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

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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?


Pharmaceutical Executive


In contrast to traditional marketing methods, social-networking technology creates de facto marketers out of consumers. By reaching out to customers online, a company is treating the customer as both source and audience for ideas about its products and services. Through millions of channels, tens of thousands of users drive the brand message, evolve the brand, and tell the brand story as part of their own story.

Unilever developed a social network for Dove that engaged 200,000 women in 22 countries in a dialogue about the definition of real beauty, effectively turning them into brand managers. While TV advertising echoed the same sentiment, the online content was the driving element, and no product information was included. Through community building—not product selling—Dove demonstrated the impact that unconventional marketing can have on a conventional brand. For Dove's customers, the brand was less about soap than about a massive airing of feelings and sharing of thoughts about female beauty. This experience, in turn, drove up sales more than 50 percent.

Social networking is also shifting the balance from traditional institutions to a new kind of influencer. Online, leaders emerge in the process of information sharing, shaping popular opinion. With growing "Web cred," active consumers bring others to the party.

Marketing observers of http://WebMD.com/ might marvel at the way the site, in a model of patient empowerment, allows opportunities for ordinary people to have a voice equal to that of medical specialists. On the Autism Blog, for example, a parent called "blessedmomma" frequently shares insights about her child's diagnosis and experience. Such leaders—by the force of their personality, knowledge, and commitment—keep hundreds of other people online.

The age of 24/7 feedback not only offers consumers the chance to exchange info instantly but also provides companies the opportunity for real-time access to data about these interactions. Only a decade ago, this was akin to a healthcare marketer who had the ability to schedule a focus group—assembling thousands of patients from different geographies, with immediate access to unbiased feedback. With social-network technology, pharmaceutical companies can get a faster and better read on their patients—from lifestyle concerns to treatment satisfaction, from unmet needs to ongoing fears and frustrations. Breakthrough innovations on any number of fronts can be made outside the marketing lab, gleaned from everyday conversations with online users.

The Next Big 'Think' in Pharma Marketing

Clearly, the time has arrived for the pharmaceutical industry to begin to cocreate their branding, advertising, and marketing communications with consumers, doctors, and others whose voices are already influencing their brands. But this new territory can be scary for more traditional or heavily regulated industries. The good news is that social networks, like any social system, have their own standards and rules, which can be monitored and moderated on an ongoing basis. There's more control than may be apparent.

Of course, pharma isn't selling just another widget. An awareness of these complexities, together with tight regulation, has long warranted an approach to marketing that is more cautious than in other industries. Even after a decade of direct-to-consumer ads, many pharma marketers remain reluctant to open wide the door of unfettered dialogue due to the specter of perceived off-label promotions and reporting of adverse events. However, a clear, prudent strategy and consultation with legal, regulatory, and compliance experts can mitigate not only these but other risks, such as privacy, product liability, and intellectual property.

To foster a dialogue that reaches credibly beyond the product to advance the public health, some companies are partnering with professional organizations. For example, in an effort to educate physicians on specific diseases and treatments, companies are sponsoring Web sites with continuing- medical-education tools. Pharmas are also cosponsoring sites with patient groups, such as the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation ( http://www.multiplemyeloma.org/) and the Jed Foundation Ulifeline ( http://www.ulifeline.org/main/home.html), a site for the prevention of suicide in college-age kids. More fully functional networks to launch multiparty real-time communication might include, for example, a community for patients with high cholesterol, sponsored by the American Heart Association.


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