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John Bell
Managing/Executive Creative Director, 360° Digital Influence
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by John Bell

October 22, 2008

Listening (and Engaging) in the Age of Personal Media

With more than 52 million blogs, over 800,000 posts daily, and trust in peer recommendations higher than most other channels, the value of putting the corporate ear to the ground grows every day. Patients blog about battling their disease. Doctors document the trials and tribulations of the ER. Patient advocacy groups create wikis as condition-specific knowledge bases. If there was ever a great time for pharmaceutical and healthcare companies to learn more about consumers and stakeholders, it is the new age of personal media. And once you have listened, there are exciting new ways to talk directly with consumers. And why would you do that? To build trust. To make better treatments. Plain and simple. But I am getting ahead of myself, nothing around DTC communications is simple, is it.

The best way to get smart about engaging with personal media is to start reading blogs, listening to podcasts, watching video podcasts, and searching wikis.


Can pharmaceutical companies listen to what is being said about their products and the conditions they are designed to treat? Chances are that if you work for a pharmaceutical company you have a knee-jerk reaction that goes something like this: "If we monitor blogs and detect something related to the efficacy or safety of our product, we are required to report this observation." And what if you have your communications agency listen in and report back to you? "No difference," you might say. "They are acting as my agent."

Okay now ask five of your peers, including those helpful folks in legal. Soon you'll find a difference of opinion. Some folks will say that you can monitor and report just as you do with traditional media, some suggest you can report on the general polarity of discussions (positive vs. negative) or report findings in the aggregate. Some will say don't listen at all.

Pharmaceutical companies have to be careful to not shoot themselves in the foot in a simple attempt to understand the patients and doctors they serve. But you should be able to listen. So, can you monitor blogs (or message boards, or listen to podcasts) without the onus of reporting what you learn? The simple answer is not in the same way another brand or company might.

A package goods company or an electronics brand wants to know as much as possible about what customers are saying about their product, their competitors and related issues, as do you. The closer they can come to quantitative data with a nice sampling of verbatims, the better. Services like Cymfony and Umbria offer complete dashboard views of large collections (millions) of blogs and other personal media. You can report "share of voice," most recent mentions, and, in Umbria's case, core demographic information about bloggers mentioning your product. That comprehensive approach is a problem for the pharmaceutical company. What if patients or doctors are sharing a common problem with a drug that only comes to light through this type of blog monitoring? Who wants to be the pharmaceutical executive to detect a potential problem with their product?

On the other hand, giving up the opportunity to learn directly from customers seems like a huge missed opportunity. Don't we want to understand patients better? Don't we want to build trust through dialogue? Pharmaceutical companies must be able to listen to these voices online. That's how they can gain insights and create better treatments.

Here are two types of monitoring the FDA should allow without any reporting requirement.

  • Sample monitoring to capture anecdotal, qualitative discussions about the issues patients and doctors are sharing in blogs and other personal media. With no attempt to be comprehensive, this "spot listening" can tune companies into what some consumers are saying. There could be a limit to the number of discussion sources that we listen to in any given week. This would allow pharmas to identify key influencers (i.e., well-linked blogs) as well as a sample of everyday bloggers to have a clearer sense of their interests. Since this approach offers a narrow view, it could not be assumed that any problem reflected in a single blog is endemic of larger product problems. (On the other hand, the most altruistic pharmaceutical executive might welcome this approach as an early warning system of potential patient or physician problems).
  • Complete monitoring - share of voice, top sites, top mentions, comparison of discussion - all on conditions or issues without any mention of the company's product. This will offer potential insights into how people are coping with a condition without the compromising data associated with a specific product. Most tools can be programmed to deliver this view.

What about general polarity - positive and negative mentions on a product without any detail? While this is absolutely possible, it is just as absolutely meaningless without the ability to drill down and find out what negative (or positive) things people are saying. Imagine getting a report with a spike in negative mentions for your drug and not being able to click through to understand the nature of the discussion.

The FDA is, most likely, waiting for a situation to respond to rather than proactively developing a policy about personal media monitoring and reporting. It will take some courageous leadership on the part of pharma to start some listening practices, just as it did with all other DTC communications. The risks may be worth it. Understanding patients more deeply will continue to be a competitive advantage for companies. And while a pharmaceutical company may not want to be the one to detect potential problems with their product via monitoring you can bet that patient advocacy groups, traditional media, or worse, trial lawyers, will do their own personal media monitoring.

