Social Media Use by Nutritionists & Dietitians, an interview with Teri Lichtenstein
Interviewer: Tim Martin, December 2015. Episode #25 from the NET:101 podcast.
TIM: Hello, and welcome to Episode 25 of the NET:101 podcast. With me today I have Teri Lichtenstein, who I have known for a number of years. We met at Nestlé Nutrition back in the day, didn’t we, Teri?
TERI: Yes, we did. A little while back now.
TIM: Yeah, but water under the digital social media bridge since then. Now, you’re an accredited practicing dietitian, yeah?
TERI: Yes, that’s correct.
TIM: Right, and now you’ve set up your own marketing consultancy called FoodBytes with a focus on digital coms.
TIM: Excellent. But pretty much you work within the umbrella of the healthcare nutrition industry, right?
TERI: Yeah, pretty much healthcare and nutrition, incorporating food industry as well, as a lot of the food industry is moving towards a bigger focus on nutrition communications.
TIM: How have those communications changed over the last few years with the introduction of social?
TERI: I think, as probably everyone is aware, it’s been more than a 360-degree change. We know that social media is one of the most talked-about disruptions in the world of marketing for a long, long time, and it certainly has had a significant impact on the nutrition and the healthcare industry.
Nowadays we know that most people are more likely to go to “Dr. Google” for answers to their various health questions, and even more so when they’re searching for relevant nutrition information, whether that be for a specific food issue that they might have or just some general healthy eating.
TIM: Can Dr. Google be trusted?
TERI: Very good question. I think if you ask Dr. Google, he’ll say without a doubt. But it is interesting; if you were to go and today try to use a simple search trend such as “nutrition,” you’d certainly get over about 400 million results in less than about a quarter of a second. So that is the question: which of those 400 million can you trust?
At the end of the day, there are many nutrition so-called “experts” appearing overnight in the world of Google, whether they be talking about the latest superfood or diet, and yeah, to your average consumer out there, with different nutrition messages coming out every day, it is a big question. Who do you trust? How do you know when it’s a credible source of information out there?
I think that that is where there’s definitely a need to educate consumers in being able to discern credible versus myths and fiction out there on the World Wide Web.
TIM: Within an Australian context, are there any rock stars on the nutrition scene? People that are really making a name for themselves in the online social media space?
TERI: Yeah, there very much are. My opinion is that there are some rock stars that I think definitely are doing it in a credible way and others that are probably utilizing more of their actual rock star status rather than their nutrition knowledge.
Just thinking of the few examples that we’ve seen recently and over the last couple of years, people like Michelle Bridges, who’s got a very, very successful online program, the 12WBT Program, right from the start Michelle incorporated social media into her whole brand framework. What I think she did very well is that she really managed to harness the power of social media into creating an online environment where people can share and interact.
Now, we all know from all of us playing in the area of social media that at the end of the day, it is about those conversations. Michelle’s program, which is in essence a weight loss program, from a nutrition perspective when it comes to weight loss, there is never a bigger need for a community than something like weight loss, where people want to talk to others about their experiences, about their struggles, and about their successes.
I think Michelle had a very clever strategy to really encourage their participation and engagement, and that really is the essence of social media. That engagement led to conversations with likeminded people, and ultimately because of their success, they really shared that word of mouth with the rest of the community. As we know with most social media platforms, the power for it to extend to others and to just grow and really reach far-flung audiences is huge. So Michelle had a great success with that.
TIM: How long ago did she start that effort?
TERI: I think it was probably about 3 to 5 years ago. It is fascinating how she’s really taken this whole category – actually, when I was working at Nestlé up until a few months back, I was working on a brand called Optifast, which was another weight loss brand.
It was really interesting looking at Google searches for weight loss associated terms; whenever Michelle started a new round of her 12-week program, searches for Optifast in our Google Analytics increased as well. So Michelle was really driving that whole category.
TIM: So 3 to 5 years ago, that’s a long time, and she obviously got on board quite early. There would still be people out there, though, that would question whether they should be on social or not in 2014.
