It's About the Conversation
Today's digital age truly is all about the conversation. Through social media such as blogs, communities, and review sites,
64 million US adults regularly share advice with others online.
For marketers, this means brands now live not on television or in magazines, but in the conversations about them online. Increasingly,
consumers are relying on the opinions of friends, family, and even strangers to select physicians and make decisions about
their bodies. A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine reinforced the idea that the company we keep can have an important impact on our health. Researchers studied a large social
network of over 12,000 people over the course of 32 years, from 1971 to 2003. The study found that people were three times
as likely to become obese when a close friend became obese. This information sparked a lively public discussion about how
a social network can also influence healthy behaviors. As online social networking reaches a new phase, the business case
for harnessing these consumer voices, and the influence they carry, is becoming apparent.
Savvy marketers are making their companies part of the conversation by being where their customers are, in the right context,
with highly relevant messages. Others are waiting on the sidelines, in some cases trying to keep their reputations intact
when conversations go awry.
In today's digital world, the requirement for companies that want to lead is to know not only what people are saying about
them, but to actively participate in that conversation. Technology makes "scraping the blogosphere" easy. Marketers can identify
online influencers, monitor their opinions, respond to consumer sentiment, and track potentially problematic issues. The real
risks are not using the data, not understanding its impact, and not engaging new groups of influencers in the dialogue as
active partners. What's at stake is no less than helping people find information they need to make health decisions and to
engage them actively so they won't walk away from potentially necessary and appropriate treatment.
Consumers Trust Other Consumers
Frequency breeds authority. Like power sellers on eBay, users of social media have an enormous influence on their peers. A
bariatric surgeon in Nebraska who posted 300 videos on YouTube became an overnight sensation. A general practitioner from
the Midwest with a site optimized for search became an authority on cholesterol.
But it's not just physicians who have influence. We trust information from those who share our problems and concerns. In one
example, a cancer survivor communicating via the micro-blogging platform Twitter has become an informal advisor to others
battling the disease.
Many influencers have valid, proven information and advice. Others do not—but because of their online presence, their authority
accrues. These facts are alarming: according to Forrester Research, 87 percent of consumers trust peer-generated content.
But only a startling 3 percent of those consumers question its trustworthiness.
Healthcare today is about the conversations taking place online. Industry must act to make certain that the people talking
are armed with accurate medical information that goes beyond their own personal story to help others engage in the health
system, find what they need, and obtain the best outcome.