Interview with Aetna’s Lauren Vargas
The Digital Essentials, Part 3
Developing a robust digital strategy is both a challenge and an opportunity. Part 3 of the Digital Essentials guide series explores five of the essential technology-driven experiences customers expect, which you may be missing or not fully utilizing.
Eric Enge and Mark Traphagen of Perficient Digital recently chatted with Lauren Vargas about how she measures and drives social media success at Fortune 50 insurance provider Aetna. Lauren is Head of Social Media and Community for Aetna. Learn more about Lauren
Eric Enge: How do you measure in social media?
Lauren Vargas: Social media is growing and people are constantly being challenged. So it is imperative that I have a structure that can speak to the accomplishments, the successes, as well as to the failures and exactly what went wrong, where it went wrong and how we can make things better. So seven, eight years ago, I developed a concept called the Community Health Index at Radian6.
When I worked for the Department of Defense, Army, and Air Force Exchange Service I packaged things a bit differently because working for the federal government meant we needed to have a very strong measurement framework.
Being able to learn how different kinds of companies were either measuring or not measuring their social media efforts helped me build the Community Health Index (CHI). It includes metrics for brand engagement, industry engagement, internal engagement, and content creation. The metrics all boil down to these four pillars.
At Aetna we chose three to five various metrics in each of the categories that we thought applied to our overall company and department scorecards.
Aetna is moving from a B2B company to a B2C company, and social media has had to provide value to both types of businesses. Our core corporate channels have been a customer facing entity from the beginning, so a lot of our objectives rolled easily into these scorecards.
We chose these three to five metrics in each pillar that spoke to how the needle was moving, and these were all related to our business goals. For example, one of our goals was to get our members to think about Aetna differently. Another was to obtain new prospects from our public and private exchanges, that exchange marketplace, resulting from the changes that have happened with the Affordable Care Act and moving into a B2C company. We kept these business objectives in mind as we chose the metrics for measuring social media results.
I don’t think there is any one single right formula, and there is no one platform that can do all of this for you. So it’s really a matter of honing in on what it is you want to measure. Is it the right mix? Is it speaking to your executives? Is it making any difference? That has driven how the CHI has evolved over the last four years, here at Aetna.
The CHI is measured on a quarterly basis and every metric is weighted. We weigh them and average them together to give the pillar a score. Seasonal trends or topics, and changes within our overall goals are going to determine the weight of the single metric and the pillar.
We’ve used the CHI as a baseline for the last three years. It helps us determine what’s moving the needle and how it’s moving the needle. Most folks only really focus on brand engagement. They start and stop there and it’s so much more than that. We’re listening for so much more.
A major part of it is listening throughout the engagement process so we can act on that feedback. That way we can improve the content we develop, and package the insights we learn along the way. We can then show the community we have made significant changes and measure how effective those changes were.
Mark Traphagen: Did you find resistance to social media listening being a part of the feedback?
Lauren: I think I still have resistance. I am still not at the point where everything is great, so I’ve broken our digital ecosystem into neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods have the functional platforms that align with Aetna hierarchy. So, I did this work to merge these two different layers together.
We’re listening to millions of people, so I can’t go to every neighborhood and say you have this problem. That’s not the best way to get people on your side.
Taking this feedback can lead to a kill the messenger approach. So by breaking the ecosystem into neighborhoods we were able to work on getting people familiar with social media first. We wanted them to see the information that was being said and have them realize there were issues.
We were able to get them personally involved in the process as opposed to someone delivering a report and saying, “This is wrong.” When they started to feel personally invested, that is when we saw traction with the insights and feedback.
We don’t have that type of reception for every line of the business, but that’s where I come in to make sure there is a constant education process. There’s so much to do internally before you can tackle external engagement and close the feedback loop. So we take it one step at a time and we’ve seen some great things come out of it.
Eric: Who wouldn’t want real feedback from customers, but it doesn’t work out so simply, does it?
Lauren: No, everyone wants that customer-centered view, but they don’t like when it does not match with what they thought. So there needs to be people to massage the data we get, to lessen the shock that some people may feel, and then turn that into actionable insights.