TERI: Yeah, that is a very good point, and I still wonder why people question this, especially when we are seeing more and more communities coming up, especially in the area of nutrition.
Another real rock star that has come into play recently is Pete Evans, who probably a lot of our audience have seen pushing his low-carb, no-sugar message on various social media platforms. Now, Pete has certainly offended many dietitians with his not-so-credible nutrition advice. In fact, a lot of what he has to say is downright fiction.
But you do have to give the guy credit in terms of he has really embraced that first principle of social media, which is to create a community and make consumers feel like they’re a part of something. He’s got some really big communities out there. At last count, he had over 400,000 fans on his Facebook page, which was really just developed in the past few months.
What is interesting, because I’ve been watching him quite closely, is I do think consumers are starting to question his one-size-fits-all approach. And whilst his testimonials and some of the success stories shared on his site are quite convincing, I think consumers are becoming a little bit more savvy in terms of where they get their nutrition advice and who is actually behind it.
And that makes me think of another expert, or should I say a real expert in this area, is someone like Professor Tim Crowe from Deakin University. Now, Tim is certainly not your nutty professor who’s all science and can’t relate to people; he has a fantastic blog called Thinking Nutrition, and what he has done is he has really addressed some of these nutrition myths out there or these popular diets, but he has really shown the science behind it.
But where he has used social media really well is to talk about the science and to talk about the evidence base, but in a consumer-friendly manner. So he’s another great one to follow on Facebook and to contrast him to the likes of Pete Evans. I think we might with time start to see the fans on Tim’s Facebook page grow and those on Pete’s start to decrease.
TIM: Is it horses for courses in that some people don’t necessarily want the facts? They want to be part of that community and drink the Kool-Aid, so to speak?
TERI: Oh, very much so. I think that’s where social media is so fascinating in that you listen to what some of these people say online, and some of them is really just about their voices behind heard rather than actually sharing credible information.
And that’s where I do think it is the job of accredited practicing dietitians and other health professionals to get on board with social media. Because the reality is that these conversations are taking place whether we like it or not, and we can either be part of the conversation and help to share our nutrition expertise or we can just let the conversation go down that garden path or continue to chase the goose.
TIM: What are the preferred platforms? We’ve got the usual suspects, Facebook and Twitter. You mentioned that Dr. Tim had a blog.
TIM: That’s a more serious platform, obviously discoverable through Google. So are people hanging out on their platforms of choice to get their dietary and nutritional information?
TERI: Yeah, very much so. Look, I think really we can look at it twofold. One is from the consumer perspective. We know the stats in Australia in terms of the numbers of Australians that are on Facebook every day and how many times they’re checking it, especially on their mobile devices. So I really think it depends what sort of nutrition message and angle you’re trying to communicate and who your target audience is.
Myself personally, from a professional perspective, I really like Twitter as a platform, but that really is to engage with other health professionals like myself. In terms of communicating messages to the consumer, I do think the more consumer type of platforms, like Instagram, like Pinterest, like Facebook, are really ideal platforms to really communicate that nutrition science into consumer-friendly speak. That is where you’re going to be able to create those communities and get the discussion going.
Of course, as with all social media platforms, you can’t just dip your toe in the water and see what happens. You have to be able to be there to resource it, to support it, to answer consumers’ questions, and to make sure that you’re helping to facilitate that conversation.
TIM: And we’re in a similar situation with the health professionals as in any profession: they’ve got a lot of great insight and understanding inside their brains, but if they’re not publishing it online and amplifying it through social, then it’s not going to do much good, really, is it?
TERI: Exactly. You were talking about your comment earlier about the cookbooks or the textbooks that are out there – I mean, no one’s reading these anymore. People are turning to the social platforms, and I think this has grown into an extremely relevant business and professional tool, especially for dietitians and health professionals.
And there really is a need for these qualified professionals to get on board in order to market our profession and achieve cut-through, especially when there are so many so-called “experts” popping out there, doing the same thing.
TIM: Facebook for a lot of organizations, business or marketing orientated or otherwise, are still seen as a bit of a plaything, to push some light content through. But you’re suggesting that it could well be a platform to put some serious data-based and backed information through. It doesn’t have to be the light stuff, does it?
