FluTube: What Pharma Can Learn from Novartis' YouTube Campaign

February 1, 2008
Pharmaceutical Executive
Volume 0, Issue 0

Novartis and Cadient served up a very successful unbranded campaign on YouTube. Pharma should take note of this Web 2.0 victory.

When Novartis asked Cadient to develop a cutting-edge, unbranded direct-to-consumer campaign for its Fluvirin influenza vaccine, the agency responded with a novel concept: engage the nearly limitless YouTube audience in a Web video competition called FluFlix. The basic idea was to create a video about your experience with or knowledge of the flu and share it with the world via YouTube. Entrants could submit videos in the categories of Kids and the Flu, Sports and the Flu, and Workplace and the Flu. The incentive? A tidy $500 to the first-place winner in each category. With Novartis on board, Cadient developed a groundbreaking campaign that achieved success far beyond the expectations of both the ad agency and the client. The campaign also successfully managed to skirt some of the regulatory headaches that naturally plague any pharma-related interactive Web venture.

Sara Donnelly

In case you've been living in an underground bunker (or have been in bed with the flu) for the past two years, here's the scoop on YouTube: It is far and away the most popular video-sharing site on the Internet. Launched in the cofounder's garage in December 2005, YouTube has quickly become a ubiquitous part of the online experience. In November 2006, Google purchased YouTube, launching the site to even greater fame (and, to an extent, infamy).

Pete Dannenfelser, vice president for strategic innovation at Cadient, supervised the team that rolled out the campaign. He explains that strategic innovation "really is the driving force behind this program. It's applying innovation with a distinct and definitive goal as opposed to innovation for innovation's sake, which is at times one of the biggest challenges."

In that vein, he and his partners cooked up a most unusual and, yes, innovative approach to unbranded marketing. "Specifically working with YouTube was Cadient's idea," Dannenfelser says. "It was important to get out the message about the importance of getting your flu vaccine. So with that in mind, Novartis asked us, 'How can we use the Web to best do that?' Our recommendation was to use an existing community. I think that's an important point when you're doing anything in Web 2.0. To try to create a viral video contest on a pharma-sponsored Web site probably wouldn't have been as successful. The YouTube idea literally came out of viral marketing ideas based on the word 'virus.' It was kind of a made-to-order application. It was really quite perfect. YouTube is very open to working with sponsored content and sponsored promotions. The very nature of YouTube now is that you can't go to the front page without seeing sponsored and promoted sections. There are large numbers of official video areas."

Doing Web 2.0 Well

But Novartis and Cadient didn't simply open the floodgates to allow users to post anything they wanted in the official FluFlix video area, which also included a link to a Novartis-sponsored flu-education Web site, FluSource.com. Mindful of the pitfalls associated with adverse-event reporting in the public Web space, they retained a system administrator to review every video submission.

Dannenfelser recalls, "There were a handful of videos that came through that were either inappropriate or that did not meet the criteria. If things came through that had nothing to do with the flu, it was quite all right for Novartis and our administration to pull the content." He adds, however, that for a targeted community to trust the sponsor, it is essential that the sponsor clearly lay out the ground rules in advance.

Novartis took further steps to ensure the safety of the campaign by requiring all entrants to be 18 years of age or older. In the end, 60 entries were approved for the contest, and a team at Novartis scored each video based on set criteria, including creativity and originality, content, and the persuasiveness of the message.

It is telling that although the contest attracted many amateur filmmakers, the winning videos came from audiovisual professionals. The winning entry in the Sports and the Flu category, "Norton Fears the Flu," was a whimsical yet technologically sophisticated animated takeoff on the beloved Dr. Seuss children's book Horton Hears a Who. At press time, this was the most popular winner, with 5,000 page views (the other winners had received approximately 1,500 page views each). The filmmaker, Utah-based video technician Andreas Peterson, is a father of three who has been making films for 20 years (his young daughter provided a sneezing sound effect for his piece). "Flutiquette: Flu Etiquette in the Workplace and You," a satirical take on 1950s instructional films, took the honors in the Workplace and the Flu category. John Baumgaertner, the Los Angeles–based creator of "Flutiquette," has worked as an actor, producer, and comedy writer. Jay Sinnard, a father of three and video educator at the University of Cincinnati, cast his own (shrieking towheaded) children as the stars of "Story Interrupted," winner of the Kids and the Flu category.

As of press time, approximately 12,000 people had viewed the FluFlix channel on YouTube, while almost 800,000 people had viewed the sample videos produced by Novartis and Cadient and circulated in advance of the contest. Dannenfelser says, "We're still talking about this program, and it started in September. We're still getting people involved in the program and people are still viewing the messages. It really has been a groundbreaking opportunity for Big Pharma to dip its toe into the water with Web 2.0 emerging technologies."

The Winners

Perhaps the strongest argument for engaging with a Web 2.0 audience is that a campaign like this one is a gift that keeps on giving. Though the FluFlix campaign began in mid-September and ended in late October, new viewers continue to seek out (or stumble upon) the contest entrants and the winners on YouTube. Because each winning entry is displayed above a congratulatory comment that includes a link to FluSource.com, the contest continues to drive additional traffic to the Novartis flu-education site. And since Novartis planned to ship 60 million doses of Fluvirin for the 2007/08 flu season, rolling publicity throughout the season is exactly what is needed.

Sara Donnelly is Pharmaceutical Executive's associate editor. She can be reached at sara.donnelly@advanstar.com