Interview with Paul Tunnah of pharmaphorum

Paul Tunnah, founder of the burgeoning pharma industry debate and idea-sharing community pharmaphorum was kind enough to take the time to engage in an interview with me last week which we conducted by email. Here’s what we talked about:

Hi Paul. Many thanks for agreeing to do this interview. References to pharmaphorum seem to be popping up with increasing frequency across the web, and it will great to find out more about you, your site, and your community.

Perhaps we could begin by you saying a little about your background, and explaining how you came to create pharmaphorum, what the site is, and who you are setting out to connect with?

Thanks Andrew. I’ve always worked in or around pharmaceuticals, coming from an academic background in drug design, through to spending my more recent commercial career working as a consultant covering various areas including sales and marketing effectiveness and new product launch.

However, I’ve always had a creative desire to build something for myself and saw an opportunity with the rapid emergence of social media as a business tool. Specifically, I saw the increasing use of various channels such as networking sites, Twitter and blogs as a way for pharma professionals to connect with each other. The piece that seemed to be missing for me was a place where the industry leaders of the future could constructively share, debate and discuss the changing pharma environment and opportunities within a safe moderated environment.

Did you find inspiration in the activities of other communities or other verticals or industries when you set about designing the site?

Absolutely. The great thing about social media is that people are getting involved and communicating at a speed that just wasn’t possible even five years ago. So there are numerous networking groups and blogs within pharma from which I drew my inspiration, each focussing on a particular area or specialist group of individuals. But the key for me is in bringing those specialist groups together and facilitating a much broader discussion, plus giving a voice to those who perhaps haven’t always got the same reach as more senior folk in the bigger companies. So I knew that the site had to present itself as professional, but friendly. It should be somewhere that people feel any opinion is welcome, provided it is in the spirit of constructive debate.

But I also drew inspiration from outside pharma and industry sites. There are a plethora of hobby and interest based discussion groups / forums out there which bring people together in communities and are proving very popular compared to traditional print media due to the dynamic engagement they offer over static content.

What sort of core activities take place on the pharmaphorum site? What sort of content and conversation might a new community member expect to see and be able to participate in?

Well it’s still early days for the site and I don’t want to put barriers around how people should be using it, but I can comment on what is there now and how I hope it will evolve. There are really two levels to the site; firstly there is discussion around some of the “big ticket” items such as new commercial models, how to improve the R&D process, opportunity from emerging markets, the challenges of market access and so on. It’s really important that pharma works together to tackle these issues and improve, so pharmaphorum offers a place for articles, feedback on articles and free discussion in the forum on these areas.

However, in addition, it is also a great place to share information, useful resources and ask opinions of other experts who may be on the site. For example, it may be that someone is seeking feedback on useful sources of information for a specific niche disease. Rather than spending hours trawling the internet, they may choose to ask the question on the forum and see what others come up with. I can see this really helping the smaller companies that don’t have the volume of in-house people to ask these questions to.

Which communities are especially active within pharmaphorum? Which communities would you most like to reach out to and encourage to participate within the site?

My background has always been on the “commercial” side of the industry (sales, marketing, and market research), so the audience and content has had more of an initial leaning in that direction. However, the site has a growing membership from the R&D side and other pharma functions, which is great and something I am trying to really encourage.

What excites me is when you see a debate occurring across all of these internal functions, across companies and across geographies. You might have one person working within R&D for a European big pharma, someone else from a US biotech and others working as external consultants in emerging markets. In these cases, everyone brings a different perspective which when brought together really generates some great discussion around the issues and solutions.

What is the strongest attractor for your community members? What do they especially like about the site? How are you eliciting their comment and feedback, and how do you go about incorporating it into your plans for the site’s future.

I would say the strongest attractors are a combination of the site being an open voice for different opinions, the constructive nature of the debate, the fact that people can post “anonymously” (you need a username but don’t have to share your real name) and that the site is moderated.

In terms of feedback, users can provide this either through the forum or by using the contact form. Through running the site, I’ve come into contact with so many new people and I always try to make time to speak with people that reach out to me, because I always learn something useful when I do.

