Health exchange pays big for social media

The Maryland Health Benefit Exchange board voted Tuesday to spend nearly half a million dollars on social media over the next several months.

Officials have already spent millions on marketing and communications, with little social media success to show for it.

As of Thursday, Maryland Health Connection had 1,876 Twitter followers, 4,656 Facebook “likes” and 146,579 YouTube views.

There are nearly 6 million people living in Maryland.

On Tuesday, the board approved adding $446,800 to its contract with public relations/marketing firm Weber Shandwick. That’s on top of the $7,569,135 the state has already paid the company over the past couple of years.

The social media numbers have jumped since October, when the exchange launched amid well-documented difficulties. At that point, the exchange had only 728 Twitter followers.

But even if the exchange’s following on each platform doubles over the next few months, questions remain about whether social media can effect a spike in health insurance enrollment.

In a July hearing of the Joint Oversight Committee, exchange officials testified that social media would play a starring role in their efforts to convince Marylanders that the revamped website would offer a better experience.

Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer (D- Baltimore and Howard counties) was not impressed. Kasemeyer said he doubted social media was the best way to reach the target demographic.

But this week, exchange board Chairman Dr. Joshua Sharfstein again said he supports investing in social media. He said the various channels allow exchange staff to directly communicate with consumers, respond to their problems and connect them to the right resources.

Alison Walker, who has been serving as a spokeswoman for the exchange but is also in charge of social media, said she has personally interacted with many consumers via Twitter or Facebook, and that they appreciate the one-on-one assistance.

The exchange already manages a customer support call center, which has already cost about $50 million to set up and operate.

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