Eric: What’s an example of how this feedback loop resulted in some change or adaptation?
Lauren: It changes depending on if it’s from a public or private marketplace. In the first few years when our corporate channels were loosely aligned, our call centers would get hit with a large volume of feedback, at the same time every year, due to the open enrollment time period. This feedback started to spill online because people could not get through on the phone.
So we measured the feedback and looked at trends and topics to make sure we found the frequently asked questions. It took a couple of years to get people to realize this was a high, seasonal trend volume. We needed to find out what we were answering, and what we weren’t, as well as the capabilities of our phones and agents. We also needed to show people that there were humans behind the system.
Eric: What’s been the reaction to trolls and how have you dealt with that?
Lauren: That is part of the education process. We have to teach people what qualified as a troll as opposed to just a disgruntled customer that can be turned around. We have exercises to help ourselves and the people we work with to identify who a troll is. We want to be able to break down their problem and come to a resolution. We have authorized Aetna representatives who are a part of a 24/7 support team, so anyone who has any questions or concerns is supposed to come to one of us so we can counsel them on what to do or what not to do.
Some people think it’s harder working in healthcare because it’s incredibly personal and the industry constantly changes. In addition, it’s a regulated industry. But it’s our responsibility to explain to the community in plain language all the changes. The “negative” conversation is an opportunity to educate a person, a person’s network or a community on what we can do or what we can do better for them.
Eric: Aetna does a great job with promoting and sharing non-commercial content. This is a tough hurdle for many companies to get over. Was it hard to get Aetna to the point where it was ready to do that?
Lauren: That was definitely a long road. For quite some time we were left to our own devices because everybody thought social media as a nice-to-have that could be slapped on at the last minute. But, as we evolved, we wanted to take all of the social listening we were doing and use it to really understand our community, but not just in their first experience. We wanted to be a part of their 24-hour life cycle.
It’s in our best interest to review plans and benefits on a daily basis and to be looked at as a trusted participant in the conversation. So based on the feedback we grouped our communities into three different segments based on their behaviors, needs, challenges, and desires.
We wanted to create content to better familiarize people with the brand, mission, and purpose behind what we do. We do campaigns and have Pulse content for seasonal trends, but we wanted to offer something of true value to these segments. We want the content to empower you to understand your benefits in plain language.
Our content is meant to give people knowledge, freedom and understanding about the healthcare they are receiving. It was quite some time in the making. We started the content pipeline with our core channels and got all of the lines of business to understand there didn’t have to be separate channels.
Every once in a while there will be a push to an Aetna product or service, but it is still an educational approach. We want to show what these benefits mean to you and your life. We plan our entire content calendar a year in advance and organize in a way so we ask ourselves questions. Everything is in question format and the content must answer the question. We have quarterly questions, monthly questions, weekly subtopic questions and those are broken down into what is actually created on a daily basis.
Mark: At the beginning, social media was seen as sort of as an afterthought, right?
Lauren: That’s right, but over time I think we will get to a point where social will come to the forefront thanks to the content and great engagement we have received.
Eric: People are beginning to realize the value which is exciting, but that also makes it scary. Now it’s going to be examined with a great deal of detail, what you’re doing and how it’s being done.
Lauren: Definitely. Last summer we went through an internal audit of our processes and passed with flying colors. That really validated what my team and I are doing. But I want to have more advanced conversations to break down the Community Health Index.
I want somebody to challenge it and challenge our digital ecosystem. I want to expose the dark side of social and realize what we need to do to move our industry forward. It doesn’t seem like those tips are what’s being shared and I’m trying to forge ahead.
Mark: Where do you go for ideas or inspiration?
Lauren: My team is very active on socialmedia.org and Community Roundtable. I’m an avid reader so I like to reach out to people I know that I see are doing things. I’m an urban planning junkie, and I think it’s so exciting to see the way cities are beginning to understand the value of community both on and offline. They are building this online network on top of the physical network and I want to do similar things.
I read The Death and Fall of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, which is about urban planning community development, and I thought, “Why don’t I approach our communities like that?” What is done in the physical world can be applied to the online world, building these neighborhoods within a larger ecosystem.
