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Connecting with Customers in Digital Space


Dani Friedland examines what Johnson & Johnson and other pharmaceutical companies are doing to succeed online.

People wrestling with the challenges of digital marketing in the pharmaceutical world have realized there is no one-size-fits-all approach to success. Those who do it well have realized that each product’s audience has unique characteristics that require a specifically targeted approach, and that frequently means an unbranded, community-based site. “The Internet has really become a patient’s second opinion,” says Joseph Shields, product director for Wyeth Pharmaceuticals’ Enbrel.

Regardless of the details of a particular strategy, it’s all about “engaging people in their health,” says Dorothy Wetzel, a founding partner at Extrovertic marketing and communications agency who sees an increase in social Web sites. The pitfall, she says, is the tendency to treat social media as simply a new way to spread traditional messages.

One company that Wetzel said avoids this pitfall is Johnson & Johnson, commonly regarded as a leader in the field. It tends to do things first, with the first blog and the first YouTube channel ever created by a pharmaceutical company. Now, it has started buying existing online communities for a comprehensive approach. “I know how decentralized they are, so it’s probably a lot of smart people wanting to do new stuff,” said Wetzel, but she also thinks the company’s strong credo and corporate communications department help, too.

Over-The Counter Advantage
Another advantage J&J has is its over-the-counter brands, which allow the company to try new techniques first and then apply what they learn from that to their more heavily regulated prescription products. Marc Monseau, director of corporate media relations at J&J, explained this approach. “The first step is to start to listen to what people are saying about your brands and your business,” he says. “The most important part is to understand who’s saying what and why and figure out how you can become part of that conversation.” For J&J, that means a YouTube channel with play lists ranging from moms talking about childhood obesity to the company’s branded commercials to user-submitted videos about indoor activities for kids. “Part of what we’re trying to do is provide content that people will find of use,” Monseau said.

Content in this sense can go beyond videos and the like to individualized responses. In particular, one interaction on the YouTube channel serves as a model of human interaction between J&J and a consumer. When a user responded to a video about stents with an exercise-related question, someone at J&J was able to respond as a human being about his own experience exercising with two implanted stents.

Pharmaceutical companies currently train call center employees to safely interact with customers. Wetzel says those techniques can be adapted for online channels, and that’s leading to conversations in different marketing environments. “We’re starting to see more and more human voices,” she says.

Monseau said certain J&J sites are moderated, and each site should have a clearly visible comments policy. On the YouTube channel or the corporate blog, for instance, comments are pre-screened for profanity and relevance. Comments about ongoing legal matters or adverse events also aren’t posted, Monseau said. With the exception of spam, Monseau estimated he’s rejected fewer than five comments since he started working on the corporate blog a little over two years ago. Such moderated communities and other sites offer personal connections. “When you think social media, you think humanity,” Wetzel said.

Tricia Geoghegan, spokesperson for McNeil Pediatrics, a J&J brand, takes a similar humanity-centric approach. Citing the Cluetrain Manifesto, which she describes as a primer on social networks and social media, Geoghegan says, “When you go into social media, it’s relational. It’s not transactional. It’s about sharing, not about selling. It’s about affinity and not authority.”

Connect Through Facebook
Last year, McNeil and its PR agency, Golin Harris, launched an unbranded Facebook page for mothers of children with ADHD. Geoghegan said that this particular audience does a lot of research online and might not talk about ways to handle ADHD with their neighbors because of stigma fears. This Facebook page is a safe community where they can do research and talk with other moms – without dragging the neighbors into it.

What might seem odd, given that McNeil offers an ADHD medication called Concerta, is the ban on comments containing product names. Geoghegan said the site’s comment wall is moderated according to FDA legal requirements and J&J’s corporate social media guidelines.

