What pharma can learn from communities’ opinions

On 7th October, one of the administrators of TuDiabestes, the popular community for PWD (people with diabetes) asked: ‘Do you see a role for support staff from pump/meter companies here?‘. They went on to explain that they had been approached by ‘a major pump company’ and been asked if they would ‘consider allowing a non-sales oriented Clinical Manager to enter [their] community to answer questions about their products.’

Acknowledging that they saw both ‘potential pros and cons’ in the proposal, they went on to ask their community what they thought of the idea:

What do you see? Would you feel comfortable knowing you had a contact here to ask questions of? Would you feel less comfortable speaking freely about your experience or frustration with devices or customer service? Would you feel implicitly marketed to? Would you appreciate the chance to communicate with a representative who could troubleshoot your customer service issues?

The response the question provoked was consistent with the sort of attitudes that you would expect a community that manifests a high level of trust, mutual respect and transparency to manifest. Here are some sample reactions:

I think it may be a good idea. Like you said, as long as he/she was not trying to persuade a purchase in that pump type. It would give people a way of asking pump questions that are thinking of pumping or having a pumping issue. Nope, no problem here. (Respondent: Cathy)

If the individual is properly identified as representing the company, I’m all for more dialogue. As long as the individual has an “I’m paid to participate” tag and is featured only in a special section or during a live event. To me, that’s what marks the true distinction between passionate participants with personal investment in the community versus paid-for participants (who may be passionate, also, but reimbursed in some form). Let’s not kid ourselves. Many people on social networks are subtly marketing themselves–whether to promote their blog or website or fund-raising efforts, etc. That’s not a bad thing. But loyalties should be clear. (Respondent: Kelly Rawlings)

What I see here is the idea of using communities[…] as another channel through which to provide customer service and support. (The “call center” of ten years ago is more often the “contact center” of today, including phone, e-mail, web chat, company-sponsored forums, and sometimes direct-connect-to-device channels of communication with the customer — which can be a win-win situation[…] As far as being afraid to post something negative about the company… well… they can read everything we write here whether or not they are members of the community, so the only difference is having a contact with a name and a position. (Respondent: tmana)

What makes Tu and other user driven networks special and useful is that we are sharing with each other our unique perspectives as patients and support systems for patients. I am sure they could provide technical data and keep our community informed… maybe finding a specific way for them to do that without participating like members may be more appropriate. Maybe special forums for product updates, Q and A’s, etc. I suspect they are already here in some form. Good idea to make it more legit and up-front. (Respondent: Patricia)

I welcome them to provide both insight AND to understand how their products are truly perceived and used in the hope that this will lead to better tools. I would not restrict them to posting in any forum as long as they are identified as you have noted. After all, many of these folks are diabetics…. and they are people too 🙂 ! My guess (and hope) would be that their companies are going to restrict how they post. As in many other forums that I participate in, the good ones quickly become identified and the bad ones do too. (Respondent: Mike Ratrie)

I found these replies of interest on a number of levels, but the thing that perhaps struck me most strongly is the way in which these online community members have strict expectations with regards to openness, honesty and transparency, but upon commercial invitees manifesting what are effectively the preconditions of participation will go on to offer not only their conditional acceptance but also understanding and a desire to empathize with them. If you turn up with open hands, until you let them down they will be prepared not only to interact with you, but also to support you. After all, ‘[you] are people too’.

To me, this is an example in miniature of the characteristic benefits that fully participating within social media environments can confer upon those who are prepared to be authentic, open, and transparent. The quality of engagement that the responses above demonstate suggest to me that the TuDiabetes community would be prepared to offer instrument manufacturers who were invited into their community and deported themselves in an appropriate manner would far outweigh those resulting from the sort of interactions we would perhaps previously have categorized as ‘marketing’.

This is what contemporary marketing looks, sounds and behaves like.

It doesn’t heed your command.

It observes the precepts of a conversational economy rather than a transactional economy.

It generates respect and enhances reputation directly; it generates revenue indirectly.

It has the potential to give back to the bestower more than they could possibly expect to receive in non-financial terms, and consequently support their revenue-generative activities in the long term in ways they could not have anticipated.

How is it facilitated?

By treating people as potential friends rather than potential customers.

If all this sounds a little too ‘new age touchy-feely’ to you and correspondingly lacking in the hard-nosed commercial dynamics you may have been schooled in, that’s fine. We are all at liberty to go and stand in a corner by ourselves, alone and unheard, and feel superior.

An enduring flaw of perception manifested by those who have not yet managed to escape the hermetically sealed confines of the traditional pharma marketing environment is the opinion that there is a set of Universal Protocols that function effectively in every context.

What social media is beginning to reveal is that these protocols may never really have worked in any context. Furthermore, the indviduals at whom the campaigns were directed may never even have noticed them. They did not make decisions based upon the succinctness of strap lines they never read, the zaniness of commercials they never saw, or the draw of radio spots they never heard.

We may once have rehearsed a narrative in our monthly, quarterly and annual reports personifying our marketing activities as heroic protagonists represented in the metrics and bar charts of our our creation. We were universally acclaimed, professionally applauded influencers of actions and opinions. We knew this because the focus group audiences that we paid to listen to us told us so.

It never crossed our minds that in the last instance the independent decisions regarding our products taken by the 95% of recipients who neither registered for nor responded to our campaigns may actually have been a better indicator of our enterprise’s success than the 5% who did.

A relationship that takes on a material form is enduring and open-ended.

A transaction that becomes a sale is transient and finite.

The former has a future; the latter is being consigned to the past.

3 thoughts on “What pharma can learn from communities’ opinions

  1. Dear Andrew,
    I was impressed by your authentic and true analysis of the difference of key elements of social media and what we came to know as marketing, but recognize as candid advertisement. “By treating people as potential friends rather than potential customers.” Isn’t that what Human is about – and what dialogue means?
    Great post Thanks!

  2. Pingback: Some of the Best Healthcare Blogs and eBooks of 2009 | AdvanceMarketWoRx

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