At this early stage, I would also acknowledge the quality of the articles as being a major factor in bringing people to the site and am eternally grateful to all those who have taken the time to write something and get involved. It’s extremely rewarding for everyone when a piece triggers some debate, or to see people retweeting links to the site due to interesting articles or discussions!

As you know, I’m a great believer in endeavouring to #failbetter. Things seldom work right out of the box; which concepts have you brought to the site that either did not work and have been replaced, or perhaps worked, but not in the way that you anticipated? What have you learned from these experiences in terms of creating and developing a community?

I think you’ve hit on something very true there Andrew. I spent ages agonising about whether the look of the site was right before launching, whether I had enough content, whether people would use it and so on. However, if you don’t try you can’t succeed and I’m a firm believer that the only real failure is the failure to try. So one learning for me is to not be afraid of having a go!

It’s still quite early days, so it’s tough to point to any big ticket items on the site that I would say have not worked so far, but I forever have a list of improvements as long as my arm that I would like to implement. But that’s the nature of these sites, as you know, that they are forever changing and being shaped by the community they support.

I think the key learning though is that it’s great to go in with an idea (hopefully informed!) of what a community needs, but like any social media it’s a two way process. You have to listen to your community and respond to their needs because without them, you haven’t really got anything.

What have you found the greatest challenge to be in creating the pharmaphorum community?

For me, it’s probably been the challenge that anyone setting out on their own venture experiences. Suddenly, you’re not surrounded by co-workers and colleagues to bounce ideas off, you have to make every decision and keep the faith when you have knockbacks. It’s always a fine line between taking on board external feedback and filtering out the “doomsayers” – there are plenty of people who will tell you it can’t work, won’t work and shouldn’t work. These sites do take time to build up momentum so you have to accept it doesn’t happen overnight – pharma is understandably cautious about communicating in this way so you have to be patient and it can feel like it’s not moving quick enough.

But that is instantly countered by someone sending an email saying they like the site, a positive discussion with a new article author or a day when you get a record number of visitors. It reiterates the power of social media, that you are connected to hundreds of people that are willing to share, provide feedback and support. It can be very humbling how supportive people are actually.

What changes in the way that professional peer-to-peer communications are undertaken do you see evolving within pharmaphorum? In your opinion, do you think the nature of healthcare professional interaction will take a radical turn in the near future, or are the signposts to the future indicating that little will change in the next 3-5 years?

I see a daily evolution with pharmaphorum and many other sites that are out there. If you think about where sites such as Twitter and Facebook were three years ago, or even a year ago then we cannot imagine what the landscape will look like three years from now.

There are still many people who are sceptical about social media and sites such as pharmaphorum for a whole variety of reasons. However, there is a momentum behind these new channels and new ways of engaging that to me seems unstoppable. To not take part is a bit like being late to a party and expecting the conversation not to start until you get there.

I think the concerns over the challenges of the two-way dynamic engagement offered by social media across healthcare providers, patients and the industry can be managed. With the right rules around what is and isn’t appropriate behaviour these media will become the norm. After all, we already have rules to adhere to in our offline lives, in the office, at conferences and so on, so it’s not a completely alien concept.

What direction do you see the pharmaphorum site heading in? Can you say a little about the plans you have for 2010 and beyond, and what we can expect to see happening on the site?

Well, as I mentioned earlier there is an ever growing list as long as my arm of things I would like to do with the site. However, I definitely see more specific forum categories appearing as more people use the site and a much broader range of articles that are of interest to people in many different functions.

Beyond that, I’m keen to develop a whole suite of features that support pharma personnel in their everyday jobs, from a more comprehensive conference and company directory, through to more dynamic features such as interviews with execs, online training and so on. However, the site has to be responsive to the users, so if enough people are asking for a particular feature then I will find a way to make it happen!

Ultimately, the key will always be in providing the best environment for debate and discussion as the involvement of the pharma community here is critical to the site’s success in the longer term.

Paul, thank you for having taken the time to share your insights. I look forward to watching pharmaforum continue to go from strength to strength.

It’s been my pleasure Andrew, thank you.


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