In addition to the moderated Facebook wall, users of ADHD Moms can access links to online resources, polls, podcasts, videos, and essays from “community leaders” – a small group of selected moms, including a pediatrician with three children who have ADHD. “You always get different slices of insight from the community leaders, and the comment wall allows the fan base to kick in,” Geoghegan said. The site’s updates go into users’ news feeds, just as a profile’s updates would, and the podcasts are available for download through iTunes. Moms can also submit essays of their own to be selected as a “Mombassador.”

From the user’s point of view, content is king. Most online marketers, however, love the metrics such content allows them to collect. They can instantly gauge the users’ responses to the site and change the content on a dime, if necessary. Geoghegan uses such metrics as the ultimate measure of the site’s success. Facebook users must click a button to become a “fan” to join the group, so it’s easy to measure how many people are in the group.

“The users will tell us if it’s worthwhile to them if they become fans and if they remain fans,” Geoghegan said. “We realized looking at the fan growth that the caregivers were thinking that this was valuable.” According to Geoghegan, the site currently has almost 9,000 Facebook fans due to the constant consideration for what users want. (Note: As of July 24, 2009 there were 8,700+) “There’s other ADHD groups on Facebook,” she said. “To my knowledge, I believe that ADHD Moms was the first time that a pharmaceutical company provided this kind of resources.”

Based on the success of ADHD Moms, McNeil launched ADHD Allies in April, a site for adults with ADHD. In addition to a media outreach campaign similar to the one used to attract traffic to ADHD Moms, ADHD Allies placed Facebook ads on the sides of some pages. “We work with Facebook and we make sure that the ads go to the right places,” she said.

Since then, Geoghegan said the fan growth has been consistent. Currently, the Allies site has more than 13,500 fans. The challenge now is to continue to provide meaningful and relevant content, to keep fans coming back. For instance, the World Health Organization has created a computer program that acts as a self-assessment screener for ADHD. Users can download the program from the ADHD Facebook pages, and it's been a hit, with more than 2,800 downloads to date from the ADHD Allies site and more than 130 from the ADHD Moms site.

Adults with ADHD aren’t just downloading the screener; they’re interacting with one another on the page’s wall. The first question ADHD Allies asked its Facebook fans was how they felt when they were diagnosed with ADHD as adults. The responses received demonstrated the group’s diversity. “It’s almost as if I’m hearing the voice of this community. There’s such a range of comments,” says Geoghegan. “This is really about providing a platform for the ADHD community. It’s about their voices, and it’s about helping share those voices.”

Tether Online With Offline
These voices don’t have to be exclusively online. Another effective technique Wetzel has seen recently is the “bricks and clicks” approach. For instance, J&J recently purchased an online community called “Children with Diabetes,” founded in 1995 by a man whose daughter was diagnosed with the condition at age two, because it is “the foremost authority on juvenile or type 1 diabetes online,” said Melissa Katz, global director of corporate communications at J&J. Children with Diabetes offers real-life weekends where families can come together offline in places like Disney World, to allow their children to meet others who face similar challenges. Nothing changed for the users after the purchase, Katz said, and the site includes what she called a letter of commitment to that effect.

“This is your community,” she said, summarizing the letter. “You own it. It should remain the same to you.” To that effect, the site has kept the content and approach that it had before the purchase. Comments aren’t pre-screened, though Katz did say the posted content is monitored. Like other online communities, the users at Children with Diabetes self-police to correct any erroneous information posted to their site. Furthermore, the founder of the website is still president of the organization.

Such Internet solutions are the most effective when they let people do something they want to do better, faster, and easier – or something they previously couldn’t do at all, Wetzel said. For instance, there was recently a march on Capitol Hill in DC in support of increased funding for inflammatory bowel diseases. The problem is that many people with such conditions can’t really leave their homes. So Lialda, an ulcerative colitis therapy from Shire, had a virtual march that brought people together in the virtual space, Wetzel said.

The decision to make a more uplifting site for the community reflects one of Wetzel’s basic ideas about online marketing: Strategies and content should focus on the reasons people go online in the first place. “They want to be entertained,” she says. “They want support from other people.”

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