Before the dawn of the Internet, building a community—around a business, an institution, or any other entity of mutual interest—required a heavy investment of face time (and I’m not talking about the iPhone app). These days, though, starting a conversation around virtually any topic is as easy as hitting “Enter.” But as with face-to-face interactions, it’s one thing to run your mouth—or in this case, your keyboard—and another to wrangle your listeners’ interest enough to get them talking, too. With that in mind, here are some tips for creating—and leveraging—social media content that will foster a true sense of community among your online followers.

1. Get educated.

You’re already an expert when it comes to providing top-notch rehab therapy services—but what do you know about the people seeking those services? Specifically, what do you know about their social media habits? If those questions have you scratching your head, it’s time to do a little research. (Don’t worry—it’s not the kind that requires a trip to the library.) Do a bit of social media sleuthing on a handful of users who already are—or who closely resemble—patients in your practice. Pay attention to the things they’re sharing and the conversations they’re having; this will give you insight on the types of posts and content that have the best shot at hooking their interest.

2. Rein in your content.

We’ve all been there: you’re making the rounds at a networking event, and somehow you get cornered by the token Chatty Cathy, who proceeds to talk your ear off for the next half hour about topics ranging from oil prices to Taylor Swift’s latest music video. At that point, you’ll do anything—anything!—to excuse yourself from the conversation. (Which really isn’t a conversation anymore, because you stopped actively participating three random tangents ago.) This is how your followers feel when you word-vomit irrelevant content all over their social media feeds. For example, if you specialize in sports rehab, there’s a good chance your followers will be interested in hearing about how physical therapy helped Tiger Woods get back on the links after back surgery. But they might not particularly care about DIY glitter glassware. So, before you craft a post—or hit the share or retweet button on someone else’s—ask yourself if it truly caters to the interests of your audience. What value does it deliver to them? Does it jive with the reason they followed you in the first place? Does it tie in with the purpose and brand of your social media account? If not, you should probably think twice about posting or sharing. Don’t give your followers a reason to ignore—or worse, unfollow—you.

3. Go easy on the self-promotion.

One of the biggest traps a business can fall into online is letting its social presence devolve into a steady stream of shameless plugs. Sure, social is a great place to promote your services and inform—or remind—your followers of how you can help them live better, healthier, more fulfilling lives. But that definitely shouldn’t be the purpose of every single post. Why? Well, first of all, it’s annoying. The bigger problem, though, is that promotional posts aren’t very conducive to conversation. You wouldn’t chit-chat with a television ad—so why would your online audience respond to a post in which you’re basically just tooting your own horn?

It’s tough to say how often you should throw a promotional post into your mix of educational content; that ratio will vary depending on your level of social activity and whether you’re running some type of special offer (e.g., complimentary initial evaluations for new patients who book an appointment by the end of the week). But to give you a ballpark idea, this article on LinkedIn suggests that you “add a promotional update about one in every three posts on Facebook and one in every five updates on Twitter.” The article uses a restaurant as an example: Post one could be a recipe, post two could be food-related advice or details on a local event, and post three could “mention the restaurant’s special for that week.”

4. Respond promptly.

The Internet is all about instant gratification. When someone reaches out to you on social media—via tweet, comment, or direct message—he or she expects a fairly quick response. And while you don’t need to pause a therapy session mid-treatment in the name of social engagement, you should check into your social channels a few times a day to make sure you’ve answered any urgent questions or jumped into any timely conversations. When you participate on a regular basis, it encourages the other members of your social community to participate as well. And the more participation you can drum up, the more visible you’ll be.

5. Study up.

Chances are, there are certain topics, types of posts, or times of day that are more apt to engage people than others. To identify what works—and what doesn’t—monitor your past activity, make comparisons, and see if you can draw any helpful conclusions. That way, you can plan future content and social engagement efforts based on the those that have already achieved favorable results. If you want to take it a step further, try out a social media analytical tool. As the LinkedIn article explains, “Social Report and Crowdbooster are good analytical tools to try. And the social media scheduling tool, Buffer, has an excellent analytical feature built in that will provide you with the data needed to develop an effective social media strategy.”

6. Be human.

From a business standpoint, one of the best things about social media is that it gives companies a mechanism to form relationships. It’s a platform for your business to project a real, genuine, human voice—one that resonates with your audience members and allows them to connect with you in a way that’s just not possible through traditional marketing channels. Remember, you’re an asset to your community—in more ways that one. You contribute to the local economy. You provide exemplary patient care. Perhaps you sponsor or volunteer for local organizations or charity causes. These are all fantastic jumping-off points for connecting on an emotional level with your followers—for finding common ground and building camaraderie. To reap the full benefits of this opportunity, let yourself—and your business—show who you really are. One great way to do this? Giving your community a “behind the scenes” look at your staff. Did you hit a local mountain trail for a group hike last weekend? Post a photo from the summit! Braved the cold to cheer the high school football team to a playoff win? Share a snapshot from the bleachers. In the words of this Digital Spark Marketing article, “Don’t hide your employees. Let them shine and be a living, breathing representation of your brand.”

7. Say thank you.

Speaking of being human: When someone in your social media circle takes the time to interact with your business—especially if he or she compliments you or your practice—always take the time to show your gratitude, even if it’s as simple as writing, “Thank you.” After all, if someone paid you a compliment in real life, you’d never dream of walking away without expressing your appreciation for the kind words, and that same standard of politeness applies to online exchanges as well. As this ClickZ article explains, “Making sure you thank the community and reward its members is a very important factor in building a solid relationship with them—not only does it show you appreciate them, it shows you aren't taking advantage of them either.”

Creating a strong network of online followers can pay big dividends when it comes to increasing your clinic’s visibility and expanding your word-of-mouth marketing reach. And if you follow the tips outlined here—and stick with them—then you’ll be well on your way to growing your social community. What does your practice do to connect with its social media audience? Share your thoughts and advice in the comment section below.

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