TERI: No, 100%. If you look, Facebook and all these platforms provide us with such amazing and mostly free analytics. In fact, if I think back to the example I was using earlier with Michelle Bridges, she didn’t just create this Facebook page and just let people run the show. She really continued to analyze the huge amounts of data that were available to see where the best engagement was taking place and what type of social media marketing leads she could use to generate new customers and create ongoing loyal customers.
So yeah, it’s certainly not a Mickey Mouse platform. I mean, we can think of probably many brands – specifically when it comes to the food industry – that have used Facebook very, very successfully.
TIM: The couple of examples you’ve given at different ends of the spectrum are individuals are opposed to organizations. Is it easier for individuals to build up a following and the credibility around what they’re saying rather than a brand associated with an organization?
TERI: Not necessarily. I think at the end of the day, all brands could be successful in this space, whether you are an individual brand or an organization. In fact, probably the poster child for this in terms of a health brand is a brand called Patients Like Me. This is a brand/organization that was started overseas. They’ve now got quite a few hundred thousand members.
Really, as I was saying earlier, what we know is patients are turning to social media when they have a health condition or a disease that they want to manage. Patients Like Me has assembled large groups of sufferers, for lack of a better word, of diseases or certain health conditions – more so than any other pharmaceutical agency in history – and they’ve done this by appealing to a shared sense of seeking medical progress, again, along the lines of their community.
It is interesting looking at that; obviously sharing information specifically about personal health does, of course, carry privacy considerations for those whose conditions might expose them to certain things like discrimination in the workplace. But again, Patients Like Me is I think a great example of an organization that has really harnessed the power of social media.
TIM: Do you find that you can get ideas or thoughts that polarize people, like you’re either for or against it, and you’re quite vehement about your position? And does that manifest through social media in terms of trolling or having vicious arguments?
TERI: Very much so. It’s so easy to hide behind your Twitter handle or just a screen when it’s not face-to-face. I’m still amazed by some of the so-called online conversations people would have when I think, I wonder if you would ever actually say that in public face-to-face with someone.
Look, of course trolls exist across social media in any industry, and again, using the example of Pete Evans, even the mainstream media picked up on it, and for awhile we were seeing some of these arguments even being shown on the likes of our Today/Tonight episodes on TV. Because people were quite adamant taking one side or the other.
I think especially in Australia, the whole Paleo diet and low-carb craze is really quite hot at the moment. Overseas they’ve kind of hit the snooze button on that already. But yeah, we will always continue to see that, and when it comes to the area of nutrition, people are very passionate about it – which is wonderful. Yeah, so definitely when it comes to those trolls, they’re very much out there.
TIM: This plays into what you were talking about before, to have information that actually has some stats or some data behind it or some research rather than just hearsay.
TERI: Yes. And that is one of my tips to everyone, is when you are finding information online, whether that is through a Google search or on a social media platform, to really question it. Where has this information come from? What is the source behind it? Probe and ask more questions. If possible, even go back to the original research. It’s very easy to just put a wild stat out there as a sensational media headline, but what does it actually mean and is it actually relevant to your personal situation?
TIM: In terms of the credibility, if I want to set myself up as a talking head around a particular topic within nutrition or dietary, or even be representing a brand, what’s the difference between being credible and not credible? Obviously I could throw some data up and show some research, but obviously I’ve got to get a lot of followers, I’ve got to get people to engage with one another. How do I go about doing that?
TERI: I think the same principles apply to any industry if you’re trying to maintain that credibility. The first thing I’d say is to show integrity. I believe one should treat any statement you make online as if you’re making them face-to-face. Make sure that you have your facts, you have your figures in place, you can back them up.
It’s important to remain authentic. Of course, always state who you are and who you represent – because that’s the other thing as well; you can definitely see some people that provide a certain recommendation online, and then you also find out that they’re being financially supported or sponsored by a certain organization, which obviously can muddy the waters.
As with everything on social media, I think it is important to stay civil. The wonderful area of nutrition is that hardly anything is concrete. So yes, for every argument, there can be a counterargument. But if you disagree with someone, you can respectfully disagree while acknowledging different viewpoints and presenting yours.
