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Among its many benefits, co-creation in the social media arena is a powerful source of competitive advantage

straw & berriesWith its continued rise in the healthcare arena, we know that social media can be a rich source of information and provide real insights for those companies who are 'engaging'. From a patient (and carer) perspective, increasingly the healthcare arena is one in which the approaches and channels presented by the world of social media play a role.

So, what has spurred on the digital revolution in healthcare?

Increasingly, it is taken as a given that patients, carers and healthcare professionals (HCPs) will have access to a wide array of information. Many HCPs now have to accommodate the much more knowledgeable and generally better informed patient, who has developed or is developing a view on living with his medical condition. These patients have a view on what expectations — for themselves and their carers, and about the ways in which their disease may progress — are realistic. They also know which management and treatment approaches may be of most value to them and indeed what problems to expect along the way.

Most importantly, these patients are keen to share experiences and look to fellow sufferers as well as HCPs for appropriate interventions, support, direction and help.

Pharma companies operating in the context of this new reality are therefore developing ideas associated with improving the patient's experience of living with his disease, having a more productive engagement with HCPs and seeking ways to ensure medicines are used appropriately and effectively.
In the world of consumer marketing, the widespread use of social media across a broadening demographic has presented some interesting possibilities for marketers and new product development professionals alike. One of these possibilities is the emergence of co-creation.

Essentially, co-creation is a way of generating parallel input to develop ideas, communication approaches, new products and new service offerings. These are generated by consumers as well as by marketers (hence the term 'co-creation'). Co-creation largely involves the use of social media thinking and techniques to build online working communities. These 'communities' are often co-ordinated and led by specialist agencies, usually with an advertising or market research agency background supported by the relevant suppliers of the appropriate digital technology.

To begin the process, the agency will set up and drive the running of the co-creation community. The community itself is usually drawn from the marketing organisation; for example, marketers, designers, food technologists, engineers and other stakeholders, along with a 'representative' sample of the broad target market for the marketing organisation's offerings.

The co-creation group draws on and uses the dialogue based on 'two way' engagement fundamentals that are the essence of social media. These include the ability to upload text, images, audio and video material. The online co-creation community is then tasked with jointly developing ideas, working with stimulus from marketers, to respond and react to the ideas as they emerge. In parallel, consumers get to put forward their own ideas, which the internal stakeholders can respond to.

From this process emerges the best and most robust ideas that have evolved from collaborative business and consumer insights. These are taken forward as work in progress for new products, campaigns or other developmental areas, which when worked up can once again be put through the co-creation process as a second then third (or as many as wanted) iteration.

The co-creation approach is designed fully to engage a wide and appropriate array of relevant stakeholder groups, including, most importantly, potential end-users and customers, which gives the marketing team the best chance of success.

Implications for pharma
At first glance, it is clear that co-creation may well be a useful approach for the industry to consider. While it seems unlikely to have much application in the domain of product research and development, scaling up production and manufacture, however there are areas and applications that may be of real value in marketing communications, marketing research, patient engagement and sales.

Specifically, co-creation can aid development of new and compelling communication campaigns, sales materials and detail aids, patient information platforms, brand health tracking and evaluation. These may prove to be a source of real competitive edge.

Making co-creation work well in pharma marketing requires adapting the approaches in use by our consumer cousins. It requires moving from an open social media-type system to one that is more of a closed system (and therefore easier to control appropriately). At Insight, we call this an 'expert community' approach, where the co-creation community is involved and becomes 'engaged' by invitation only. Appropriate stakeholders are 'mapped out' in advance.

To this end, we have developed and are actively using eVillage, our online community research tool. eVillage is designed to integrate Web 2.0 with traditional research and accommodate doctors, other HCPs and patients in one forum.

This 'expert community' social media approach to co-creation has been used in several ways already. In some cases the focus has been HCPs over a sustained period of time who have been invited to populate the eVillage. In others HCPs along with end-user patients and consumers have been involved.

What does the future hold?
Tools such as eVillage are being used for both continuous 'engagement' with relevant pharma companies' internal and external people. All approaches are working very successfully, such as building ad hoc eVillages on a project-by-project basis for specific companies, involving relevant stakeholders (residents).

Social media can and should form a part of the marketing communication and market researchers' armoury – and is likely to do so more consistently in the future – for more companies in the mid- to long-term. The 'expert community' approach to social media in general, and co-creation in particular, is something that marketers will tap into sooner rather than later. eVillage is one way the industry can take advantage of the benefits of co-creation and collaborative approaches. Indeed, the more companies that adopt this way of engaging with their customers the more they will discover a valuable way of generating a significant sustainable competitive edge for them, their products and their services.

Case studies

Stimulated by a pressing need to address sexual health in the UK, and particularly in London, Insight Research Group worked with NHS London and the London Sexual Health Programme on a campaign to improve the sexual health of Londoners.

The challenge they faced was how to engage with sexually active Londoners, address the stigma of HIV testing and encourage more Londoners to get tested. Using eVillage to engage with HCPs, a longer-term community space was built up to engage doctors online in the co-creation of strategies and campaigns designed to prevent HIV infection and tackle the issue of late diagnosis.

Despite many years of sexual health campaigns, late diagnosis still remains a real problem and NHS London needed to find new ways to address the problem of late presentation, particularly in the light of NHS targets.

The research found a strong belief among the respondents (eVillagers) that stigma is still attached to HIV, particularly in the black African community. The fear of that stigma was leading to denial of risk, which in turn was preventing early HIV testing. Among men who have sex with men, regular testing was said to be more common, due to their knowledge of risk. Late presentation within this group tended to be among those who deny their sexuality and the risks they take. There was also feedback that increasing numbers of white heterosexual patients were presenting late. For these patients, the risk of HIV was never on their radar when they started to experience signs and symptoms.

The online approach meant that the eVillagers were able to discuss issues more openly rather than having to be 'politically correct'. There's a prevailing view in some quarters that HIV campaigns should be targeted specifically at high risk groups (such as men who have sex with men and the black African community) but the eVillagers felt that actually the campaign should go to all.

To overcome the stigma, fear and lack of awareness that hinder testing across all these groups, the eVillagers felt that the new campaign needed to address a wide population. This would overarch separate campaigns targeted at specific risk groups. These findings allowed the advertising agency Leith, Insight Research Group and NHS London to develop and test the range of sexual health messages that delivered the key messages in ways that were likely to work best for the target audiences.

The result was the development of a compelling public health message in the field of HIV.

The Author

Damian Eade is associate director at Insight Research Group

To comment on this article, email

28th January 2011


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