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In 2003, after giving birth to her third child, 37-year-old Amy Tenderich was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. After doing what any reasonable person probably would do—spending a day crying on the couch—she began a quest to learn all she could about her disease and how to live with it.

She was among the first patient bloggers on the Internet (www.diabetesmine.com) and has built an amazing following of tens of thousands of fellow patients living with diabetes. But what strikes me with the intensity of a clarion bell is what she says is her most important lesson: "I learned all sorts of facts about my own health that doctors never told me."

Patients are so deeply in need of information and support that they've created a thriving and growing underground society using new online tools to find out things their own doctors never tell them.

Make no mistake, this is no emerging trend—it has already fully emerged. More than one out of three Americans use some form of healthcare–elated social media each year, such as chats; message boards; user-generated communities, including Patients Like Me; Wikis; and video-sharing sites.

What are they looking for? Emotional support, for one. Being sick can be isolating, and, like Tenderich's experience, being presumably healthy one day and a patient the next can be shocking. But the primary reason people turn to social media is to manage their conditions. They want to see what other patients like them say about a medication or treatment, and nearly two-thirds of them say they believe what they read. They're using social media to make major decisions about the drugs and treatments that pharmaceutical marketers offer.

As a marketing professional in the healthcare industry, I can't help but feel we are missing a golden opportunity to meet these sometimes-desperate needs of patients, to become more relevant and supportive in the long arc of their journey to better health. If we do, we'll win their respect and loyalty, their adherence and behaviors will change to improve their overall health, and the financial bottom lines of healthcare brands will strengthen. Everybody wins.

There's no tried-and-true model for how we engage with patients in the social-media sphere. And barriers in the pharmaceutical industry are plenty: Any user-generated content that appears on a pharmaceutical company's website must be reviewed by internal medical, legal, and regulatory teams to ensure it complies with FDA regulations before it goes live, and analysts are still grappling with how to calculate return on investment in social marketing.

Yet the longer we wait to wade in and figure it out, the greater the potential downside. It's time to act now, before our voice is permanently dwarfed by the flood of patients who dispense advice and opinions on the Internet.

To help break any paralysis you may feel, here are three steps that will ensure you aren't left behind in the social-media sphere.

1. Listen

The first step is to know what your brand's patients are doing. Imagine you've just been diagnosed with a common disease. See what the most reputable websites have to say about it. Then dive into user-generated content whenever you see a thread that leads there. If you haven’t done so before, you will be amazed at what is seething below the surface.

You will also be amazed at something else: the free market research available to you. You'll get an intimate view of what patients are thinking and feeling in the real world, rather than some contrived setting in a market-research firm.

2. Participate

Yes, this enters the realm of being much more difficult. I know what you're thinking: regulations and legal ramifications. You absolutely must toe the line on regulations. But those do not prevent you from doing something.

Try adding a moderated patient message board to your website. After a patient makes any comment he or she likes, quarantine it for a 24-hour review by your legal, medical, and regulatory teams.

As Tenderich's Diabetes Mine site illustrates, patients have a lot to learn and do—how to eat, how to live, and how to test and adjust their medicine. These are difficult changes, and patients love to share how they deal with them and help motivate one another to stay compliant with their medication and treatment regimens. Having them do so on your branded site strongly validates that you're there to help them.

And don't be afraid to add the voice of your brand into the mix of the message board. Anything you can do to improve adherence and health behavioral changes is good for your patients and good for your brand.

Study sites such as www.myalli.com, which take powerful advantage of user-generated content by subjecting it to a 24-hour review before posting. It's an aggressive model that will not be right for all brands, but as a leader in brand-sponsored social media it bears watching.

3. Learn

After surveying the landscape and dipping your toe in the social-networking water, where do you see opportunity? I urge you to build plans to test your ideas in small ways. The field is still so young that within one or two iterations of these tests you will find yourself among the leading social-media marketers in the healthcare industry.

Above all, be open-minded and creative. That's what allowed the marketers of Arimidex (a hormonal treatment used to fight breast cancer) to found Celebration Chain, a site where people can honor "amazing women who've faced breast cancer." Visual communities like this reinforce the brand and allow users to interact, but they don't require fast regulatory review of verbal user-generated content.

How might you do something like that? What if you built a downloadable widget (talk to your Web developers) that places something that looks like a twig on a patient's desktop; as the patient takes action to adhere to his or her treatment regimen and reports it online, that twig grows into a tree, perhaps with flowers and surrounding grass? What if all users could see one another's user trees?

It's just an idea. But ideas based on listening, participating, and learning are what will move healthcare brands into leaders of social-media marketing.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Maryann Kuzel is president of STAR Healthcare (www.starhealthcare.com), an Omnicom network of CRM specialist agencies that provide channel-specific expertise across the entire patient journey. She can be reached at kuzelm@starhealthcare.com or at 212.801.8316.