I think very much so for all health professionals out there, it is important to maintain our professionalism; remain ethical. Keep your professional and your public life separate would be my recommendation. And remember that you do have that online reputation, so you want to keep information confidential. You want to value originality and give credit where credit is due. And continue to monitor your virtual identity and scrutinize your own online presence.
TIM: What about young graduates? Do you think they’re prepared to enter the space and understand what the new rules of engagement are around social media?
TERI: I really hope so, Tim, and I hope that that’s the way that our tertiary education departments are leading. For the past 3 years, I’ve been involved in providing some social media training to final year dietetic students at Deakin University, and thanks to that wonderful leading institution, they have really been on board with going just beyond the textbook syllabus of Nutrition 101 and really trying to equip these new grads with the new rules of marketing – specifically when it comes to digital and social media marketing.
I think time will tell. Look, the good thing is these are obviously all digital natives rather than digital immigrants, so they are growing up from a personal perspective using these various tools out there. Hopefully with experience and with the right help along the way, they will be able to grow their professions.
And I think it’s wonderful in that there will be so many more jobs and opportunities open to them than ever was available in my day, prior to the likes of all these various wonderful platforms.
TIM: If we could only go back 20 years, Teri, the things we could do now.
TERI: I know, can you imagine?
TIM: Yes. It must also be kind of strange for practitioners, consultants, having consultations with people who’ve been online a couple of hours before they walk into the clinic, and they’ve been having these online conversations and doing their research. Does that change the nature of the way that consultations are conducted?
TERI: Very much so. In fact, just a few weeks ago I was at the doctor with my daughter, and he himself turned to Google to search for something. I thought, “Oh, that’s interesting. I wonder if you learned that in your medical training.”
But it’s interesting you say that, because I actually recently saw some research that was conducted by Manhattan Research and McCann Health where they conducted a survey of a number of Australian physicians, mostly a mix of primary care and specialists. What we have seen is that in the medical workplace, three screen usage has very much become the norm. What it means is our doctors and our specialists are not just using their textbooks; they themselves, in consults, are turning to their mobile devices, using various technology to really get more information.
We know that print resources have been a dying form of media for a number of industries, but very much so, even for the medical professionals, in the research they’ve found that over 86% of those surveyed looked to digital resources as a first point for relevant information.
TIM: We talked about various platforms before, blogging and Twitter and Facebook; what are the fundamental differences within the context of people getting involved in the community around diet or nutrition between Facebook and Twitter?
TERI: I think the fundamental difference is that – well, my opinion is that Twitter is very much a platform where you can share resources and engage in a very different type of way. As we know, obviously Twitter is much more short and sharp; you’re limited to your 140 characters. Whereas I think there’s much broader and deeper conversations on Facebook.
I actually think it’s quite easy – well, should I say it’s easier for people on Facebook to really get on the bandwagon of really pushing their point. I actually find as a generalization when it comes to nutrition discussions, people are more respectful on Twitter. I’m not sure if that’s because they’re limited to 140 characters in terms of what they can say.
I would say as a generalization, Facebook is much more geared towards those real topics where there is that need for support for ongoing reassurance or the ability to talk and to share openly.
When it comes to the area of nutrition, what is interesting is we’ve also on Facebook seen a lot of closed groups pop up. So for example, people who might want to be losing weight and feel that there’s a stigma associated with it, whilst they want to turn to social media where they can share their stories with someone who might be on the other side of the world who they’ve never met, they still want to keep it private to some extent.
So it is quite different platforms. From the actual health professional’s perspective, I see more value in health professionals using Twitter as a platform to communicate with other colleagues in their specific industry, whereas Facebook is probably more a platform where they can communicate with their direct consumer target group.
TIM: We talked about “Dr. Google” before, but of course, Google can’t crawl and index content published through Facebook and Twitter. So does that mean blog content is more likely to influence people that start the journey at Google?
