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Health on the Net: Tips for your web site

By Joyce Flory, Ph.D.

Following are some tips that will make your Internet adventure a success.

Create valuable, appealing content that you can’t get anywhere else. If you’ve got health care information, promote it with a sense of humor and whimsy. For example, Kaplan Testing Services promotes its services with a mock interview called The Hot Seat and The Amazing College Simulator. Then again, they knew when to get serious too. They also provided chats, bulletin boards, games and Career and Classified Centers. The goal is to give people information mixed with a fun-focused experience.

Promote your site. Make sure that you’re registered with all of the major search engines—most likely through vehicles that allow you to register simultaneously with a variety of engines. Also critical is running test searches so you know your site is listed and including your full URL on all brochures, radio, television and print advertisements, newsletters, and business cards. And don’t forget standard press releases mechanisms such as PR Newswire (http://www.prnewswire) to get the message out. In the end, a Web site launch is much like any other special event. What worked for a facility opening—from tee shirts and tours to brochures and balloons—will probably work for a site launch.

Create community. Zima created a loyal following (http://www.zima.com/) of 20-somethings by offering cool, hip information and the opportunity to participate in contests, games and a slightly goofy Club Zima. Health care organizations can follow Zima’s lead by creating sub communities for groups such as such as families, children, teenagers, women and seniors. Each area of the site may have a slightly different feel, style and message. In fact, some of these sub sites can actually be managed by members of the community. For example, consider the power of a site whose editorial content was managed by teenagers under the direction of council of teachers with input from medical and health care experts.

Reward the consumer. Thank people for visiting your site. At minimum, try contests and coupons. For example, you might want to give people an opportunity to win a weekend stay at a local hotel or resort in exchange for sharing their personal interest story or filling out a survey. Or, allow them to collect points by playing an online game that would allow them to become eligible for a sweepstakes drawing.

Think about vision. Just as you wouldn’t dream of trying to function without an organizational mission statement, you’ll also want to have a digital mission statement. For a site to be successful, you have to know the answers to several questions. Mission: What is the purpose of this site or service? Vision: Where is this site headed or how will it emerge and evolve in the next two to five years? Values: By what standards or criteria will we make decisions about promotion, content, design and technology? And don’t forget, you need the buy-in of top management and the board. CEOs are notorious for getting excited about the Internet only to feel betrayed when they realize that it cost as much as a magazine to maintain.

Assemble the appropriate team of experts. Don’t even think of trying to develop and maintain a site with the stereotypical computer geek who’s locked away in some cubicle in the basement. Instead, you need a team of people who reflect specific competencies and skills, e.g., creative content development and creation of an underlying site plan; graphics and design; technology and programming; business development; and marketing and promotion. Too often, organizations hire a design firm only to realize that they’ve produced the electronic equivalent of a pretty brochure. What’s needed instead is an underlying site concept with channels and features that will carry the site for the next several years. Unless you have a long-term plan, you won’t know what to do or how to do it

It’s critical for health care organizations to comprehend the role of the Webmaster—the person who will define the Web strategy, interface with various divisions and departments, assume responsibility for technology, drive HTML coding of new information, check out new technology, and apprise the CEO. Organizations often seem to think they can run a complicated site with volunteers or with someone from marketing who already has a job.

It’s possible, but difficult—unless, of course, you have buy-in from an entire team of people and the support of talented interns. University-based sites can often run like this, but only because of the dedication of some doctors and low-cost support. If you get in the routine of continually enhancing the site with consumer-focused information and new features, you’ll need the commitment of talented professionals who are genuinely excited about the Internet and your site.

Develop an atmosphere and a mood. When people enter your site, they should be able to answer the question,” How does it feel?” with a series of adjectives—from brash and spirited to folksy and playful. Ragu doesn’t talk about bottles of spaghetti sauce. Instead it comes in through the back door with a character named Mama Cuncina, an Italian kitchen and cookbook, an invitation to take a virtual tour of Italy, chat in the Pizza Parlor, win prizes and follow an on-site soap opera. In the same way, Valvoline (http://www.valvoline.com/) doesn’t talk about motor oil,, but about the images, events, and personalities of stock car races. Each site should have a distinctive feel and personality as well as an underlying concept to drive the site’s structure..

Joyce Flory, Ph.D., is with Source Interactive, a consulting firm which specializes in the Internet, new media and online service development.

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