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Sweet nothings

Don't be seduced by a social media mismatch

A young man an woman facing each other, their faces obscured by a heart-shaped balloonIn the summer of 2008, Facebook became more interesting than sex. Let me explain why. Since 2006, Google's Trends service ( has provided a simple but effective way to take the pulse of the web. Entering two or more keywords into the service returns a graph showing the popularity of those search terms over time. If you're in any doubt as to the phenomenal rise in discussion of social media over the last few years, just go to Google Trends and enter the terms 'sex' and 'Facebook'.

The graph you'll see highlights how interest in sex – once the web's favourite word – is first matched, and then dramatically eclipsed in the summer of 2008 by interest in the five-year-old social network which now stands as the world's fourth most popular website after Google, Microsoft and Yahoo.

The inflection point on this Google Trends chart marks the decision by the social networking giant to roll out local language variants of its service. As a result, Facebook now boasts more than 300 million active users worldwide.

In line with this, and alongside the equally dramatic rise in the usage of other social media services, such as Wikipedia and Twitter, internet intelligence data provider Nielsen notes that checking social media updates is now a more popular activity worldwide than reading or writing email.

In fact, around 60 per cent of Europe's online population is regularly engaged in some kind of social media activity and – as a result – these users have a growing expectation for the companies, products and brands in their lives to have their own presence within this environment.

You've almost certainly heard this all before. The increasingly hysterical mantra that the rise of social media has permanently changed the rules of business is constantly repeated in the mainstream media – never mind the marketing press. Your prerogative is to adapt or die.

You'll also have heard a number of compelling statistics around social media and the pharma and healthcare industries. These include the fact that Wikipedia is among the most frequently consulted resources in Europe, by both consumers and healthcare professionals, for information relating to health; that a growing majority of patients are placing their trust in the forum, blog and social network comments of 'people like them'; and that the relevance of pharma company information online is being eroded by an increasing wealth of user-generated content. So it's unsurprising then, given the sense of change in the air, that there's been growing interest and experimentation with social media by the pharma sector in Europe over the past 12 months.

Among other initiatives, a number of companies including Roche and Boehringer have adopted Twitter feeds; both GSK and Roche (again) have excellent blogs in the French market, both focused on consumer issues rather than just on corporate communications; and corporate video is beginning to find its way onto both YouTube and dedicated company online TV sites.

Meanwhile, discussion around these initiatives and the opportunities they may or may not herald is high on the agenda not just on the main sector conferences circuit, but within pharma companies themselves. Increasingly, external 'experts' and commercial partners are being called upon to give greater understanding of the social media space to both marketing and medical teams, and the subsequent volume of debate online (just search pharma + social media) is now simply staggering. 

To anyone who's worked in digital communications outside the pharma sector in the last decade, what we're seeing here looks terribly familiar. Between 2005–2007, many mainstream marketers (on both agency and client sides) indulged a tunnel vision view of a Web 2.0 future, full of corporate blogs and branded social networks. Now, following behind the less-regulated mainstream, it's pharma's turn to speculate frantically.

In this case, as with the earlier wave of Web 2.0 marketing evangelism, this speculation often resembles the conversation of teenage boys; fidgeting nervously on the brink of perceived maturity and obsessing about the sexual experiences they wish they were having.

"Competitor X is getting some!" they point out in their blog posts and Tweets. "I would too, if only my parents would let me out of my room sometime."

Indeed, reading the blogosphere and listening to many proclaimed 'social media marketing experts' in the pharma space, the key message seems to be: "I've read so much about doing it, and seen so many videos about doing it online, that I just know that I'd be really good at it if I just got the chance." These virginal evangelists need to take a step back.

One of the hardest questions you can ever ask a 'social media marketing expert' is if they can give you some good examples of companies that adopted Web 2.0 approaches early and have since demonstrably improved their performance, competitive advantage and shareholder value as a direct result. It's easy to give examples of techniques in practice, but far harder to point to real value outside of successful marketing campaigns and column inches gained through ephemeral PR. On the other hand, it's very easy to point to 2008 survey data showing that only 15 per cent of Fortune 500 companies regularly maintain a blog and to the failure of many more high-profile initiatives.

In the US, a bespoke social network launched by BusinessWeek in 2008 was revealed in early September to have cost $16m, only to return $600,000 in revenue. The figures are only now becoming public as the ailing publication goes to market to court bidders.

In the UK, other social networks from brands such as HMV and Dr Martens have likewise failed as their owners slowly come to realise that – while the web's dominant paradigm may now be one of conversation – it's not a conversation that can be easily owned or manipulated in order to gain appreciable advantage.

This isn't to say, however, that pharma companies should ignore the potential of social media. Simply that they should take advantage of being late to the party to learn three simple lessons from those other less-regulated sectors that have gone before them.

1) In conversation, listening well is as important as talking well
A number of technical platforms is available which makes it easy to monitor online conversation for mentions of your products and the experiences people have with them. Not only can this act as a 'canary in a coal mine' to manage unforeseen PR incidents before they hit the mainstream media, it can also provide valuable inputs into areas such as ongoing market research or online content optimisation. If you are not currently engaged in social media monitoring, then you're missing a trick, because your competitors are. Your legal advisers may tell you that it's a minefield of potential adverse events; it is not.

Just ensure before you enter into such a programme that you know what you hope to achieve through it, and how the data you gain will be fed back into your organisation. You don't want to be presenting a detailed but un-actionable analysis of online buzz and sentiment only to prompt the question "So what?".

2) Add value to the pill, not to your marketing budget
Conversations online endure. They don't map to campaigns, and they don't map to quarterly budgets. And just because your marketing agencies may be pushing the potential of the latest tools, trends and technologies at you doesn't mean you should accede. Agencies can have different priorities to their clients, and these include winning of awards for launching first-in-sector work.

The use of social media for engagement shouldn't be seen as a means to add effectiveness to a marketing budget; it should be seen by pharma companies as a means to improve the way that their products are brought to market and subsequently used for treatment. It should be about adding value to the product, not simply increasing the reach of your marketing messages.

It is this type of strategy that can deliver long-term advantage. Consider UCB: the company may not have an enthusiastic Twitter feed or branded YouTube channel, but it does have a relationship with high-end patient community to develop a sponsored epilepsy community. This is a strategy that will facilitate trial recruitment and subsequent management, plus ongoing pharmacovigilance and product development, while also providing value to their customers – a perfect match for pharma.

3) Wait for a relationship that's right for you
Which brings us back to teenagers and sex again… If there's one message that the last three decades of US teen movies should have taught us, it's to stay focused on a strong, true and heartfelt relationship rather than just giving into temptation and peer pressure.

Remember, social media technologies are tools, not strategies. They are tools that depend on a deep understanding of who you're trying to engage with, what you want out of that engagement and how that knowledge can be put to use in order to develop value.

There might not be an appropriate relationship for you out there right now, but if there's anything that the history of the web has shown us, it's that the development of technology to connect people with people, and people to services is rarely predictable and often surprising.

If you know what's going to work for you – and listening is an essential first step here – then keep focused on it and don't feel obliged to compromise along the way. Especially if it's just because you think that everybody else is out there doing it already.

The Author
Duncan Arbour is senior consultant at Blue Latitude, an eBusiness consultancy

3rd November 2009


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