For now, the model described above would give pharmaceutical marketers a valuable listening post into the great dialogue on the Web.

Engaging Dialogue is both listening and engaging. Once we have a way to listen then the fun starts. How can healthcare companies get involved with patients and professionals in a meaningful way in the new digital influence space? Is it starting a blog? Reaching out to patient bloggers for their opinions? Producing podcasts? Creating a relevant viral campaign that generates awareness about something new?

Personal media, the increasing power of search and microcasting (e.g., podcasting) are each contributing to a huge shift in how consumers get healthcare information and build relationships with brands.

Personal media (i.e., user generated media, consumer generated media) is all around us now. It's those blogs, the wikis, the message boards, the photoblogs at Flickr, even the garage-style videos on YouTube. Tools have simplified enough that we are all content creators now - instantly. It's a crazy soup of different points of view many with their own little audiences. And the size of a blog's (or a podcast's) audience can be deceiving. Size may not matter. The strength of the bond based upon trust and relevance is what matters. Podcasts are a simpler animal. They are canned content. A pharmaceutical marketer can create a program and send it through the legal department gauntlet and still end up with a program that can be distributed. Blogs require a back-and-forth dialogue to work.

Pharmaceutical and healthcare companies can engage with blogs on two fundamental levels: establish a blog and/or reach out to existing influential bloggers.

Here are three observations to keep in mind as you explore:

It's called personal media for a reason. It's about making a personal connection and speaking in a personal voice. If you are not willing to do that, then you may need to choose another strategy. Shahid Shah, a healthcare IT expert, who runs a couple of great blogs, makes a good case for pharmaceutical corporate blogging. Shahid states that if ever there was an industry that could use the goodwill derived from direct customer contact, it's the pharmaceutical industry. And while the industry is heavily regulated, the FDA has no specific regulations about corporate blogs, per se. Even though pharmas could benefit from what blogs are doing now for Microsoft, GM and other companies, it will take a bold pharma to seize this opportunity in a big way. The transparency required for a successful blog flies in the face of years of communication practices of carefully crafted messages cleared through multiple rounds of legal, regulatory and medical review. You cannot do that with a blog. It will take some strong leadership from within to change that approach.

Lots of companies do it differently. Sun, the software maker, has thousands of employee bloggers. Some are sanctioned, some just allowed. They have a blogging policy (every company should have a blogging policy even if your policy is to not allow employee blogs). They do this to establish a strong relationship with the developer community and final customers. John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, and Bob Lutz, Vice Chairman of GM, do it to make a connection between the public and company leadership. In each case, companies are using these mediums to build trust through a deeper level of engagement (time spent, interactions, dialogue, etc.). It is not like traditional marketing which includes as many "impressions" as possible and a good reach and frequency numbers.

Observation number two: personal media cedes control to the user. Customers become co-brand managers in the most extreme cases. In most cases it simply means allowing for a dialogue (i.e., positive and negative comments). The most popular Avon blog (not sanctioned by Avon) is Beauty Dish run by an Avon Lady who offers honest product reviews. She says "this product works," and "this product - not so much." It is the best thing that could have happened for Avon. Now they have a credible brand enthusiast engaging other women online about products and the Avon brand promise. If you can't give up this control and invite the user in, then a different strategy is in order.

Observation number three: you can use blogger relations to help manage a crisis, just be careful. Whether a blogger is a mom, a "citizen journalist" or a professional journalist you cannot expect to enlist them as allies without understanding what motivates them and what their aptitudes are for journalism. Walmart (or their agency) got a bit of heat for using ally development techniques generally found in gloves-off political campaigns (which is pretty much any political campaign these days). It's a good idea to know who your most influential bloggers are such that you can keep in touch with them. There are ways to keep the dialogue open, build some goodwill while maintaining openness for all to see.

Blogs are just one part of the change. Search - Google, Technorati, Yahoo - is dramatically changing the way people find information. Microcasting - podcasting, video podcasting, mobile video and broadband channels - put consumers in the content creation-seat and give all content creators new ways to deliver programming to consumers who expect anywhere, anytime access. But these are topics for another day.

Just the emergence of personal media alone signals new opportunities for healthcare companies. And new risks. Now is the time to create a digital influence strategy for your company that assesses these opportunities and equips those within the industry who are ready to take a leadership role. It is time for a bold company to take the lead.

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