TERI: Very much so, but of course, it is also important to get your blog out there and find out who is reading it. That’s where I think some health professionals have been very successful. Again, using the example of Professor Tim Crowe, where they’ve got a credible blog; they’re able to, in their controlled way, present their nutrition message, but at the same time use social media to really broadcast those messages that are on their blog.
TIM: Do images have a part to play? People like to see before and after shots, that sort of thing, but can you communicate effectively using images in the space?
TERI: Very, very much so. I think when it comes to nutrition, it’s never been truer than an image speaks a thousand words. There are some wonderful images out there, even in terms of this whole Paleo diet craze. It’s been really amusing to watch some of the various cartoon images that have popped up to really communicate the message quite effectively.
At the end of the day, we all sometimes get a bit bored and a bit tired of seeing 100 comments on one blog post, but yet if someone, if a health professional can very effectively, in one strong image, communicate their message without having to use a single text or word associated, to me that is extremely powerful.
I think we all know we all love to see images. Video content is really taking off as well. I think that really brings me to a point in terms of how all these social platforms are also being used on mobile devices. Everyone is looking for those short, sharp bursts of information. [Inaudible 00:24:07] where we’re continually rushing around.
So we really, in terms of communicating that message out there, you’ve got to think how is your target audience really consuming that content? And that is where I think specifically the power of images has so much to play.
TIM: What about infographics? When we talk about research-based findings, what better way to present what can be quite difficult data to wade through in the form of an infographic?
TERI: Exactly, Tim. You just made me think – just last week, I attended a fantastic dietitians’ blogging event. It was run by Dairy Australia, and the theme was – just to backtrack a little bit, over the past few years, dairy consumption in Australia has decreased despite it being an extremely important food group for all generations, from young babies right up to old people.
Dairy Australia organized an event where they had some key professors talking about dairy consumption and what has led to the levels being decreased and what can be done. But instead of just your standard symposium where the lecturers got up and presented and a few people might tweet, they actually had a blogging workshop where they had dairy products laid out on a big table. They had a food stylist come and talk about styling a cheese platter. They had a beautiful yogurt bar.
All you saw in the room were a group of dietitians, all quite successful bloggers themselves, snapping away with their mobile phones or their cameras, taking those photos and showcasing them on Instagram, showcasing how you actually only need to have a small amount of cheese in your diet to get your 30 grams of calcium that you might need.
It was extremely successful in every way in that the dietitians got something new out of it – I think, as you said, a few years ago if I had attended an education event, it certainly wouldn’t have been presented in that way. But more importantly, these dietitians were then able to create blog posts or Instagram photos that the message could then be passed on to the end consumer, to whom it actually matters the most.
TIM: Any advice, guidelines, whatever you would give health professionals when setting up and they’re going to establish their social media platforms for the first time, dip their toes in the water?
TERI: Yeah, look, I think pretty much I’d sum it up in just a few words. I’d say get involved, play nicely, use good grammar, and have fun with it. It is a wonderful opportunity.
I think at the end of the day, accredited practicing dietitians and other health professionals almost have – I’d use the word obligation to get out there and take part. Because as we said, the conversation is taking place and the journey is happening, so let’s get involved.
TIM: Play nicely, good grammar. That sounds like something my grandmother would say, and it’s probably still very good advice today.
TERI: (laughs) [Inaudible 00:27:00].
TIM: Yes, we have. Let people know where they can find you?
TERI: Yeah, if anyone wants to contact me, feel free to – all my contact details are on my website, which is www.foodbytes.com.au. Or else feel free to find me on Twitter; my Twitter handle is @terilichten. And I’d love to chat about anything nutrition or food related.
TIM: Excellent. Teri, thanks so much for coming along.
TERI: It’s a pleasure. Thanks for the time, Tim.
TIM: Talk soon. Ciao.
Michele Bridges 12WBT
Pete Evans Facebook Page
Tim Crowe Thinking Nutrition Blog
Deakin University, Masters of Dietetics Course (where Teri lectures in social media)
#DASS2014 via Tagboard (used at the Dairy Australia blogging event with images showing dairy products and calcium)
PDF eBook – co-authored by Teri with other dietitian bloggers ($10 to purchase)