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A push in the right direction

'Nudge marketing' can build audience engagement and increase advocacy on the social web

Dominoes being knocked overMuch has been said about how Barack Obama harnessed the power of the social web in his ultimately successful bid for the White House. His campaign was heavily influenced by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein's book 'Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness' and, as a result, 'nudge' has become the hottest term in brand communications.

The core subject of 'nudge' is 'choice architecture' — the art of indirectly influencing decision-making. As pharmaceutical brands are unable to market directly to the consumer, indirect routes that gently nudge an audience towards an ultimate goal is an attractive proposition. Not only that but it is the only technique that works on the social web, regardless of industry.

Recognising the potential
Most pharmaceutical brands recognise the huge potential of the social web to transform their business and brand. Some are even dipping their toes in the water with some success. J&J's YouTube channel, Pfizer's 'Get Real, Get a Prescription' campaign, the virtual world Second Health, the ADHD awareness campaign 'Living with ADHD', the animated films created by Levitra, Boehringer Ingelheim's use of Twitter and MTV's promotion of sexual health using FourSquare all spring to mind.

Many lessons have been learned from these pioneering initiatives and pharmaceutical brands are now in a position to use that knowledge to develop an effective strategy for harnessing the social web. However, I still often get asked the question 'Why should I use social media?' and there are three compelling reasons I usually roll off:
1. Audience: The end-consumer is using social media on a daily basis and he is taking an increasing interest in the treatments he's being prescribed. According to a study by InSites Consulting, 82 per cent of people online in the UK have used the internet to look for information on healthcare topics.
2. Credibility and influence: The two biggest influences on purchase decisions are 'real friends and virtual strangers.' As Nielsen reported, 'Recommendations from personal acquaintances or opinions posted by consumers online are the most trusted forms of advertising.' In other words, a brand's fans spreading the brand's messages is far more effective than the brand talking about itself.
3. Reduced media spend: If consumers are broadcasting a brand's messages for free, the brand is saving money that could have been spent on paid media.

Networks, channels and tools
Given that social media is something the pharma industry can no longer ignore, the first step to effective engagement is to demystify the space. Broadly speaking, the social web can be split into three main categories: social networks, social channels and social tools. Understanding how audiences can be nudged across these spaces is the key to success.
Everyone knows social networks are the online environments that allow people to connect and communicate with each other: obvious examples are the Goliaths of Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn. I would also add the microblogging platform Twitter, the geolocation service FourSquare, niche communities like and PatientsLikeMe and any other platform whose main purpose is facilitating peer-to-peer communication.

Social channels are hubs where content can be consumed, interacted with and shared. The best known social channels include YouTube, Flickr, SlideShare, iTunes and other specialised content hubs. These social channels exist to make it easy for people to comment on and share different kinds of content across wide networks. The content, of course, can be almost anything: video, animation, photo, graphic, presentation, podcast, editorial, map, game, app or tool. The purpose of this content is simply to inform, entertain or be useful in some way.

Social tools enable an interaction with content by encouraging such things as sharing, bookmarking, downloading, rating, signing-up, commenting and so on. Among others, examples include social bookmarking tools like Digg or StumbleUpon; RSS feeds; sharing functionality, such as AddThis; rating systems that tally participants' votes, such as Facebook's popular 'like' button; high-score tables; challenge-a-friend mechanisms, and easy ways to embed content. The great thing about these tools is the minimal effort that is required to use them.

Harnessing the power
The first step to harnessing the power of the social web is to understand the relationship between these three categories. The aim of a social media strategy is to create a piece of valuable content that is shared across social networks and social channels using social tools. This is achieved by creating multiple 'sign-posts' across the social web that point people towards pieces of branded content. Once people have engaged with this content, we the brand marketers learn about their likes and dislikes and they can then be nudged towards increasingly relevant content and ultimately to a branded website, a disease awareness site or indeed a pharmacy, depending on the ultimate objective.

The initiative starts with a central piece of media or branded content, for example an online film, an editorial article, a tool or a game. This piece of content sits on the social web and is, of course, interesting in its own right, genuinely adding value to people's lives by being entertaining or useful. The campaign then revolves around this piece of branded content.