Mark: That is truly fascinating because it’s an unexpected answer. When I asked that question, I expected to hear the usual list of social media experts or usual websites that people go to for inspiration. But you’re taking inspiration from urban planning, as something that goes on in the real world and seeing how that relates, and carries over into the online community. That is truly fascinating.
Eric: So many people think of the social media world as being something separate, but it’s really about humanity, and communication, interaction, and relationships.
Lauren: That’s right.
Eric: How do you pursue partnerships or get content from others? What kind of role does that play in your strategy?
Lauren: We look at the content calendar and find where it’s appropriate to look for opportunities for sponsorships. We don’t want to push anything that’s a hard sell, but we have to show there are humans behind the online interactions. There are different guidelines and it all depends on where it’s most appropriate within the content calendar. Some get a lot of attention and others don’t but that doesn’t make one more valuable than the other.
Eric: Do your partner’s help promote the content for you as well?
Lauren: Yes, we launched our LGBT campaign not too long ago and had several partnerships with LGBT pride festivals. The first one was in Miami and several of our partners promoted the video on their feeds and distributed it to their community and networks.
Eric: How do you go about tuning your campaigns over time?
Lauren: We are constantly looking at what the engagement and what the success metrics of the campaigns were. We do have Pulse Content that’s on top of the “Always On” Content. We look for the Pulse Content to be more demonstration focused.
For example, last November, we did the 11-minute campaign, where we had a machine that destroyed cigarettes. This was based on a study that stated, “For every cigarette you give up you gain 11 minutes back to your life.” So we had this 11 Minutes campaign, 11 Minutes of Inspiration, and that was a demonstration topic that really fit in well with our content calendar at that particular time. So now we’re looking at those types of demonstrations versus these hard-sell campaign efforts that last longer, that have content that really jives with the Always On content. We’ve got that engagement piece factored in. We’re bridging the on and the offline elements and that’s constantly being tweaked.
Eric: What is the difference between Pulse Content and Always On Content?
Lauren: Always On is constant content that we get from the content calendar. Some people refer to the Pulse content as campaigns, but the Pulse content is the seasonal peaks of content that are added to the Always On efforts. These may be things like open enrollment, flu shots, or various different seasonal trends that are happening over time. The ones that happen in real time are the Pulse content, so we take a trend and add value to it. We don’t create things just to create them though. We are constantly honing our voice to make sure it is consistent and continually evolving with the feedback of people.
Eric: Sometimes the feedback you get is just not clear though, right?
Lauren: Yes, feedback is all about reading between the lines. You need to interpret the data and get more context when necessary. Engagement metrics aren’t insights; you have to ask questions. The real value comes from the questions asked and the added context. It’s a difficult thing to do, but when you see people asking questions, negative or positive, that means we’re doing something right.
Eric: It’s a very human thing when it’s done right. It’s a very personal thing when you’re connecting with people and trying to get them to understand or learn more about you. Which is not the way most people think about social media.
Lauren: Indeed, yes. I think that’s the problem that we face for our industry and making it credible, and I think that’s where most of my frustration is.
Eric: I think you get the extra challenge being a regulated industry. That actually adds some layers to that challenge, doesn’t it?
Lauren: Yes, I make sure that when I take on a challenge, it’s definitely a big one!
About Lauren Vargas
By day, Lauren Vargas is the Head (Mad Hatter) of Social Media and Community for a Fortune 50 company and named by The Economist Intelligence Unit as one of the top 25 social business leaders. She is based in Boston, Massachusetts and by night, she is an insomniac devouring dystopian fiction. And somewhere in a parallel universe, Vargas found a way to stop time and graduate from Harvard in June 2014 with a Masters of Liberal Arts, Museum Studies and now pursuing a PhD in museum studies.
Vargas is a digital and community management strategist and multi-faceted communications professional with experience in internal and external corporate communications, governmental affairs and community relations. As a professional and adjunct university instructor, she assists organizations and students engage with the communities they serve by fostering authentic relationships built on trust through conversations and participatory media.