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Social Media MiNterview: Lee Aase of Mayo Clinic

Posted on Aug 3rd, 2009
Written by Lee Odden
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    Social Media Smarts: Interview with Lee Aase, Social Media Manager at Mayo Clinic

    Lee Aase By day, Lee Aase is manager of syndication and social media for Mayo Clinic and by night, he is chancellor of Social Media University, Global (SMUG). I first met Lee at a media relations conference in San Francisco a few years ago. He was kind enough to sit in on a presentation I gave to the public relations community on search engine optimization for news content. It was a pleasure to meet another Minnesotan at an industry conference and Lee’s savvy with social media was immediately apparent.

    In the Q and A post below, Lee Aase provides insights into social media within the Mayo clinic, offers advice for other companies on his “MacGyver-style” testing , developing a strategy, winning management approval, measuring social media ROI and his work with SMUG.

    Please share a bit about your background and what you currently do for the Mayo Clinic as a social media manager?

    I have a B.S. in Political Science from Mankato State University, and worked for 14 years in politics and government at the local, state and national levels. I came to work at Mayo Clinic in April 2000 as a media relations consultant, and in 2004 became manager of the media relations team. As manager for syndication and social media, my team’s focus now is to create high-quality health and medical news content for mainstream media, while also creating more in-depth content for patients and consumers. Finally, we’re empowering employees and patients to share their Mayo Clinic stories and engaging in conversations.

    What are some of the important questions to be answered when a company is first investigating whether social media makes sense?

    The main questions are “What does the organization hope to accomplish or prevent?” and “Are those goals are realistic?” Both questions apply whether the company considers social media an opportunity or a threat. Questions of corporate culture and whether the organization is comfortable with openness and transparency play a role, but mainly in the pace of adoption.

    Given that Facebook has 200 million active users, any organization of significant size already has many employees and even more customers involved. Will the conversations be about the company or with the company? So in the end, I believe the real questions are whether the company engages only informally, or how quickly they move to officially sanctioned participation.

    If your customers are basically happy with the products or services you provide, and if your employees are comparatively satisfied with their work, the potential benefits of active engagement are likely significant. If you have serious employee morale or customer satisfaction deficits, providing social media platforms will amplify those concerns. Don’t be deluded that avoiding official social media engagement will keep people from talking about your company. Consumers and employees will commiserate online whether you provide a site for them or not. But if you have these problems you should work first on addressing them before launching major social media initiatives. Social media mainly make existing chatter louder.

    Mainstream media aren’t going away, but they no longer dominate the crowded market for consumer attention. Companies may be able to avoid official social media involvement for a time, but these platforms will continue to grow in importance. It’s better to become fluent in its language earlier and adapt, instead of clinging as long as possible to a more guarded communication style.

    That’s approaching the question from a negative, risk-avoidance perspective. I firmly believe the more exciting and relevant view is how to take advantage of social media’s immense opportunities.

    Do you test specific social media tactics or do you go full on with a social media strategy for each initiative? Knowing what you know now, what approach would you recommend that companies take when they’re starting out?

    I recommend what I call the “MacGyver Mindset,” named after the TV character played by Minnesota native Richard Dean Anderson. Look at the tools and resources you have available and how you can adapt them to meet your communication and marketing goals, and empower staff to explore.

    Focus first on the free platforms such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, mainly because that’s where you will find communities already gathered. This also enables you to prove your concepts before deciding whether to launch a community of your own.

    Strategic thinking can be an excuse for inaction, and just as it’s easier to alter the direction of a moving car than it is to get one started from a dead stop, I believe it’s best to build social media momentum through low-cost experimentation and iteration.

    What process did you follow to win management approval for specific or overall social media programs? What kinds of data were most successful?

    For more than 100 years, the most important factor responsible for patient preference for Mayo Clinic has been word of mouth; satisfied patients telling their friends and neighbors about their experiences. We’ve had strong data on that point, and that news media stories and physician recommendations are the second and third most significant reasons for Mayo Clinic preference. So in our case it wasn’t a “prove the value in advance” situation. We emphasized that social media are just the way word of mouth happens in the 21st century.

    How do you handle the “social media ROI” question? What are some of the important metrics that you use to communicate social media success?

    Our main focus has been keeping costs low and incorporating social media strategies into every communication effort. As the “I” in the ROI calculation approaches zero, ROI approaches infinity. We don’t represent social media as something radically discontinuous with our previous strategies; a blog is, after all, just an easy-to-publish Web site that allows comments. By keeping incremental costs low, it doesn’t take much to show solid returns.

    We use our blogs partly for media relations, so accounting for increased news coverage is important. We also can track visits to our sites and click-through behavior to our “request an appointment” links.

