North Carolina Missions of Mercy, or NCMOM for short, lives in a world of chance encounters. After all, NCMOM dentists have treated more than 8,000 strangers and given away $4 million in free care already in 2011.
These are the people who’ve fallen through gaping holes in the medical safety net and who have nowhere else to turn to rid themselves of pain and oral disease. So they show up by the hundreds at abandoned store fronts, local gyms, church auditoriums, and shopping centers transformed into state-of-the-art free dental clinics, desperately seeking care they can no longer afford or find.
They come at night, huddling in line against the rain and wind and cold. They are evaluated and treated, sometimes after waits of up to 24 hours, in rows of portable dental chairs manned by blue-smocked dental volunteers. And then they are gone.
NCMOM’s story is typical in the world of outreach programs. Strangers come. Strangers go. Help is delivered. The story ends.
Social media connecting strangers
Invariably, those treated in NCMOM dental clinics are effusive and grateful almost beyond words. You can see it on their faces. Their pain is gone.
Despite often-uncomfortable procedures and long waits to see the dentist, they leave clutching small bags containing toothpaste and a toothbrush, and maybe some dental floss, gushing with praise and heartfelt thanks for the care they’ve just been given.
Until now, this has been the end of the road. Patients return to their lives, dentists go back to their practices, and a town returns to normal.
Yet the good feelings and pride and the countless stories linger on, and it is here that social media can shine, as it has for N.C. Missions of Mercy in recent months.
By capturing and telling the NCMOM story, by starting and sustaining conversations, by sharing the images from the clinics and the profoundly touching experiences of patients and volunteers, NCMOM is fast becoming a hot topic in North Carolina and the digital world beyond.
Thanks to Facebook and Twitter, observers across cyberspace are transported to the M.A.S.H.-like floor of an NCMOM clinic where they meet and talk with those being helped and those dispensing treatment through a unique, powerful online community that buzzes with energy every time a clinic cranks up.
Not only do social media alert the public about upcoming events, they help recruit volunteers, deliver useful and timely information, seek out donors, and get people talking.
During the event itself, these conversational platforms encourage hundreds of strangers to connect and share the NCMOM experience in real time, while it’s happening. And long after the portable operatories and the X-ray van have gone, the conversations linger as people relish their experiences.
“It’s like a story that never ends,” said one volunteer dentist. “NCMOM goes on long after the two-day frenzy of emergency dentistry.”
A new way to give back
When we launched the NCMOM digital campaign in late summer, we discovered several factors that we sensed would buoy the program.
First, there was a huge information gap. Second, there was an abundance of misinformation wafting around about NCMOM. Third, we discovered that patients were brimming over with gratitude, yet had no way to express it.
Wow, we thought. What fertile ground! And, by golly, it was.
The information gap. Despite a stream of local stories in traditional media, not many people really understood the NCMOM initiative, what it was all about, and what it was trying to accomplish. Also, people told us they were having trouble finding out how to volunteer and what they needed to do as patients to be seen.
Misinformation. As important as it was to tell people what NCMOM is, we needed to better inform people about what NCMOM was not. Many thought of NCMOM as a free-for-all dental clinic open to everyone, including children who showed up. They didn’t anticipate long waits, how patients were screened and admitted, and what to expect as patients or as volunteers.
Giving back. Most patients had no clue about how they could thank volunteers for their care and so they never did. Social media outlets offered them a chance to speak up and speak out.
By creating a Facebook page and asking for input, questions, and concerns through encouraging posts, we gave supporters a way to talk about NCMOM. We also traveled to each NCMOM clinic with banners and flyers encouraging supporters to connect with one another on the new social networks.
Supporters were eager to engage with NCMOM and, most importantly, with each other, and to join the growing NCMOM online community. In fact, NCMOM’s page views and number of fans on its Facebook page went through the roof during these events (see photo below of Facebook statistics after the recent clinic in Greensboro). The page’s level of engagement also increased through posts by fans thanking the organization and volunteers, and proclaiming their loyalty and support.
Making MOM into a lasting experience
NCMOM clinics last two days. That’s all. And even though hundreds of patients are treated and just as many volunteers participate, when it’s over, it’s over.
But in reality, NCMOM doesn’t end when the lights are turned off. Sure, each clinic has a beginning and an end, but the “NCMOM glow” goes on and serves up a rich, potent and exciting opportunity to share, to contemplate, to boast, to praise. In short, a chance to sustain a conversation and that, in turn, translates into building a growing group of constituents — a sort of “NCMOM Family” — who are engaged in the project, every day.
In a sense, NCMOM is a brand. Even though it’s not selling anything, NCMOM is nonetheless an entity with meaning and with strong, engaging experiential aspects that can lead to monetary support and volunteerism. These are the payoffs. These are the measurable rewards.
People don’t buy brands; they experience them. This is, in essence, the NCMOM story: Sharing the experience, talking about it, exchanging ideas, expressing opinions, seeking information, encouraging others — in short, all the things communities of like-minded people do when they converse.
This is the level of engagement possible with any brand, any organization. Social media are merely a conduit.
Get more information about NCMOM:
NC Dental Society website: http://www.ncdental.org/ncds/NCMOM.asp?SnID=197382
NCMOM on Facebook: www.facebook.com/ncmissionsofmercy
NCMOM on Twitter: www.twitter.com/momnc
NCMOM blog: www.momnc.wordpress.com