Saturday, July 11, 2009

Pharma May Not Win the Race, But At Least It's Finally Putting the Rubber to the Road

Recently, I was asked my thoughts about the Novo Nordisk-sponsored Twitter feed, Race with Insulin, which features the tweets of a race car driver named Charlie Kimball. Charlie is traveling to races across America as part of Team Type 1, a group of Type 1 Diabetics out to demonstrate that people can live active lives with diabetes.

What is notable to the Pharma social media community is that Charlie’s tweets mention the Novo Nordisk’s product Levemir® FlexPen®. Fair balance is listed on the side of Charlie’s page and also appears one click away in the tweet, itself.

The effort has been criticized for it’s stilted voice as well as the limited value it provides to the community. While these criticisms ring true, I applaud Novo for taking the first brave, bold step! It is not easy to be an innovator in Pharma.

One reason not to pile on to all the negative criticism is that branded Twitter executions will evolve towards a more meaningful use of the medium. One just has to look at the Pharma corporate Twitter sites, which are just now starting to evolve from PR news feeds to having a more personal voice such as in the Boerhinger feed.

The evolution will be so slow it will resemble kabuki theater, a (to my eye) painfully slow-moving form of 17th century Japanese entertainment. And yes, Pharma’s attempts will pale in comparison to the efforts of our non-regulated marketing brethren. But slowly and surely, it will evolve.

The evolution has to occur or the social media world for Pharma will continue to be a very lonely place. At the time of this post, Charlie Kimball has only 248 followers. Examples of similar initiatives from outside the industry can help point the way towards a more engaging and truly social way of using the medium.

In June, I found myself inspired about such possibilities at the OMMA Social conference, which featured a terrific “Corporate Tweeters” panel featuring Tweeters from Six Flags, Comcast, H&R Block and Duncan Donuts. These companies centered their efforts on providing either 1) customer service or 2) entertainment.

Customer service is a natural. Consumers are using social media to complain about products, so why not use the medium to respond? This is the approach that H&R Block and Comcast have taken. A typical tweet for H&R Block goes something like this, “Saw your tweet, anything I can do to help?”

According to Denise Sposato, Director of Communities at H&R Block, they were able to “…build a great community around an unsexy category.” One of H&R Block’s biggest lessons learned was that for their critically important service, people want less entertainment and more education. So their social media efforts included Vlogs by tax analysts. Turning to Pharma, how about a Vlog from a company physician?

Comcast offers a host of customer service people on Twitter that go by monikers like ComcastBill or ComcastBonnie. According to Frank Eliason, Director of Digital Care at Comcast, the real-time information afforded by Twitter can be invaluable. Thanks to Twitter, a major problem was surfaced within 3 minutes of its occurrence, enabling the development of a response before most of the Comcast customers had any inkling there was something wrong.

The other tack companies took in using Twitter was pure fun and entertainment. Six Flags Billy keeps people engaged through Twitter-driven events such as “Funnel Cake Fridays” and “Twitter Hunts” in their theme parks. What’s to stop a Pharma brand from having a Fitness Friday or a Healthy Munching Monday as a way of engaging people towards better health?

The approach needs to grow out of the brand. According to Ms. Sposato, H&R Block’s participation strategy is rooted in the brand’s heritage of the informal conversations people used to have with H&R Block co-founder, Henry Block.

Whatever strategy is chosen, company management needs to be prepared in advance to expect a little “flame throwing.” The negative always surfaces first, according to Carole Walker, Vice President of Integrated Marketing at M&M Mars, who I heard speak in February at an ANA panel about their social media-powered Skittles website. After a while, she said, things settle down and most people are quite complimentary and reasonable.

It is important to note that most of the companies I heard speak had been working at social media for some time. H&R Block’s efforts began a full 18 months ago. So while it is important to note Race with Insulin’s shortcomings, it’s even more important that we keep the flame burning for social media in Pharma.


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