Online Communities: Make ‘Em Out of Legos!

Pharma companies have always felt more than a little bit of tension when it comes to social media. On the one hand, many disease states are absolutely natural communities, and as we have blogged many times, perfect platforms for marketing, promoting adherence, gathering information — all of it. Yet, on the other hand, pharma communities are not like other online communities. There are huge regulatory issues, include adverse event reporting, off-label usage, and so on, that can bring down the regulatory wrath of the FDA on the careless pharma marketer. Managing these connections is tricky.

May we suggest the Lego approach?

Lego marketing
In a really nice research report from April the Forrester Research team explored all this and arrived at some interesting conclusions. The report, written by Josh Bernoff, has a catchy title, too — How to Create A Social Application for Life Sciences Without Getting Fired — and is available in full for a mere $749 from Forrester. You can read more about it here.

The report is fascinating because, from 30,000 feet, it demonstrates a basic point about any kind of system: as anything, from a company to an organism, matures and grows, it inevitably organizes itself. That's happening now with online pharma communities. Things are starting to fall into a kind of order, and rather than creating every community from scratch every time, you are beginning to have to somply snap together Lego blocks.

You can boil the report down into three basic points:

  • Pharma, and disease states, are a natural gathering point for online communities, and tend to cluster into four main groups, depending on the nature of the disease and the demographics of the patient populations.
  • Pharma companies are extraordinarily conservative, even, paranoid about the risks getting involved in a community entails.
  • Finally, and most interestingly, communities are going to crop up whether pharma companies like it or not. It's no longer a question, then, as to whether or not a condition is going to be influenced by communities. They already are. The question, rather, is what marketers are going to do about it. It's no longer a question of acting, but of reacting.

And they can react in one of several ways, including

  • Using a pre-moderated community, where staffers review everything that's posted, follow up on AEs, screen out off-label related comments, and let everything else through.
  • Sponsoring an independent community, which provides branding without responsibility for content, but limits your access to members.
  • Reaching out to physicians via a preexisting community dedicated to them.

The point of the report, at least to us, isn't any particular approach. Instead, it's the presence of evidence for a rapidly-maturing, widely-accepted and widely-used marketing method. If anyone still doubted either the impact or the inevitability of community marketing in pharma, we suggest that they go buy some Legos, sit on the kitchen floor with them, and think. Hard.

Are “shared-platform” services really better?

It's brand planning season again for myself and our team. That means we take stock of the last year, study the heck out of the competition, and think think think.

And one thing I see  is the "shared platform", or an enterprise-wide solution, being touted by some while disdained by others. One such service in particular is email.

Whenever I study a category and the patient communications in it these days I start with getting into their database. So, with ersatz email accounts and personas, we collect creative and glean from that what the strategies were. And we apply email best practices.

I spent some time recently with Alistair Gillet of the Ryan Companies (our parent company) and boy, does he know interactive. He was sharing best practices for email, and two things became clear about to making truly effective patient/caregiver emails: 1) you have to innovate as you measure and 2) you must be flexible.

An enterprise-wide email solution solution by definition is not flexible. Every brand has the same choice of a few templates, colors, call-outs — it really is appalling in this day and age to send such rigid work to such an important audience. The entire ability of a designer to create something striking and effective is pretty completely  negated when they're required to use the one template everyone else has available.

The answer? The client must have as many different agencies doing their email. Internally, it then becomes up to each client/brand to create its own best practices. The client must own their own Best Practices for email. They must share internally. What did you learn about subject lines? Or use or rich media? Or customization (using what data you gathered)?

This is the Age of Customization, the direct fallout of consumerism.  People no longer want you to be as relevant as you can to what they need –they now expect it. Seen an Amazon email lately? How about from Oprah? Or move.org Or JetBlue? They all are about getting me to engage. Clients worry about increasing registrations, increasing open rates, on and on…but that enterprise solution is more about limitations not optimization.

As Iclose, I want to share what Allistair declared to be the Ryan email Best Practices (but I am not sharing the details, one because it is too long; and two, it really is somewhat proprietary information):

nPlan and Strategize
nPatient Registration: what you ask, how you use it
nCreative Design, copy, formatting testing
nImprove conversion
nSegment, Target & Personalize
nPrivacy and Regulatory Compliance
nTest, Measure, Benchmark