Alternative Media: Blogging for Pharma
Pharma is no exception. Pharma marketers are proceeding to use blogs for strategic promotion, exploring the opportunities this new medium presents. This article discusses what blogs are and examines their potential payoffs and pitfalls.
Several features distinguish blogs from typical websites. Generally, blogs are frequently updated (sometimes several times a day), organized chronologically with the most recent entries "above the fold," and contain links to other sites on similar topics. Blog software facilitates strong reader feedback, encouraging group participation through below-the-entry comments that function as ongoing discussion threads of the original topic.
The world of blogs—the "blogosphere"—is growing. Perseus Development estimates that there were more than five million blogs at the end of 2003 and expects that number to exceed 10 million by the end of 2004. Blogs cover subjects ranging from technology, to politics, to entertainment, and health. However, they generally fall into three broad categories.
Institutional blogs. Company blogs typically offer insight into an organization's goods and services, facilitate two-way interaction, and put a more human face on a large entity. Google's blog, located at www.google.com/googleblog, posts entries from software engineers, product managers, and store managers, discussing new products in a more dynamic way than press releases. Macromedia, which makes the popular Flash animation software, hosts nearly a dozen blogs (www.macromedia.com/community) that allow its customers to make feature requests, learn about product releases, and keep up to date with news from the development community.
Topical blogs. These web pages tend to aggregate news or analyze information related to a specific subject. For example, healthcare strategist Matthew Holt authors the Healthcare Blog. Located at www.thehealthcareblog.com , it features his opinions on breaking healthcare news, as well as links to related articles, and other resources.
But what weaves those categories together—and what blogs are really about—are reader involvement and relevance, which the more traditional media can't offer.
Benefits It's clear that pharma marketers are trying to understand how to monitor, publish, and advertise on blogs to take advantage of their power and popularity. Similar to chat rooms and discussion groups, blogs are an excellent source of business intelligence that allow companies to see what patients are saying about the brand and competitors' products. Look to blog-smart search engines such as Technorati (www.technorati.com) or DayPop (www.daypop.com) to find the ones that apply to your business. The traditional monitoring services, such as Burrelle's, also track a few blogs, and they are currently ramping up software to monitor more of that space.
Publishing a blog can be another promotional tool in pharma's media mix. Eli Lilly and Icos, for example, publish the Cialis Blog. Located at www.cialisblog.com ,it offers news about the popular drug, as well as disease information. Although its purpose is not fully clear, the blog represents experimentation with the medium. As is the case with websites, companies should be certain to secure blog addresses that contain brand names. Otherwise, they leave those domains open for other bloggers, such as the unauthorized Viagrablog.com .
Companies may also want to consider hosting a private, password-protected internal blog—a next generation intranet—as an effective two-way communications channel for employees. But in any case, for any pharma-sponsored blog, it's critical that companies formulate publishing guidelines in order to prevent the release of any information it wants to remain confidential.
Advertising on blogs is another strategy worth considering. Many blogs, especially topical ones, accept text and banner ads and sponsorships, and they can be an excellent way to reach highly targeted audiences.
Counterpoint Despite the potential upside, getting involved with blogs still represents a sizeable risk for pharma companies.
On the publishing side, one concern is that the public will view a pharma-sponsored blog as too gimmicky and lacking in content that users truly value. Another concern is the frequency of updating. Given the industry's notoriously long legal reviews, companies should not delve into the arena without a plan to expedite and refresh topical postings to sustain visitors' interest.
Even advertising on or sponsoring blogs requires careful consideration. What do companies do if users post comments about negative side effects or worse, patient deaths? Considering pharma's obligation to report adverse events to FDA, such a tactic should not be undertaken without a frank discussion by regulatory, legal, and marketing departments. One lesser concern is that due to blogs' lack of professional editorial oversight, companies may not be able to control ad placement; as a result, their ad could wind up on a page that contains messages detrimental to one of their brands.
Marketers should also note that women, those highly coveted healthcare decision makers, are not the core audience of bloggers. According to the Pew Internet Organization's February 2004 study, blogs appeal mostly to teens and men 18-34. More women will log on as blogging grows in popularity—but it's likely that their interest in blogs will revolve around major life concerns such as pregnancy and child rearing rather than branded medications.
As a medium for pharma marketers, blogging's potential may be limited. Done badly, it can compromise your broader communications objectives, but in the right hands and for the right targeted brand, blogging can be useful.