Monday, March 13, 2006

Vendors create ways for pharma to engage in blogs without risk

Vendors create ways for pharma to engage in blogs without risk


User-generated content

While the concept of blogging scares the pants off pharma marketers and their lawyers, participating in user-generated content (UGC) from a vendor point of view is a no-brainer. At the recent CBI e-marketing conference held in Philadelphia, more than five vendors gave convincing pitches for UGC during a panel discussion, and the only skeptics left in the room when they were done were Pfizer's privacy officer who was also on the panel, and the more than a dozen attendees from pharma--and their attorneys.

What's not to like about UGC?

In theory, it seems to make sense for pharma to be engaging in UGC, which is content created, circulated, shared, and used online by consumers with the purpose of educating others. According to Paul Ivans, the moderator of the panel and CEO of Evolution Road Consulting, there are more than 1.2 billion posts of UGC per year and the volume grows 30% annually. There are 20,000 to 35,000 blogs created every day, and more than 41 million U.S. adults participating in UGC.

That's a large number of people exchanging information with each other that pharma could tap into, especially since a large portion of those 41 million are discussing health issues. Lydia Worthington, director of research at Buzzmetrics, has been working with the industry in reviewing the UGC space for more than three years and said, "No category is more impacted by UGC than pharma and health."

Worthington told ePharm5 the impact comes from people being incredibly passionate when they talk about their health online. "The conversations are much deeper, more involved, longer term, more frequent, and more informed than any other category," she said. Another important factor is that online, patients will ask the 'door handle' question--the question that usually comes up when they are half-way out the doctor's office with their hand on the door handle and the doctor asks, 'anything else?' "This question is often the most important one, but also the one that people are hesitant to ask," she said.

Consumers sharing information with other consumers are highly influential, a Buzzmetrics' study shows. Nearly 100% of those surveyed trusted recommendations from other consumers completely, a significant increase over brand Web sites, opt-in e-mails, and media advertising, which they reported as trusting "somewhat."

Not only does UGC create more interaction from more trusted sources, but the average consumer is now responsible for creating significantly more content through UGC and blogging tools. "The lines between traditional content and UGC content are quickly blurring and that is not a problem," said Mark Bard, president of Manhattan Research. The increased interaction can be beneficial in building online communities, an important pharma marketing tool.

Bard said the market segment engaging in UGC is valuable to pharma, because studies show that members of this segment are people who:
• are more likely to have someone with a chronic condition living in the home
• are more likely to investigate options for treatment of a disease
• are more likely to request a branded prescription from a doctor
• who share online health information with others (nearly 75%)

Worthington said that in Buzzmetrics' review of UGC sites and blogs, consumers often post that they wish pharma was listening to them. She said consumers would encourage pharma to blog, as long as the pharma identifies itself during the communication. Worthington said many bloggers state, "If only the powers that be could hear me."

John Mack, publisher of Pharma Marketing News and a blogger, contributed to the panel discussion by saying that based on his personal experience, bloggers want to be heard and they want a response. So, despite the "listening is liability" concerns by lawyers, the risk of not listening is even greater, said Worthington. She told ePharm5 that online, patients and caregivers talk about everything that is happening to them when they are taking a prescription or OTC drug. In some ways this is the best kind of early warning system and can identify any potential adverse events well before they show up via call centers or doctor's offices, she said. Also, by reviewing UGC, pharma is able to monitor how patients are using the drug, if they are following adherence programs, using proper dosing, and the like.

How can pharma use UGC?

After the conference, Bard told ePharm5 that although UGC works in theory, it does not necessarily work in reality for pharma. Although pharma must be aware and knowledgeable of UGC for regulatory reasons, the vast majority of companies are not able to own the tools, produce content, or have direct access to what is being discussed, he told ePharm5.

For example, if someone mentions an adverse drug event on a site owned by a pharma company, the pharma is legally obligated to report it. No lawyer or privacy officer wants to create a system that must monitor potentially thousands of pages on a minute-by-minute basis. Therefore, brand teams are not allowed to build or offer UGC tools directly to consumers.

