Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Beware the Ides of March—How to Thrive in the Wake of the Social Media Revolution

by Michael Spitz
Senior Digital Strategist , Ignite Health


Analysis suggests social media networks will eventually transform the entire digital ecosystem. But data regarding information consumption and influence reveal healthcare is well behind the curve. What can we learn from the powerful features and functionality of social media, and how can we apply these insights to safe and effective solutions we offer our clients today?

Revelation A: Social Media Supersedes Search as the Next Digital Paradigm Shift

On March 15, Hitwise Director of Research Heather Dougherty shared an astonishing metric: Two days earlier the market share of visits to Facebook overtook that of Google.

Weekly Market Share of Visits to Facebook.com and Google.com

Even more astonishing is the social network’s geometric growth: compared to the same week in 2009, market share of visits to Facebook increased by 185%, while visits to Google increased by only 9%. Taken together that week, total visits to Facebook and all Google properties accounted for more than 17% of all Internet traffic—nearly 1 in 5 web visits.

Implication A: Technology Has Finally Caught Up To User Behavior

The web has been continuously evolving since inception, responsive to changes in technology, innovation, and market dynamics. From the birth of email to the earliest websites, from the first portals to the ascendancy of search and multimedia, and from wireless and smart mobile to the skyrocketing popularity of social networks, these trends have all been driving to the same ultimate goal: creation of a user experience that best reflects how human beings naturally communicate.

Primarily visual, instinctively social, always on the move, people now demand their channels be similarly interactive, connected, flexible, and dynamic. According to the Cybercitizen Health 9.0 report from Manhattan Research, more than 39% of consumers make health decisions and actions strongly influenced by the web. As healthcare communications experts it behooves us to acknowledge these revolutionary changes in where and how our audiences choose to find and share health information, and ensure that the tools and resources we provide reflect a comparable level of sophistication.

As even a quick glance at Ignite Chief Innovation Officer
Fabio Gratton’s FDASM mash-up attests, the buzz around social media for health-related communications is vibrant and ongoing, spawning a dedicated community to follow its twists and turns. With assurance from the FDA that some form of official guidance can be expected before the end of 2010, the industry is eager for a mandate through which to better and more safely explore this channel. When that enthusiasm will find full expression remains to be seen; nonetheless, the momentum behind making the inevitable possible is a force few deny.

Revelation B: Despite that Trend, Conventional Healthcare Websites Retain More Traction

As additional Manhattan Research suggests, conventional brand.com’s and social media sites currently rank about the same in terms of influence on consumers health actions and decisions:

Percentage of Consumers Whose Health Decisions and Actions Are Strongly Influenced by Various Online Sources

Although overall Internet user behaviors are trending toward the enthusiastic adoption of social media, the data here reveals that the influence of health-related information instead follows a different hierarchy of importance: From specific unbranded disease sources through government-sponsored, advocacy, and insurance company sites, and finally to branded properties and social networks, which score comparably.

Whether the relatively low influence of social media is caused by a lack of health-related social media websites, a lack user engagement, or suspicions about transparency begs the question—unbranded and branded pharma sites get more traction than social media sites. The question then becomes, all things considered: If healthcare/Pharma social media initiatives are more difficult to create, approve, implement, and maintain than conventional brand.com work, then why bother?

Implication B: Keep the Momentum Going, and Learn from What Works

As the web continues to “socialize,” and the ePharma industry continues to work together and with the FDA for the creation of social media guidance, our clients meanwhile demand safe, practical, and effective communication solutions. Knowing how effective social media can be, yet mindful of the current roadblocks, it becomes our responsibility to discover what can be done now to optimally reach, engage, and sustain relationships with our diverse audiences.

Disease education and brand.com websites might be more influential than social networking websites for the time being, but strategic insights and even tactical recommendations can and should be extracted from social media. Although open fields and true user-generated content are either too risky or subject to rigorous filtering and delay for ePharma, the functional qualities that make social media so powerful are nonetheless at our disposal. The only limit is our creativity and ability to understand and even internalize
our audience points of view.

Specifically, the astonishing popularity of social media is fueled by several high-level strategies and numerous tactics, ones that, when possible, should be integrated into our general communications approach. These imperatives include:

· Create an Immersive Experience
The passive display of information is always less compelling than open, two-way communication because interest is directly proportionate to involvement. Flash animation, dynamic content, and focusing attention on the audience benefits instead of the product features are proven strategies for heightening user engagement.

· Get Users Directly Involved
Techniques such as interactive,
user segmentation-driven navigation, patient profilers, dynamic therapy guides, survey and rating tools, dosing calendars, treatment algorithms, patient and physician video testimonials, and key opinion leader “Ask the Expert” roundtables are all compelling and help create a resonant user experience.

· Connect Online and Offline Worlds
Facilitating and encouraging physician-patient conversations lies at the heart of most healthcare communication initiatives, and can be stimulated with the same elements that make social media so powerful. For example, interactive dramatizations and dynamically generated “Questions to Ask Your Doctor” tools add resonance and meaning.

Remember the
Apple Newton? Compared to today’s iPhone the device was clearly a mobile computer for Neanderthals—the concept itself was spot-on, however, only years ahead of its time. And if Apple hadn’t started there and continued to develop the technology, the iPhone never could have come into existence.

The same can be said of healthcare social media. As the web continues to evolve and social media eventually envelopes all media, people will be digitally conversing as actively and openly about their health as they do now about consumer products, entertainment, and sporting events.

Until that happens, healthcare communications experts can adapt the learnings from social media to create immersive user experiences that achieve optimal results. By evolving to better meet the changing needs of our audience and their unique points of view, we can safely and effectively help fulfill Pharma’s goals of stimulating physician/patient conversations, providing the right information to the right targets at the right time, and demonstrating the level of transparency required to engender trust.
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