Practicing Safe Social Marketing: Six Steps To Online Engagement

March 3, 2009

Successful Product Manager's Handbook

Pharma deems social media as too vulnerable to regulations to be an effective marketing tool, but that doesn't mean they can't engage in ways more suitable

Last year the buzz in the industry was about social media and its potential for online marketing. Pharma ended up spending nearly $1.2 billion to market online, a figure that is expected to reach $2.2 billion by 2011, according to digital tracking firm eMarketer.

Yet confusion remains as to how to integrate new forms of communication, particularly digital and mobile, into a brand-marketing plan. So If 2008 was about creating awareness that social media exists, then 2009 should be about exploring how to meaningfully engage. And engage in a way that makes the team feel comfortable given the industry's regulatory constraints.

To get you started, here are six safe steps that can be easily integrated into a marketing plan:

Track your brand

At a minimum, marketers should monitor how their brands live online. With nearly universal adoption of the Internet among physicians and 72 million US adults visiting a health site in 2008, according to comScore, there is an enormous amount of unfiltered discussion and information flow taking place among patients, caregivers, and physicians online. Dialogue is happening all over the Internet—on wikis, health-related social networks, general social networks like Facebook, blogs, videos, message boards, and drug rating sites. Brand managers need to have a solid grasp of the social media landscape where their product or therapeutic category is being discussed. If they don't, they are missing out on a golden opportunity to listen in and learn from their customers. Marketers can monitor general perceptions, provide a quick read on an unfolding situation, uncover issues that had not been considered, or even confirm primary market research.

Since no one has time to pore over all of the sites, and some companies prohibit such visits, select an outside service that will aggregate the information in which you are most interested. Many research companies now offer robust sentiment tracking or blogmining services. Work with your branding or advertising agency to help select the one that best meets your goals.

Know a patient opinion leader

Patients today tend to be involved, well educated, and unafraid to question the advice of their physicians. In its 2008 report, How America Searches: Health & Wellness, iCrossing found that 59 percent of patients turn to the Web as their first source of health information. Physicians rank second at 55 percent, and traditional media like television and print trail in the distance, attracting only 20 percent. Patients forge relationships with one another online and discuss medications, therapies, symptoms, and more. This has led to the rise of a new type of expert: the patient opinion leader (POL)—non-medical professionals who inspire trust and act as guides for other patients. POLs write blogs, voice their opinions in patient communities, post videos on YouTube, and create Facebook pages devoted to their cause.

Kerri Morrone Sparling, a POL, is a blogger at Six Until Me, a popular diabetes blog that attracts 50,000 visitors per month. Readers ask Sparling for advice and opinions, and while she is careful to point out that she is not a medical professional, she's known for her candor and her accumulated wisdom as someone who has lived with the disease for 22 years. Sparling believes her audience would welcome a dialogue with a pharmaceutical company.

"Earning the trust of your user base is crucial to the growth of the industry," says Sparling. "If Big Pharma wants to really touch the lives of patients, they need to show us that they care, that my health, and the health of my fellow diabetics, is something their company holds in the highest regard,"

Lisa Emrich, a patient blogger who lives with multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis, writes Brass and Ivory, a blog that discusses health policy and Big Pharma as it relates to MS.

"I've received emails from the communications department of isolated pharma companies who are developing MS treatments," says Emrich's. "But the purpose is often just to distribute a press release and not actually to develop a mutual relationship." Emrich's message to the industry—"Talk with us, not at us. Engage with participants. Patients will not bite."

All pharmaceutical companies have advisory boards of physician opinion leaders; perhaps now is the time to create ones with patients, too.

Support a social network

Patient-led discussions about diseases have moved from Yahoo Groups and listservs, to full-blown social networks. Patient-focused networks exist in a number of places: large general social networks like Facebook, Ning, and MySpace; general health sites like HealthCentral, WebMD, and RevolutionHealth; and specialty platforms like CureTogether, PatientsLikeMe, and Inspire.

Alexandra Carmichael, president and cofounder of CureTogether, a site that enables people to anonymously compare symptoms, treatments, and health data, believes there are many opportunities for collaboration where all parties benefit. "Pharma companies can send us inclusion criteria for clinical trials they need filled. They can also send us surveys about adverse side effects, drug efficacy, and company perception for specific populations of patients."

An example of a company that has partnered with a thriving patient network is LifeScan, a Johnson & Johnson company, and manufacturer of the OneTouch Glucose Meter.

LifeScan learned about TuDiabetes, a social network for those living with diabetes founded by Manny Hernandez in 2007, at an American Diabetes Association-sponsored expo. A partnership developed that resulted in an entire section of the OneTouch site being dedicated to sharing—the root of all social networking—which features information about TuDiabetes and its programs. According to Hernandez, the relationship with LifeScan has been warmly received by the TuDiabetes community and has helped the group grow.

Hang with physicians

Manhattan Research found that 99 percent of doctors are online daily, 85 percent maintain broadband in their offices, and 83 percent consider the Internet essential to their practice. Physicians go online during the day, between patient visits or during patient consults, to search for information. They also peruse blogs, share information in MD-only social networks, and read the online versions of preferred journals. These destinations are prime locations for savvy marketers to disseminate compelling content that goes beyond ad banners.

In the medical blogosphere, Val Jones, MD, of Getting Better with Dr. Val, recently teamed up with other popular physicians and nurse bloggers to create Better Blogcast. The site offers the industry a novel way to access the blogging community in a transparent way. Using an unrestricted grant model, Better Blogcast invites top bloggers to write about specific topics. The posts are shared across all participating sites through a news widget.

Communities where physicians congregate are also a good venue for encouraging discussion and debate. In addition to Sermo and Medscape's Physician Connect, there are specialty-specific communities that may be more appropriate for certain brands. Examples include: EyeSpaceMD for opthalmologists; SpineConnect for spine surgeons; and MedTrust Online for oncologists.

Use Video

A few pharma companies have created branded YouTube and Facebook pages. While it's an encouraging first step, the content posted is not as enticing as it could be. To effectively drive viewership of health video, marketers need to think about the intended audience, medium, and distribution. A common mistake is to upload material developed for TV or DVD to the Web.

"The path to success starts with differentiated and engaging content," says Josh Silberstein, CEO of Health Guru, the largest provider of health video on the web. "Repurposed TV content is the proverbial square peg in a round hole when it comes to online video. Patients are usually looking for more detailed and comprehensive information."

Distribution and uptake is another important issue, so it is best to work with a company that knows content and search optimization to ensure buzz and page views. When done correctly, the rewards can be dramatic: Health Guru's library of over 1,000 videos generated 150 million page views in 2008!

Go mobile

Well over half of all physicians own an iPhone, Blackberry, or other brand of PDA or smartphone, according to Manhattan Research, and the majority believe it is a tool they can't live without. Apple's App Store offers more than 150 medical tools for physicians. The most popular downloads provide comprehensive drug information, medical calculators, terminology, or protocols/interpretations (eye exam, ECG interpretation). Marketing dollars could easily be spent creating an app that physicians would find useful and relevant. It is a good way to engage in dialogue with customers since many physicians willingly post feedback.

In the end it's not so much a matter of how you engage, as long as you engage. But if you wait too long, you may well be left without a partner.

Bunny Ellerin is Managing Director at InterbrandHealth. She can be reached at

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