Michael Grishavy, senior product manager at Yahoo!, said a way around the risks of pharma-engaged UGC could be more stringent and clear privacy policies. "I think the compromise, if it is one, is for companies to have extremely clear privacy policies and practices, but to realize that the world of user content is in essence not much different than other methods of getting user input and feedback online," he told ePharm5. It would be crucial to keep the user name or ID of a blogger on a pharma site separate from actual names, cookies, and e-mail addresses, and that's where crystal clear privacy policies and messaging to consumers comes into play, he said.

Another answer is for a pharma to hire third parties to provide UGC opportunities to patient communities, such as Buzzmetrics. At Buzzmetrics, the research department uses software to monitor blogs and UGC for its pharma clients, and reports back what is being said about the pharma or its products. In an earlier interview with ePharm5, Worthington said her company researches what people are talking about regarding healthcare. Most of what it sees is patients talking to one another within an online community such as WebMD or iVillage Health. Worthington said that each pharma client sets the parameters of what the report will collect for data, and adverse drug events are never included in the final report created for the client. While recorded, the adverse drug events are stored within Buzzmetrics' database and not shared with clients.

"We collect the data, analyze it, and feed it back to the pharma," Worthington said. For example, if a pharma has released a new drug, it might ask Buzzmetrics to review what people are saying about it. Pharma can use the reports from Buzzmetrics to identify consumer opinion of "anything they are doing that they want to see from consumer point of view," such as evaluating Web site design, the effect of educational campaign efforts, or Part D implications, Worthington said.

This is definitely a viable approach to UGC for pharma, because it at least informs the company of what is going on out in the blogosphere. "Not knowing what is happening online in terms of UGC is no longer acceptable," said panel member Doug Levy, president of imc2. The pharma policy of "don't look, don't tell" regarding UGC is a "recipe for disaster," he said.

Once a pharma becomes aware of negative or incorrect information that is circulating in a blog, it should act immediately to correct it. Most participants in the UGC community want accurate information. Companies and people that ensure the accuracy of information posted online are highly valued, Levy said. "We advise our clients, often through KOLs, to review the most popular communities and correct any inaccurate information. That type of participation is appreciated by readers. In cases where the participant is a representative of a company, we strongly advise that they make that affiliation known as part of their posting."

Grishavy agreed. To succeed in the UGC world, you need to listen, manage, and act, he said. The main concern he hears from advertisers and marketers is that they don't appreciate negative comments about their brand or their drug. Grishavy said these are opportunities to correct perceptions and should not be left unanswered. With the growth of user content and the blogosphere, a pharma can now engage in a real dialogue with its consumers and with an open, two-way dialogue a company will have a much better chance of changing opinions. Bloggers respect an open, honest debate more than a controlled message, he said.

How UGC can help when the chips are down, or the importance of UGC communities during times of brand crisis.

During times of brand crisis, such as Merck's withdrawal of Vioxx, bloggers are extremely active online, exchanging updates and information with other consumers. A pharma's participation in UGC at this time can help correct misinformation and protect reputation if it is met head-on.

Grishavy recommended that every pharma have a methodology in place precrisis, so it can react quickly if one occurs. The first step is to continually review summary UGC content, perhaps through a third party. Second, the pharma must share these insights appropriately within the company and maintain medical/legal-approved operating procedures for participating in UGC, because the worst time to create a plan is in the midst of a crisis. Third, the pharma must be prepared to take action by sharing accurate information through the UGC communities.

"Companies are well-advised to realize that influential bloggers now significantly impact mainstream media. During a crisis in particular, they are likely to be either very helpful or vary harmful," Grishavy said.

In closing, Levy offered the following five tips that may make "med-regs more comfortable" with the UGC process:

  1. Participate in UGC communities by
    1. Directly using employees and agencies
    2. Indirectly by using KOLS
  2. Advertise on UGC communities
  3. Sponsor UGC leaders
  4. Leverage UGC leaders as viral marketing leaders
  5. Create UGC environment by asking a KOL to blog and keep that activity separate from brand and adverse drug event sites.




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