Direct-to-Consumer 2.0: Try It, You'll Like It

The Internet's hopping with healthcare consumers and patient communities. Online social networks are all the rage in brand marketing. Isn't it time for pharma to cross the digital divide and feel the log-on love?
May 01, 2007

The Impact of Online Info: In a survey of some 3,000 Web users, half said their last health search had an effect, with treatment decisions, overall approaches, and doctor communications the most common
Once you get past the Disney allusion, it's easy to see the appeal of the idea that everyone in the world is linked by a short chain of social acquaintances. This "small-world phenomenon" was first advanced four decades ago by social psychologist Stanley Milgram, whose groundbreaking work includes the theory that there are only six links, or acquaintances, between any two randomly selected Americans. Popularized as "six degrees of separation," this notion has been transformed by the digital revolution into a buzzing, booming hyperreality beyond anything even the radical Milgram could have imagined.

But not beyond anything a marketing expert could dream of. Through consumer-generated content, people who might not otherwise associate are forging meaningful connections—in virtual communities—based on their common knowledge, interests, and goals. These communities, called social networks, are redefining commercial spaces—and classic marketing concepts like "brand as product" and "word of mouth"—with their 24/7 consumer-driven dynamism.

The Online Health Experience: The majority of Web users reported feeling empowered by the health info accessed. But about 25 percent said the info left them "overwhelmed" or "frustrated"
As the Cluetrain Manifesto, the bible of the Internet-marketing movement, puts it: "A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter—and getting smarter faster than most companies." In healthcare, where well-being and emotion have long been inextricably linked and markets were always based on conversations, these social networks present themselves as pitch-perfect opportunities to build lasting relationships and brand loyalty—and to advance the public health.

Where Baby Boomers and Gen C Meet

Online social networks are the spawn of Internet technology and the rise of a new wave of connected consumers. This "Generation C" shares digital content via blogs and other interactive Web sites, mobile phones, and devices like the BlackBerry. Contrary to popular perception, though, Gen C is not the exclusive domain of idle teens; nearly half of all visitors are 35 and older.

Some history: Social networks first emerged to meet basic communication needs among Web users, but commercial applications quickly became evident. Reader-posted reviews made one of the first profitable interactive communities focused on a shared interest.,/, and similar services enabled members to organize their recreational and business activities. Soon they were trading up to the next model of social-networking sites, which were more user-friendly and segmented around specific interests, such as business, politics, culture, and gaming., which provides access to a network of friends, photos, videos, music, and blogs, is one of the most visited sites on the Web and features more than 100 million individual profiles.

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