Accessibility of online product and disease-state information has paved the way for a new era of patient interaction—and a new era in branding and communications.  
Well-known brands once offered a beacon of light in a complex problem/solution world. Brands such as Claritin or Allegra, Zocor or Lipitor, Viagra or Levitra, helped patients open the “what ails them” discussion with their doctors and clarify drug choice. Now, tiered co-pays, generic selection, pharmacy incentives and Part D plans are diminishing the importance of “brand” in the heads, hearts and wallets of the consumer. And pharma marketers are experimenting with a less brand-specific approach to online patient communication. Suddenly, non-branded “disease-awareness” is back in marketing mode. Do consumers notice or care any longer? 
The model may seem counterintuitive for an industry so steeped in brand names, but brand managers who want to be more than mere spectators in driving online patient dialogue are going behind the brand. Their tack involves communications geared toward treatment discovery for small patient groups, commitment to achieving greater compliance and conveying pharma’s societal benefits.
The patient is in
DTC and Internet access have given permission for patients to connect 24/7. While content is still king, patient-to-patient communications are enjoying newfound credibility. Online disease communities enable patients to consult fellow patients as one might consult a clinician. In the wake of diabetes and heart treatments under siege, who is more believable—physicians or peers? 
Nonprofits can be a first line of outreach for pharma to connect with a smaller patient base. Patient support and advocacy groups are a trusted source of information on disease states. Focusing on building relationships with these groups can give companies a seat at the table. It works both ways—pharma companies should allow these patients to have a voice within the corporation on decisions that impact patient care. Recently, breast cancer groups have lauded Genentech for engaging in a dialogue.
Online adherents, of course, also include scores of people with mainstream conditions, searching for information about diseases that had once been a mystery. But there’s potential and peril. “The danger is that if you search hard enough, you can find anything you want,” says Mike McDougall, director of corporate communications, Bausch & Lomb.  That’s why specific forums moderated by a respected third party have an advantage over generic chat rooms with unverified information. “In the moderated rooms, that information becomes more authoritative. That’s the way organizations with a potential to brand can become beacons of trust in this realm.”
Reality show
Just as pharma followed other industries into customer-relationship management (CRM), industry is following other sectors into Web 2.0 and using the web to reinforce compliance messaging. 
Moderators on GlaxoSmithKline’s Alli Circles Community counsel that Alli is a program and requires patients to rethink eating habits, choose food with lower fat content, eat three meals a day, do physician activity and not to take anti-diarrhea meds—steps designed to manage side effects. GSK leverages the engagement to affect confidence and minimize the number of patients stopping treatment. 
As the host of Alli Circles, GSK must report adverse events to the FDA. Once, sponsoring a site run by a third party might have mitigated some of the “credibility” hurdles. Today, that’s not always the case…being the hidden Wizard of Oz can diminish a site’s credibility and bring congressional inquiry. That’s one of the reasons pharma leaders are prepared to go it alone. 
Johnson & Johnson’s (J&J) YouTube channel, where users can download health information videos featuring Nancy Snyderman, MD, is an example. Comments are welcome, subject to approval. Through the videos, J&J communicates about topics people care about, and becomes a partner in promoting good health. 
In a similar vein, Quest Diagnostics has used Web 2.0 in its aim to up compliance with annual colorectal cancer screening. Its disease intervention awareness and prevention campaign tugs at the heartstrings of people by asking them to e-mail a cancer screening awareness video to their friends and loved ones. The video garnered nearly 200,000 views, targeting a variety of demographic segments. 
One new venue for distributing content—the video interview portal—uses its idea showcase as a way to engage with potential customers in a non-brand-specific way. BigThink is an online idea lab that streams a daily stew of philosophers and PhDs, professors and poets. Now add pharma to the mix.
Earlier this year, BigThink landed its first pharma sponsor: Pfizer, for a 10-part series featuring company scientists sharing their personal histories and reflecting on challenges. Just a few clicks cue up a Pfizer pharmacologist’s view of developing drugs for the global community and a scientist’s advice for the next generation of researchers. 
Like its consumer-generated counterparts, BigThink has learned the importance of holding a transparent forum. Sponsors may worry that their social-media effort may be commandeered by naysayers, yet feedback is a vital part of the Internet. This is a good first rule for the industry in general: If you go forward with candor and honesty, making clear your support and why you’re doing it, you don’t have to worry as much about negative comments.
Pharma should also choose a moderator carefully: Pick someone who will understand an issue and speak to it authoritatively and outside the sponsors’ interests. Also, rethink the metrics beyond unique clicks and time spent within an area. Sometimes bringing together the right people, who in turn host their own sites and blogs, creates the tipping point of patient knowledge and understanding.
Pharma can establish a bigger footprint in this evolving terrain. That could mean the kind of engagement longed for by industry—a truly collaborative connection with patient advocates and info seekers. If pharma can fashion itself as a partner in health, providing all supplementary information to guide fair-balance choices and the path to living well, it’s going to loom large in the minds of consumers.
Gil Bashe is EVP, director of the health practice, Makovsky + Co.1