YouTube offers the ability to caption videos on their own or through a third party, which is essential if your target audience members have hearing loss.
An obvious disadvantage to YouTube is that it's blocked in most public schools and some businesses. A good alternative is TeacherTube. Also, YouTube is a public platform with lots of content, and some individuals or businesses might not be comfortable steering clients to its postings. A more comfortable option may be to host a video on a platform like Vimeo, which is free and public, but has a smaller pool and doesn't allow commercial or gaming videos.
Podcasting is another tool that caters to those who prefer listening or talking to writing or reading. Podcasting creates a personalized radio show of sorts for free and with minimal equipment. People can even create and post podcasts from iPhones in a pinch! There are many CSD-related podcasts—including ASHA's—accessible online or by smartphones.
Geolocation is the newest entry in the world of social media, and if a business is location-based, it's a trend to be aware of. Gowalla, Foursquare, Whrrl, Facebook Places—these are just a few of the most popular geolocation applications people are using to "check in" to venues they visit (or are near). Geolocation apps offer a new way to market to clients—for instance, Foursquare has a "Specials" feature that can drive business to an establishment, and users can leave tips or reviews. For instance, if someone checks in at the movie theater down the street from a practice, the practice could add a "Have you had your hearing checked lately?" special with an offer of a discount or promotional gift if the person checks in to the clinic. It's a great way to attract local business among tech-savvy younger people who may be in charge of caring for an aging parent who uses hearing aids, for instance.
The advantages to applications like Foursquare include the ability to view statistics of visitors: most recent, most frequent, gender breakdown, and the number of check-ins that also broadcast to Twitter and Facebook. Businesses can offer specials, loyalty programs, and/or special deal for "mayors" (person with most Foursquare check-ins at a given venue). However, geolocations are another place where people can leave a review—in the form of a "tip"—that can be positive or negative. At a minimum check to make sure a business, if already listed on Foursquare, is listed correctly with full contact information, and, if it's a home-based office, be aware that clients may be checking in…and broadcasting the location publicly. Think of it as a client posting a home address on a billboard or a sign at a crowded mall. With almost 4 million Foursquare users, personal information posted there could potentially reach a lot of people.
Does all of this sound a bit overwhelming? That's not surprising. SLP (and podcaster) Christopher Bugaj said, "When I first started hearing about Web 2.0 and social media, I felt ultra-intimidated. There were too many websites coming out too quickly to keep track of which would be useful and which would be a waste of time," he said.
"With this uncertainty in mind I tried to avoid social media. Then, out of the need to flex the creative side of my brain, I decided to start the A.T.TIPSCAST. In order to promote the podcast I decided to embrace social media. What I've found is that this form of communication is just like any other. There is an expressive component and a receptive component. Not only do I share the latest information about my podcasting endeavors but I gain resources from people using those resources. Making those connections has proven to be one of the foundations upon which my professional life is built. In the end, social media is about making and maintaining connections with people."