    What are some examples of companies that are using social media successfully that you admire the most? What social media work are you most proud of at the Mayo Clinic?

    I admire how companies like Comcast and Dell have used social media tools to overcome customer service problems. If there’s one industry that’s known for poor customer service it’s the Cable TV industry; there’s a reason why Jim Carrey could make a movie called “ The Cable Guy.” And Dell’s original experience with the blogosphere with Jeff Jarvis’ “Dell Hell” rant is a classic. But both companies used social media to change their organizations and treat customers better. So while in general I recommend fixing service issues before embarking on a social media program, with the right kind of commitment both Comcast and Dell have show that social media can accelerate organizational change.

    At Mayo Clinic, I think our most important accomplishment has been integrating the various platforms and keeping costs down. For example, we use YouTube as the video server for our blogs, so the videos can be found directly through YouTube or on our sites. We don’t have any server bandwidth costs, and our videos are portable and can be embedded elsewhere. Sharing Mayo Clinic, our blog that enables patients and employees to share their Mayo Clinic stories, is the hub that ties most of our efforts together.

    How have you gone about forecasting resources for a social media program? Internally as well as choosing to hire an outside vendor.

    By integrating social media into all of our communications, we have not needed to seek significant resources. We have a small core team that trains our staff and provides the backbone/infrastructure for social media, but the goal is to help everyone in communications and marketing be more effective by using these powerful tools.

    In our earliest explorations we didn’t hire vendors for social media, but we did bring in external consultants to help us think through and validate our approach. This helped us with leadership buy-in because it brought a broader perspective.

    We have some agencies working with us on major projects, such as our collaboration with Microsoft on Mayo Clinic Health Manager. In those cases we ask the agencies to incorporate social media into the strategies and provide some of the services, but we also work alongside them, using our blogs, Facebook and Twitter to spread the word.

    What resources do you use to stay current and can you list a few smart social media savvy people on Twitter for our readers to follow?

    Twitter is an excellent platform for staying current, and has practically supplanted RSS for me. In health care, the #hcsm and #hcmktg chats are excellent places to find people with interesting perspectives, and @danamlewis, @tstitt, @daphneleigh and @meredithgould are among the ringleaders, while @EdBennett has done a great service by pulling together the listing of hospitals using social media. It’s hard to know where to stop, so since you said “a few” I will leave it a that, but I did a post here where I listed several others.

    What social technologies do you use personally? LinkedIn, Facebook, MySpace, Delicious, Twitter, YouTube, etc

    Twitter is where I am most active because it is most open and enables me to broaden my interactions, making connections with people who have shared interests but whom I haven’t yet met.

    I love, which I call “YouTube for PowerPoints.” It’s a great way to disseminate ideas, and it enables me to do presentations in a much more engaging way. Instead of handing out slide copies (which may cause people to skip ahead), I can assure participants that they can just listen, ask questions and contribute to the in-person discussion, and that the entire presentation will be embedded in my blog. And I’ve had some people who didn’t attend my presentations embed the slides in their blogs.

    Facebook is my general-purpose network, although in my evangelistic zeal for it I have been too indiscriminate in accepting friend requests, which has made it less useful for me…but I wanted to encourage people like me just getting started in Facebook, so I suggested that they add me as a friend. I’m not planning to “unfriend” anyone, but will likely start pulling some out of my news feed so that it becomes a more relevant stream to me. No one really has 900 friends.

    I set up a MySpace profile just because in my role I thought I needed to understand it, but I have zero interaction there. I’m present on LinkedIn and connect with people there, but haven’t used it to anywhere near its potential. I would love to have someone become the visiting professor for LinkedInology at SMUG, which leads to your last question…

    Tell us about SMUG (

    SMUG (Social Media University, Global) is my lighthearted, fun way of teaching social media to lifelong learners. It’s an unaccredited university of which I am the chancellor, and our students are called “SMUGgles.” Like the merely mortal “muggles” of Harry Potter fame, SMUGgles also are ordinary humans, but they’re learning to use magical social media tools to accomplish amazing feats.

    I re-branded my blog as SMUG in early 2008 because I saw a need for systematic training to help mid-career professionals understand social media and see potential business uses. That’s why I organized posts sequentially so they could work through a course that would take them from novice status to comfortable confidence. For example, by the end of the SMUG Podcasting 101-110 series students can create a personal podcast and have it listed in the iTunes podcast directory, without spending a penny. That can give them confidence to propose podcasting for their company and to advocate for it fairly tenaciously, because no one can tell them it’s too difficult or complicated. Of course they will want to spend a little money on better recording equipment and production tools, but we’re talking a few hundred dollars or less.

    Tuition at SMUG is free, but each student is responsible for room and board.

    Thanks Lee!