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Socially acceptable

Applying real world etiquette will win you community favour online

Two laptops facing each other with an arm protruding from each and shaking handsWould you walk into a church with a bikini on, or go to a barbecue in a tuxedo? If the answer is yes, then we can't really help you, but if the answer is no, you obviously have a good grasp of social etiquette and how not to behave in certain environments. The online world also has accepted etiquette, which should be observed when engaging with social media.

Adopting what seems to be a sturdy, stable position online, with some distance between yourself and the potential issues and risks involved, may seem like the right thing (and, in many cases, the only thing) to do, however it should be remembered that there is a reason why they call it "social" media.

The gap between offline and online communication – and essentially social interaction – is becoming ever narrower. As such, we should start thinking about online communication as we would think about communication in the "real world".

In real world terms, communicating effectively in the online environment is like communicating effectively in a crowded room. To be engaging, you need to have a voice that stands out and involve people in a dialogue rather than just talking about yourself. There are social norms to follow, as there are online, and certain no-go discussion areas, much like those governed by regulatory restrictions for online pharma communications.

So what are the core rules of engagement and how can effective real world communications inform our approach online?

Be strategic
The first and most important thing to remember in any marketing or communications campaign is to be strategic. You might be surprised at how many people think: "I'd like to do something with web 2.0", essentially approaching an activity on a tactical level rather than a strategic level. Would you plan and conduct a communications campaign based on short-term tactical activities? No. So be extra critical of your motives for engaging in online activities before committing.

Sit down and ask yourself what you actually want to achieve. If you're uncertain, have a brainstorming session and start listing some more tactical ideas to get you where you want to be. Then consider whether online communications will help you achieve that, or if you're better off using other, potentially far more effective, offline methods.

Whatever environment you choose, your announcement or message will be received best if delivered well. Imagine if, in a real world situation, you only delivered the message once, but wanted people to continue acting on it. The same applies to the online world. If you deliver your message only once, you risk your audience being just as uninformed. Drive traffic by regularly updating content and ensure your content is relevant to, and useful for, your audience. It should also be accessible, engaging and fun. Although such an approach could be perceived as compromising your high-priority messages, this is not the case. Weaving messages subtly, but clearly, into your content means they will be heard by a much wider audience, which is also far more receptive to them as it is already engaged in the overarching content. If you do not make your core content online-friendly (or 'sticky'), most people simply won't be listening properly in the first place.

Engaging a pre-existing community is a huge part of online success. Even if you see your audience as distinct, it is more likely that its members all belong to similar communities and you would be wise to recognise this. In the real world, you wouldn't advance an environmental project by planting seeds by yourself, especially if there was a community group doing the same over the road. You may have a different agenda, but if it's the same activity, why do it separately?

One example of this online is condition-specific information. There is an abundance of such data on charity and patient group websites. If you really want to give your audience the information it needs, why not provide unique core content, but also link to other resources? Of course, you can leave people to find extra content by themselves, but if you want to be credible and well regarded in a wider network, you need to step over the road and join the community.

Engaging an online community is essential for driving traffic and, consequentially, for Search Engine Optimisation (SEO). Posting comments on blogs interested in similar topics to your own can drive traffic, since the blogger you've submitted a post to will likely post on your blog in kind. You can also add your URL to posts you make to encourage readers to visit your site.

Be genuine
Picture the scene; you are in a bar and a stranger intrudes on your personal conversation, without you knowing who he is or why he wants to talk to you. Minutes later, he starts trying to sell you something. This is no different to the online practice of entering a conversation uninvited and trying to promote your own website or brand. If you have this intention, it is much better to be open because people will quickly know if you have a hidden agenda and they will not take to it kindly. Ultimately, it's all about acting appropriately in the right social situation and being genuine and honest is the only way to do this.

Wherever possible, act like an individual with a personality, not just a company representative that has a brand identity. People trust individuals and want to talk to them, but the same does not apply to companies that appear 'faceless'. This doesn't mean your employee doesn't live the values of the brand or company. In fact, showing that your online representative does live these values makes your online brand presence even stronger.

Be accessible
Much as you would speak loudly if you were trying to address a room full of people, you should be heard by as many people online as possible to get your message out. To be accessible, you have to be clearly visible online, both by building an online community and having desirable content, as discussed. In addition, it is important to work specific key words into your content, so Google will find your site when people search for these words. You also need to be mentioned on credible external websites. For example, securing editorial with an accompanying web link on a national newspaper's website will make your hit counter sing.

Accessibility goes beyond SEO too. Not all people access the internet using a PC; many are now using mobile devices. In the second and third quarters of 2008, the number of people accessing the internet on mobile phones grew by 25 per cent to 7.3 million, compared to a measly 3 per cent rise for the PC-based internet audience. Unsurprisingly, web design considerations change depending on how content is accessed, so ensure your content is as accessible as possible to many audiences via numerous routes in the technical building stage.

Finally, you want people to share your content so that more people access it. Simply build in the functionality to bookmark your site using online applications such as, Digg and StumbleUpon.

Share knowledge
It almost goes without saying, but it's important to ensure any health information you provide is accurate, verifiable and has genuine educational merit. It is also crucial for information to be balanced so it does not constitute promotion. This is not only to meet regulations, but also because you need to be a reliable, trusted source in order to raise your profile and, consequently, your page views.

If you were talking to someone who had specific questions in the real world, you wouldn't be vague and abrupt in conversation. Be as helpful as you can be online. Educate around your messages and key areas of interest and be prepared to share whatever useful information you have, even if the topic is not directly related. This is an essential step to showing you are an authoritative voice and building trust with your audience.

Sharing experience and knowledge about communicating in the online and social media environment is also important for our industry. If you've achieved or learned something valuable online, then share it with the community. One place to start is by uploading campaign success to the ever-expanding pharma social media wiki.

Full picture
To make online strategy work, it is essential to put all these building blocks in place. Having great content is useless if nobody can see it, and being highly visible online can be equally ineffective if your approach is badly received.

Like any real world communication, you have to be focused on your message and how to deliver it most effectively. The platforms through which we communicate online are simply a means to an end and will increasingly take a back seat, especially since companies like Facebook and Twitter make little or no actual profit. Once upon a time, Friends Reunited was the big social networking player, but it is now a shadow of its former self. Who is to say the same won't happen to the platforms we use today?

Ultimately, the real value is in the community, the people you are talking with and the quality of those communications. Saying something online and saying something in reality are quickly becoming one and the same. Having healthy and respectful conversations is the only way for pharma to move forward into this space, with a 'real world' common sense approach at the heart.

The Author
Ed Purkis is senior media executive at Virgo HEALTH and editor of the Healthy Conversations blog
To comment on this article, email

25th November 2009


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