Multiple Support: MS Companies Provide the “And so on”

As we never cease to study Relationship Marketing and how it is applied inside and outside of pharma, it becomes very clear very fast that one particular disease state perhaps sets the highest bar for patient service: Multiple Sclerosis. It affects fewer than 1 million people in the U.S. It is not cancer or diabetes, with large swaths of sufferers, but the lessons it holds  for marketers are very relevant to the future of pharma patient marketing.

Check out a few of the MS patient support sites:,, and while you're at it, Google for Avonex, Tysabri's TOUCH program, on and on. Each treatment tries to outdo the others in comprehensiveness, design, and so on. What's most striking about these programs is their emphasis on fostering a sense of community among MS patients. For instance, the site includes video interviews with other MS patients, Journals, personal stories, everything. On, the site provides the ability to find a peer — literally, to identify and connect online with a real person who suffers from MS and has a similar background/situation to yours. The amount of emotional coverage these sites provide is incredible.

Pharma clients should stop obsessing with Web 2.0, and instead analyze these support programs — this is Patient Support 2.0.

All of these programs "get it": that when your treatments start to become less differentiated, you need to use RM/patient support programs as the differentiator. This is something marketers in other fields have known for decades. BMW provides customers with roadside assistance, free maintenance, and so on. iTunes makes recommendations for customers. Even a discount travel site like HotWire will send members news about special deals.

There are two reasons for this. The first is, again, lack of differentiation. RM has the most impact when one is talking about chronic conditions — MS, lupus, diabetes and so on. In each of these situations, no treatment is going to make a dramatic, short-term difference. Instead, they're intended to moderate the effect of a disease over a lifetime. Because there isn't any quick, significant benefit, patients often lost motivation, and adherence drops. It's difficult enough to get patients to stay on their regimen. It's even more difficult to both do that, and get them to differentiate between your drug and someone else's when neither one of them seems to be making much difference. In such a situation, the benefits have to be manufactured with programs.

The second reason is more mercenary:  treatments are lifelong and can range between 12K to 20K a year. If an MS patient is diagnoses when she's 40, the pharma companies are looking at,using an average, $450,000 in revenues. Assuming a 20% profit margin, that works out to $90,000 in profits. Or, to look at it another way, that's around $250 in profits for every month a patient remains on the medication. That is worth a very hefty investment in relationship marketing programs.

The point of all this is that in the space where we play — pharma RM — a good relationship marketing program isn't simply window dressing. It can support and prolong adherence, it can vastly enhance a company's brand, and it can actually, as with these RM products, create value.

Oprah Winfrey: Relationship Marketer

If you're Oprah Winfrey, you're worth $2.5 billion, your brand is recognized around the world, your television show is seen by over 40 million people every week, and you also publish magazines, own half of a cable channel, and so on. What do you do next?

You work on developing a relationship with your viewers. Heard that one before?

Oprah Winfrey began as one of several daytime talk-show hosts who specialized in "What I Found in My Husbands Sock Drawer Made Our Marriage A Living Hell" kind of stuff. Over the years, as her company has grown, she's branched way, way beyond that. Her tagline now is "Live Your Best Life" and her website's content includes sections on "Spirit and Self", "Mind and Body", "Food and Home" and "Beauty and Style".

 Obviously, as side projects like Oprah's Book Club, which makes any author lucky enough to be selected an instant best-seller, and her Soul Series of webcasts, demonstrate, Oprah doesn't just want you to watch her on television. She wants to be part of your life.

And now, she's seemingly taken another step towards the center. She has partnered with author Eckhart Tolle to teach a ten-week online course based on Tolle's book "A New Earth". As an exercise in relationship marketing, this is absolutely fascinating.

Tolle is a German author and teacher. His website describes his teachings as follows: At
the core of the teachings lies the transformation of consciousness, a
spiritual awakening that he sees as the next step in human evolution. 
An essential aspect of this awakening consists in transcending our
ego-based state of consciousness. This is a prerequisite not only for
personal happiness but also for the ending of violent conflict endemic
on our planet.

Clearly, this is not someone who simply wants to attract attention and boost ratings.

By partnering with Tolle, and helping him teach, as a marketer Oprah is doing two really interesting things. First, she's taking on and becoming involved in the most essential, basic issues and questions in her viewer's lives. As pharma marketers, we are concerned with people's health. Oprah is concerned with their spiritual development — literally, with the state of their souls. It doesn't get much more basic than that. Incidentally, there are already blog posts and videos on YouTube claiming that Oprah is the AntiChrist because of this.

Second, by using technology, particularly the Internet and Skype (viewers can, apparently, interact with Oprah and Tolle, ask questions, and so on) she is creating a highly-leveraged platform for a relationship with her viewers. There is genuine dialogue, including an online workbook for taking notes, a syllabus, and so on.

This is relationship marketing at its absolute best. It will be interesting to watch.

The ROI of Trust

We have blogged in the past about the Ryan TrueHealth Patient Power Study. To recap, the PPS was a very large study of which influences and sources had the most impact on how people made healthcare decisions. Or, to put it a little differently, when patients are deciding what to do about their health, who do they listen to? Not surprisingly, experts were at the top of the list. But a little more surprisingly, also ranked very high were family and friends. When looking for good advice, sheer trust counts for at least as much as knowing what you’re talking about. If you want a copy, email me.

A couple of recent interesting blog posts shed some additional light on this topic. The first is by Fard Johnmar in his Envisioning 2.0 blog. Fard discusses the vaccine debate. A growing number of parents are insisting that various vaccines cause various awful side effects, such as autism, despite the complete lack of scientific evidence. As a result, there has been an explosion in the number of children who have come down with measles, in large part because their parents refused to vaccinate them, according to the CDC.

As Fard goes on to discuss, this kind of thing is the down side of the trust people tend to place in peers when thinking about healthcare. No matter how well-intentioned, intelligent or anything else someone may be, the bottom line is that when it comes to medical matters, they may also have no idea what they’re talking about.

A lot of our RM work is focused on peers and influenceers. In addition to being just plain smart marketing, this approach can also be perceived as a kind of antidote. By making sure peers have accurate information, our clients can presumably forestall the possibility of people spreading nonsense about their products.

Interestingly, the impact of peers in pharmaceutical marketing is the rule rather than the exception. In another post, this one in Jeremiah Owyang’s Web Strategy blog, Owyang, a Forrester Research Social Media analyst, did some extensive digging into who consumers trust for information about products or services. Surprise! "So who do people trust?  Three research studies indicate it’s peers, or people they know." Pharma patients, particularly given the impact of DTC, behave much more like any other kind of consumer than marketers had previously guessed. They take their cues from their immediate social environment. Unfortunately, as Johnmar demonstrates, without a reasonable, expert voice injected into the discussion, there can be serious consequences.