Online Communities: Make ‘Em Out of Legos!

By July 15, 2009Uncategorized

Pharma companies have always felt more than a little bit of tension when it comes to social media. On the one hand, many disease states are absolutely natural communities, and as we have blogged many times, perfect platforms for marketing, promoting adherence, gathering information — all of it. Yet, on the other hand, pharma communities are not like other online communities. There are huge regulatory issues, include adverse event reporting, off-label usage, and so on, that can bring down the regulatory wrath of the FDA on the careless pharma marketer. Managing these connections is tricky.

May we suggest the Lego approach?

Lego marketing
In a really nice research report from April the Forrester Research team explored all this and arrived at some interesting conclusions. The report, written by Josh Bernoff, has a catchy title, too — How to Create A Social Application for Life Sciences Without Getting Fired — and is available in full for a mere $749 from Forrester. You can read more about it here.

The report is fascinating because, from 30,000 feet, it demonstrates a basic point about any kind of system: as anything, from a company to an organism, matures and grows, it inevitably organizes itself. That's happening now with online pharma communities. Things are starting to fall into a kind of order, and rather than creating every community from scratch every time, you are beginning to have to somply snap together Lego blocks.

You can boil the report down into three basic points:

  • Pharma, and disease states, are a natural gathering point for online communities, and tend to cluster into four main groups, depending on the nature of the disease and the demographics of the patient populations.
  • Pharma companies are extraordinarily conservative, even, paranoid about the risks getting involved in a community entails.
  • Finally, and most interestingly, communities are going to crop up whether pharma companies like it or not. It's no longer a question, then, as to whether or not a condition is going to be influenced by communities. They already are. The question, rather, is what marketers are going to do about it. It's no longer a question of acting, but of reacting.

And they can react in one of several ways, including

  • Using a pre-moderated community, where staffers review everything that's posted, follow up on AEs, screen out off-label related comments, and let everything else through.
  • Sponsoring an independent community, which provides branding without responsibility for content, but limits your access to members.
  • Reaching out to physicians via a preexisting community dedicated to them.

The point of the report, at least to us, isn't any particular approach. Instead, it's the presence of evidence for a rapidly-maturing, widely-accepted and widely-used marketing method. If anyone still doubted either the impact or the inevitability of community marketing in pharma, we suggest that they go buy some Legos, sit on the kitchen floor with them, and think. Hard.