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"We're not allowed to" is one of the most commonly uttered phrases about social media by marketing professionals in regulated industries. A few bad experiences, combined with an understandably vigilant regulatory mindset, turns organizations known for their marketing prowess into paralyzed players.

Let's look at the following three industries and their cross-category similarities, and then let's come up with some solutions.

Drugs

Highly regulated, the drug industry is used to long development cycles with often very little communication during that process. As a drug moves along the development cycle, and then into clinical trials, there is as much attention paid to Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversight as there is to the future marketing landscape.

Once a drug has received FDA approval, pharmaceutical companies launch into a tried-and-true formula of brand awareness, doctor education, and focused customer communications to take advantage of their exclusive window.

But even as organizations' paralysis (or quiet) remains the norm in their social space, conversations and discussions are going on louder and faster than ever before:

  • Millions of consumers online discuss key conditions—everything from cancer treatment to MS and dietary conditions.
  • Some four million mommy bloggers talk about various topics, with their family's health as the top topic category.
  • And, according to a variety of research sources, more than two-thirds of US online adults use the Web to research and discuss medical conditions.

Added all up: An incredibly vibrant set of discussions.

Milk

We work with the Dairy Management Inc. and Hood brands; we know firsthand that similar to the FDA's oversight of drugs, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) exercises a heavy hand over dairy-related marketing communications material.

There is a culture of careful discussion and a thirst for approval from the USDA before communications are published. But, as is the case with pharmaceuticals and health, millions of consumers are discussing, researching, and sharing information online about nutrition, diet, and taste.

For example, more than 19 million conversations have taken place online about lactose intolerance. Interestingly, more than three-quarters of those who are diagnosed (largely, self-diagnosed) as lactose intolerant actually are not. Issues that consumers attribute to milk consumption are often likely a consequence of poor diet, other food/drink consumption, or indigestion—and the industry surely has something to say about all that.

As you might imagine, incredibly vibrant online conversations are occurring about this industry as well.

Financial Services

Financial services marketers are more used to innovative marketing efforts, but they still have to walk a fine line between sharing information and offering investment advice. That holds true on the institutional side and on the consumer side.

As a result, marketers in this category tend to shy away from anything that feels like a recommendation, even if what they end up offering falls short of providing real value to their audiences.

Regulatory personnel become involved in all decisions, and marketers become risk-averse, assuming the answer will be "no." But in contrast to their paralysis, millions of consumers and companies are engaging online to research, share, and consume information and recommendations.

The Problem, and Some Helpful Solutions

Let's summarize the patterns at play:

  • Marketers are trained to require regulatory approval and anticipate the answer of "no, as a consequence falling somewhere between being risk-averse and silent.
  • Turns out the regulatory/legal folks in these three industries hate that they are associated with the word "no," but they don't feel included in the problem-solving effort—only in the final approval stage.
  • Despite industry paralysis, the core targets are active, vibrant, and thirsting for information. The age-old phrase "nature abhors a vacuum" applies here, and customers are searching elsewhere while brands are being left out.

So what are brands to do? Here are three thoughts:

  1. Bring Legal and Regulatory in at the beginning

    Make "them" your best friend. As the lead counsel in a financial services company told me, "I hate being seen as 'Ms. No.' Bring me in early, and I will help find a solution that works for the customer and our company."

    In fact, bring "them" into the critical meetings with Marketing, Sales, Communications, Technology, and Customer service—everyone in the same room. It will force a focus on solutions, not potholes.
  2. Think content

    Look at the content (including whitepapers, discussion guides, and videos) that is already published, circulated, and approved. Our experience suggests that half of the battle has already been won if you start with content and information that is already approved.

    For example, a globally prominent hospital has mostly scientific content targeted at the medical community. But the title of one of its research reports is "The Cardiological Impact of Stress on the Female Executive." Now, if its marketers were to extract key parts and make it consumer-friendly, how appealing would that content be for millions of women worldwide, including those mommy bloggers?
  3. Go where the conversations are

    Take the content, the experts, and the tools, and adopt a "how do I add value to the conversation?" mindset. In our work with DMI and Hood, it was clear that a clinical view would not be differentiated. So we created a series of Web-based branded content around the concept of "Moovision," culminating in a "Gourmoo Cookoff"—a recipe contest judged by celebrity chefs and shared by foodie bloggers, and targeting several foodie communities.

    The videos were voraciously consumed; more importantly, brand awareness jumped by double digits and two-thirds of the feedback had positive sentiment around keywords like "taste," nutrition," and "family health"—aligning with the core program objectives.

Get started with these three tips and you will increase the likelihood of embracing a new partner internally and activating the power of the social space in a robust way to engage with your core targets and their influencers.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Glenn Engler is the CEO of Digital Influence Group, a Boston-based digital agency with social at its core. You can read Glenn's blog and reach him via Twitter @glennengler.