Friday, March 20, 2009

Disease-Centric Communities Thrive, But Ad Opportunity is Elusive

Disease-Centric Communities Thrive, But Ad Opportunity is Elusive

By Virginia Citrano <> , ClickZ, Mar 20,

Though doctors are now showing a high degree of interest in online
social networking, consumers with illnesses were there well before them
and their fast-growing communities may present an opportunity for the
medical and pharmaceutical industries.

Membership in TuDiabetes <> , a network for
English-speaking diabetes patients, is now nearing 8,000 and growing at
10 percent to 15 percent a month. EsTuDiabetes
<> , its sister site for Spanish speakers, is
growing at an even faster pace and both sites have a global following.

"It definitely came as a very pleasant surprise," says the sites'
founder, Manny Hernandez, of their growth. "Because I am very open about
[my diabetes], I was surprised to hear people say this is the first time
I've had the chance to chat with people about diabetes."

And they are chatting in many places besides the TuDiabetes sites, which
was started in 2007. DailyStrength has separate communities for type 1
and type 2 diabetes, and, last November, the Juvenile Diabetes Research
Foundation launched its community, Juvenation. The sites come on top of
dozens of well-trafficked blogs, like DiabetesMine and portals like
Diabetes Daily and the doctor-focused DiabetesConnect. There are also
community-like sites created by pharmaceutical companies for their
products, like the one for Sanofi-Aventis' slow-release insulin shot
Lantus. The site was ranked highest for satisfaction in a new
ManhattanResearch survey of ePharma consumers.

The corporate sites are, of regulatory necessity, less freewheeling than
their independent counterparts. Pharmaceutical companies are required by
law in the U.S. to report to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration any
problems caused by their drugs and kvetching is pretty much a staple of
user-generated content on any social networking site. But
ManhattanResearch notes that corporate sites can add rich features to
their sites that make them highly attractive to consumers, such as
instructional guides and videos, money-saving coupons and access to
customer-service representatives. (The "ePharma" report looked beyond
diabetes to assess visitation and satisfaction on more than 40 company
sites and more than 50 unbranded sites.)

TuDiabetes is arguably the most tech-savvy of the independent diabetes
communities: Hernandez built it on social networking platform Ning, the
company at which he worked before starting TuDiabetes. His new venture
has just two full-time employees, but relies on a network of member
volunteers to keep the discussions free of spammers and welcome new
members. The volunteers read every new sign-up and send a personal
e-mail to help the newcomer find the discussions most appropriate to
their diagnosis.

The Venezuela-born Hernandez, who is fluent in both English and Spanish,
started his community in the former but quickly realized that there was
as great a demand for information in Spanish-speaking areas of the
world. EsTuDiabetes now has a following not only in Venezuela, but in
Mexico, Spain, Ecuador, Chile, Costa Rica and among Latin Americans in
the U.S.

Despite the seemingly crowded landscape, Hernandez, who was diagnosed
with diabetes in 2002, says his greatest competitors are "ignorance and

"Putting together all the online communities that serve diabetes
patients, we're probably not even getting to 100,000 people," said
Hernandez. "Yet there are 25 million diabetics in the U.S and 250
million worldwide." The World Health Organization expects the number of
diabetics to reach 366 million by 2030.

With statistics like those, it's easy to understand the strong interest
in branded and unbranded drug and disease communities evidenced in the
ManhattanResearch survey. And many of the unbranded sites already accept
pharma and general consumer advertising. But like their counterparts in
the broader social networking space, they are wary of intrusions.

"We don't want people joining just to promote a product," said
Hernandez. "We feel it is important to keep ads established as such and
separate from conversations. Those have to stay between patients because
that is how the site provides the most authenticity."

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