Joining the Social Circle

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Consumers are deeply engaged when it comes to their health. And as they search online to educate themselves about disease states, cures, drugs and support, there’s one common truth: They trust discussions with other consumers. This presents a challenge for pharmaceutical companies to gain consumer trust and loyalty, especially in this age of multimedia. However, if companies can actually join in the conversation—known as social media—then they have an opportunity to gain this trust.

What is social media?
Social media is collaborative communication that is fueled by technology. It empowers individuals, groups and institutions to actively participate in creating, finding, using, sharing and expanding content together. Social media enables communities to more easily form and stay connected, which radically increases the speed and force of change.

Social media includes what’s referred to as user-generated content (UGC), which is produced by “ordinary people” as opposed to traditional media producers. Examples of UGC include blogs, podcasts, tagging, ratings, videos and photos. In fact, 75% of all online adult consumers and 92% of online youth use one or more forms of UGC. Self expression isn’t new, but technology has certainly made it easier.

Social media is a revolution, not a fad or an exclusive domain of a site. Because of this, consumers now expect collaboration and participation in virtually every aspect of their lives. As an example, more people voted on the last American Idol finale than have ever voted in a presidential election. How is this possible? Through the ease of sending a text message from any place at any time. Or going to a Web site in the comfort of their own home. You get the point.

In healthcare, adoption has been accelerated as consumers are fed by the inherent trust that social media provides. At this very moment, 13 groups on Yahoo! are dedicated to just speaking on the subject of cholesterol medications with thousands of consumers participating. With this shift, consumers have gone from listening to you, to having conversations with others about you.

While technology has been the enabler, it is ultimately people that are the driving force behind social media. As more people contribute, the content gets richer and the engagement becomes more powerful. For example, think about medications. Drugs could be rated, ranked, discussed and reviewed by millions online. But with this fundamental change comes the challenges of marketing to this online audience.

Recent research by New York-based Hall and Partners Healthcare found that online health consumers are hyper-engaged and leverage almost twice as many information sources to learn about disease states and prescriptions than the average consumer. Additionally, 75% of consumers that participate in UGC often share online health information with others. Even among “typical users,” interaction with the most passive of social media tools, online search—which is largely driven by consumers’ anonymous choice of the most popular results and destinations—shows that health searchers crave information and interaction.

Hyper-engagement
The study showed that online searchers are so engaged that they look for information on more than just one condition and seek to learn about multiple conditions and symptoms. They also spend more time seeking information about symptoms, diagnosis and prescriptions on search engines (68%) and health sites (51%) than from talking with family and friends (18%).

With the interaction of UGC, search and personalization, global health communities are growing into powerful forces. These communities are built around people with a common purpose that want to participate, be heard and discover information that is relevant to their interests. And within these communities, dynamic differences are emerging. For every creator of content—a physician writing a blog, for example—there are roughly 10 synthesizers actively commenting, sharing, rating and reacting. For each group of synthesizers, roughly 100 consumers read, watch, listen and enjoy, while participating only occasionally. All three of these groups have a valid place within the community.

For pharmaceutical marketers, it is crucial to engage the creators and synthesizers, known as consumer opinion leaders (COLs), in the communities important to your customers. Like physician key opinion leaders, they have a voice which is multiplied by their community influence. For example, on Yahoo! Answers, “Nurse Annie” is a 21-year registered nurse who has answered over 3,000 questions correctly from curious consumers. Although she is involved in the medical community, Nurse Annie has now become a COL for many everyday folks that are looking for more information and the human touch that can’t be found from typing keywords into a search box.

Pharmaceutical marketers don’t need to retreat from social media and hide behind a wall of adverse event (AE) forms. Just as we have built communities of physicians who speak openly with each other about our products, we have an opportunity to nurture and learn from consumer communities as well.

First, we must listen with intent. Yes, we may have to use the same cumbersome AE reporting mechanisms, but the benefits of understanding the meaning of your brand to communities will outweigh the hassle. Analyzing what you hear can reveal a gap in consumer awareness. What’s more, a number of tools have emerged to help consolidate the vast array of social media input, from free online evaluators like Intelliseek, to sophisticated and customized tracking services like Cymfony.

Once marketers have a grasp on the language, attitudes, brand perceptions and COLs in a consumer community, participation can range from targeted media placement to integration and empowerment.

GlaxoSmithKline is a good example of a company that has embraced the social media. The company has empowered the weight-loss community in advance of the launch of its obesity medication, Alli. The unbranded (but visibly sponsored) QuestionEverything.com provides interactive education and unfettered discussions on real diet topics. GSK provides expert moderators, but notes that they “are independent advisers and their opinions are their own. For any advice please consult your physician and or pharmacist or other healthcare professionals.”

Jack Barrette, formerly pharma category development officer for Yahoo!, is now CEO of MovingHealth, an online health start-up. Bonnie Becker is director, health category, Yahoo! Search Marketing

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