When Facebook launched in 2004, the trajectory of human interaction changed forever. Not long after its inception, this “new thing” became known as social media, and most people treated it as something they’d never seen before. Truth be told, social media has been with us since the dawn of our species; it just looked different. People have always wanted to connect and stay connected — to inform and stay informed. We are a social species!

In its earliest form, “social media” happened in caves and around campfires as people gathered to reflect on the activities of the day and gossip about their neighbors. It was a time to brag about hunts, kills and conquests — a time for sharing, embellishing and boasting. And when words weren’t enough, they enhanced their conversation by drawing pictures on the ground or cave walls.

As humanity and society evolved, the social media platform that started around the campfire moved to the general store or town square. So, while Facebook inspired new terminology and a host of other new technologies, it wasn’t a new concept — just a new method.

We marketers have long capitalized on this human desire for connection and sharing. We even coined the phrase “word of mouth marketing” to legitimize what people have done naturally since the dawn of time. So, while word of mouth (WOM) used to happen offline, with consumers talking to consumers (or patients to patients), today’s social media platforms allow us to take WOM online and extend the conversation to an exponentially larger audience for an even greater impact.

The strength of online WOM comes from both its permanence and its ability to spread so quickly through a large audience. Roughly 90% of the impact of online WOM happens within the first two weeks following the initial conversation, as compared to 73% with offline WOM. According to the Word of Mouth Marketing Association one-third of all WOM marketing happens online in the social media space, and WOM drives 13% of all sales. Clearly, this level of impact represents an opportunity to be maximized and a force to be harnessed.

In the world of healthcare, as in many sectors, online interactions empower offline behaviors, as patients frequently seek disease state and treatment information from fellow patients. Based on research from the Pew Research Center, 72% of Internet users say they looked online for health information within the past year. When asked about changes she’s seen in healthcare conversations, Dana Lewis of Healthcare Communications and Social Media said, “I think the biggest change is the voice and empowerment that patients can get from social media that empower them offline — and the empathy and listening and learning that providers are able to do online is also translating offline.”

Social media has expanded conversation to a broad, fast-moving experience among multiple parties. There’s no denying social media’s ability to extend both reach and results beyond caves, campfires and traditional WOM. Through social media, patients are called to action, behavior is influenced, and doctor’s office conversations are more fully informed. Social media propels word of mouth to an even higher level, satisfying the needs of our ever-evolving social species.