Monica Dillon wasn't happy with her eye care provider, so when she saw an online deal for an exam and glasses for $50, she clicked on it.
The accountant, who lives in Columbia and works in Washington, doesn't ordinarily get medical care without a recommendation. But the offer was too good to resist — and, as she notes, there would be no surgery or undressing.
"The timing was right so I jumped on it," she said about her purchase via Groupon, a deal-of-the-day e-mail sent to tens of thousands of people in the Baltimore region and millions nationwide. "I'd be more cautious about laser surgery or hair removal. That would take more research. But this worked out; they found a problem with my prescription."
Katzen Eye Group, the company behind the deal, is among the growing number of health care providers testing the latest in social media. They're intrigued by the opportunity to attract new patients who might have no or little insurance for specialty services, and to provide information and services to current patients.
Web pages, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts have become a staple of businesses. The newest trend are dealmakers such as Foursquare (a mobile application allowing participants to "check in" at locations and win small rewards), Scoutmob (e-mails that promise discounts at hot spots in cities such as Washington, though not yet Baltimore) and LivingSocial (a Groupon-like deal site).
Groupon was launched in 2007 as a means of organizing social action, including special deals for groups. The Chicago-based company now sends a daily e-mail to 11 million mainly young subscribers who get 50 percent to 90 percent off a service or product such as pottery classes or restaurant meals. A deal is offered for up to 24 hours and a negotiated number of sales are required for the deal to go through. When it does, Groupon takes a cut.
The health industry recently has jumped on this e-bandwagon — seeing some successes and taking some hits — as it tries to capitalize on new opportunities in social media, say health care providers and media experts.
In the past year, Groupon has offered a growing number of deals for eye exams, teeth-cleaning and whitening, electrolysis and chiropractic services. Approximately 15 percent of Groupon deals nationwide are for health care services, says Julie Anne Mossler, a company spokeswoman.
And there are likely to be more.
'Exceeded our expectation'
Katzen's Groupon offer "greatly exceeded our expectation," said CEO Richard Edlow. It brought in more than 300 patients, including many who are expected to return.
Edlow said the Groupon offer began as a way to attract business, but ended up reaching many uninsured people who appreciated the affordable exam and glasses. It inspired Katzen to round up dozens of eye care providers across the country for another Groupon offering to help more people without coverage.
In the end, Katzen will probably win loyal customers, even at full price, said Wendy Moe, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business.
Groupon and other social media networks are successful because "regular people" endorse the product just by signing up, Moe said. It's "grassroots campaigning versus some sort of paid agent-based marketing."
The downside: Social media doesn't allow companies to completely control a message. If customers have a bad experience, they can post about it on Twitter or their Facebook page.
"We're still in a stage of transition and change," Moe said. "But companies, including health care companies, are seeing if they aren't using [social media] and their competitors are, they're at a disadvantage."
There are pitfalls for all companies, said Chad Capellman, director of social media for Genuine Interactive in Boston and a health marketing columnist.
If the discount on a product or service is too low, a company can lose a lot of money when the offer becomes popular, he said. One Baltimore merchant, SaSa's Day Spa, told consumers that it sold so many Groupon deals for massages that it couldn't honor them.
Health care companies also might face some unique problems, Capellman said. Privacy laws mean health care companies must mind the information they share about patients online. Pharmaceutical companies have had the opposite problem — government regulators have said some Tweets and Facebook posts lacked enough information about the risks of drugs being touted.
Capellman said hospitals and medical offices can effectively use social media to fundraise and pass on health information — something that hospitals such as Greater Baltimore Medical Center regularly do with Facebook and Twitter. Foursquare, meanwhile, has partnered with cable channels MTV and CNN and the healthy living site Health Month to encourage healthier living by awarding "badges" to those who, for example, report getting an STD screening, shopping at a farmers' market or cutting out bad food.