By giving away content on the social web without an expectation of an immediate return, pharma brands can encourage brand advocacy and increase customer value. This content needs to communicate brand values and tell the brand story in an intelligent way. It needs to be informative or educational and it needs to be placed at the appropriate stage of the brand-consumer relationship. However, this is still not enough. On the social web, not only do you have to be interesting to your audience, you also need to be interested in your audience. This requires new skill sets, new ways of communicating and a willingness to collaborate and co-create. A piece of branded content therefore doesn't only need to be interesting in its own right, but it also needs to stimulate a positive response and evolve with consumer interaction.

A 2009 Forrester Research report suggests that 24 per cent of people online create content; this means the vast majority do not. Given this rock-solid statistic, the initial response that a brand seeks from its audience should not be in the form of user-generated content, except in unusual circumstances. Expecting the average user to upload a home movie or even a picture of himself or herself is a big ask, after all. Nudge marketing is all about gentle suggestions that require little effort on the audience's behalf. It can be something as simple as selecting one option over another, sharing the content, joining the Facebook group or signing up for a newsletter. Once the user has interacted in even this superficial way, we can direct him towards even more relevant content that sits on the website or within a branded community and deepen the relationship while bringing the audience closer to the product.

It doesn't matter how great your content is if nobody sees it. Fortunately, there is much that can be done to generate an audience and jump-start a campaign. In its simplest form, this is a link generation exercise, each link being a signpost that points towards a piece of content. These links can be categorised into three areas: Links you own, Links you buy and Links you earn.

'Links you own' is, in principle, the simplest part of the process to initiate. However, within large pharma corporations the task often involves complicated logistics and co-ordination. Multiple online properties will need to be channelled towards a piece of content. This often involves mobilising multiple stakeholders, including your company's website, Twitter account, Facebook group, blog, eDetails and so on. Links you own form the basis of a campaign, but are not enough to form a critical mass.

The number of signposts can be dramatically increased through the addition of links you buy, which include paid search, rented lists, seeding initiatives, traditional advertising and media planning and buying. These techniques allow you to distribute links across a far wider network to a much greater audience.

However, a brand can't just tell people that its products are great, or even that its content is great. Instead it has to encourage its customers to do this, with advocacy through social tools, which leads us to links you earn. Where brand communication on the social web differs most dramatically from traditional brand communications is that a piece of social media not only has to grab the audience's attention but also needs to stimulate sharing with friends and connections to start a positive conversation about the brand across social networks.

Nudge marketing integrates content across channels with increasingly experiential engagement at each touch-point. The narrative begins with introductory content that helps people 'learn' about the brand, before moving on to immersive content and tools that help people 'live' and eventually 'share' the brand. The strategy here is less about a quick sale and more about deepening engagement, loyalty and advocacy and as such has deep resonance with the pharma industry. Moreover, it is about an intelligent system that analyses what content individuals are responding to and uses this to inform the content strategy for those individuals' peers.

Redefine success
Nudging a potential customer directly from awareness to consideration to purchase in a single journey is a big ask. It is more likely that the consumer will be directed to increasingly relevant content as part of a mutual learning process, in which brand and audience learn more about one another. Eventually a level of trust will be established and the consumer will have an innate predisposition to the brand.

Brands that are succeeding on the web recognise this and, as a result, have redefined what success looks like. It is no longer about converting 1 per cent of all people who come into contact with a campaign; instead, it's about making sure that 99 per cent have a positive brand experience. By generously creating branded content that consumers actually want to engage with, and by making this content two-way and individual, transactions are turned into relationships.

Brand building on the social web is not about conversion; it's about encouraging and rewarding positive consumer behaviour. In doing so, brands increase the probability of the behaviour reoccurring and nudge the consumer one step closer to the brand, increasing loyalty and encouraging advocacy along the way. Brands achieve this by turning themselves into stories — creating original media that their customers actually choose to engage with, explore and then recommend to others.

The Author
Jim Boulton
is deputy managing director at Story Worldwide

To comment on this article, email

1st November 2010


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