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Treading a fine line

Maintaining balance is crucial in social media but consumer examples can point the way

Tightrope walkerSome time before his departure was announced, it seemed clear that BP boss Tony Hayward was a gonner. We all felt it; everyone could sense it — and playing its role beautifully, as the referee between consumers and corporations, was social media.

Detractors no longer need camp outside corporate HQs with loud hailers and military jackets to spread their message. Chatter, Twitter and any other online natter can and will facilitate the rapid downgrading of a corporation in the public esteem as ruthlessly as Piers Morgan cutting down a talentless TV hopeful. But then social media can also protect your reputation and brand assets, like a psychotic guard-dog that might turn at any moment. So what's the deal?

The prospect of engaging potential customers in a rich, interactive conversation has enraptured marketers across many industries. Is pharma unique in its concerns and hesitation to engage? Drawing on my years spent in digital marketing at Sky and the online gambling industry before returning to healthcare, I can tell you that the remit and the risks of social media are essentially (but not exactly)­ the same between sectors: to some extent pharma is unusual in that we have a strict regulatory framework (ABPI) covering our marketing activities, but industries like financial services would claim to operate in a similar environment.

Our particular opportunity is that healthcare and related conversations are among the most popular found on the internet and across social media. This prompts a question about how the pharmaceutical industry can position itself appropriately in this dialogue.

I've picked what I believe to be some of the best and worst cases from significant brands in the consumer world so that we in pharma can learn from their experiences.

The Pepsi Company
This year, the Pepsi Company made a strategic decision to deploy a social media activism campaign as its main marketing push. Instead of the company's usual mainstream television advertising, a corporate social responsibility endeavour was wrapped around new advertising and launched at the annual Super Bowl sporting event in America.

The idea — which became the Pepsi Refresh Project — was that the company would fund the most 'refreshing' social/community projects, as nominated and voted for by consumers online.

The campaign is being executed entirely online ( using the main social media channels like Facebook and Twitter. So far it has funded more than 100 projects and injected more than £3m into local communities.

If you've always wondered what good online metrics look like, I can tell you that Pepsi Refresh (by all accounts, a hugely successful campaign) has the following: more than 2m users registered on the website, which receives approximately 5m unique visitors a month; 127 'refreshing' ideas have been funded, attracting more than 25m votes; more than 5,000 ideas were submitted across the US, from all age groups and both genders; Pepsi more than doubled its already impressive Facebook fan count, and engaged more than 24,000 followers on Twitter, where the volume of online conversation has been exceptional — more than 60,000 tweets and 175m Twitter impressions to date.

This is one way to engage people successfully via social media: it is a great idea disseminated through bespoke, targeted channels and is intelligently inclusive — unifying yet competitive.

Pepsi clearly worked hard to develop the value position and engage the target audience across numerous online channels. The strength of the value proposition mitigated any negative comments (you can't escape completely) and the interactivity of social media created a snowball in terms of audience numbers and engagement.

Far removed from this example is that of Nestlé, which became the subject of a 'twit-storm' when the operators of its Facebook page took hostile, retaliatory action to comments made on its page by other Facebook users. It ended with a public apology from Nestlé, but not before a spiteful fight broke out online.

The origin of the controversy was when the environmental activist group Greenpeace exerted pressure on Nestlé to stop using palm oil. Greenpeace claimed that the production of the oil was a key factor in deforestation, thereby increasing greenhouse gas emissions and the loss of endangered species.

The impact on the dwellings and wellbeing of orang utans, in particular, became the focus of an emotive online video campaign by Greenpeace, which was targeted specifically at the food manufacturer. This was in turn countered assertively by Nestlé, which lobbied to have the video content removed from YouTube, citing a form of copyright complaint.

Reacting to this defensive move, supporters of Greenpeace began posting comments en masse to the Nestlé Facebook fan page. Nestlé once more countered, but this time with a mild threat: 'To repeat: we welcome your comments, but please don't post using an altered version of any of our logos as your profile picture — they will be deleted'.

The ensuing 'twit-storm' against the firm evoked some forthright comments, circulated for all the world to see. These included: 'Hey PR moron. Thanks you are doing a far better job than we could ever achieve in destroying your brand' and 'It's not OK for people to use altered versions of your logos, but it's OK for you to alter the face of Indonesian rainforests? Wow!'

The huge volume of negative comments drowned out any replies from the handful of Nestlé supporters and finally, under fire, Nestlé apologised for its Facebook behaviour.

It was overly reactive and somewhat naïve to think that this eye-for-an-eye approach would yield fruit; this is a criticism that should be levelled at both participants, however. Just because Greenpeace overcame the 'corporate army' with social media storm tactics, which were essentially outside its control, it could easily have led to negativity further down the line. For example, someone holding it up in an article as an example of what not to do.

Evian rollerbabies
One final — crucial — case study might warm a few pharma hearts. If you haven't seen this yet, find it online and enjoy. In short, a campaign was required to differentiate Evian bottled water from the masses of other bottled water available. Not straightforward in anyone's book. The idea that was born saw an older creative concept rejuvenated as a piece of advertility, which was to create massive buzz and excitement about Evian plus tools to enable the idea to live in social media channels.

It is the world's biggest viral campaign to date: number one on YouTube and the Viral Video Chart, it holds the Guinness World Record for most viewed ad online (with more than 45m views of the official film) and there have been more than 5m views of the remix videos made by users, with more than 30,000 bloggers posting a video in response. The campaign has also garnered more than 440,000 fans on Facebook and 16,000-plus tweets on Twitter. At the time of writing there had been more than 100,000 comments posted online about Evian rollerbabies, of which 95 per cent are positive. It also made Time magazine.


A brief history of social media

• The social media frenzy kicked off in 2003 with the birth of MySpace, which grew exponentially and was eventually purchased by News International for $580m in 2005
• During these early years, Facebook launched for generation Y – those born since the 1980s who grew up with the internet and instant digital technologies (email, instant messenger, SMS and so on)
• The newest additions to the social media fraternity are 'Silver Surfers': semi-retired or retired professionals maintaining relationships post-retirement
• The explosive arrival of Twitter brought social networking and micro-blogging to the community, as well as integrating 'celebrities' among the 'normals'
• Most recently, professional social media sites like LinkedIn and Spoke have arrived, and have developed swiftly into extended recruitment portals


What of pharma?
This is the power of social media. The double-edged blade is one that keeps too many in our industry so concerned with being the next Nestlé that they fail to become the next Pepsi.

Taking a conservative approach limits our voice, both collective and individual, within social media channels and allows others with their own agendas (chiefly detractors and the ignorant) to frame the online conversation. But it need not be this way.

Devising the right social media strategy requires thought and intelligent planning, but there are opportunities available across all the digital channels for our industry to engage with customers and consumers.

The challenge for marketers is to link their social media campaigns with a value proposition for the consumer, to encourage positive participation. And of course a particular challenge for pharma is implementing social media campaigns within the framework of a strict regulatory environment.

There is a growing list of examples where online engagement is being used effectively in healthcare. For instance, patients with chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) — as well as carers, family and friends of these patients — use social media channels to share life experiences, treatment knowledge and even opinions on leading oncologists. Today, on Facebook, the leading pharmaceutical treatment for CML has 38 followers and the Leukaemia & Lymphoma Society has more than 52,000 followers. This group is seeking engagement with multiple stakeholders, and the pharmaceutical industry has valuable knowledge and insights on the condition and treatment options, which could be shared in the right way using social media channels, which would benefit both patients and products.

Opportunities like this exist across a range of therapy areas. To achieve results is truly to understand the identity, needs and mindset of the target audience, delivering a clear value proposition with the confidence to engage actively.

To return to my original question: what's the deal with social media? Developed intelligently and in line with industry standards and stipulations, social media can be one of our most effective channels for consumer and customer engagement.

The Author
Kaush Gandhi is director of digital at Euro RSCG Life Medicom

To comment on this article, email

3rd November 2010


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