Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Pharma "Social Networks": Close But No Cigar Award

If you are a regular reader of Pharma Marketing Blog, you know that I generally do not like awards that are given to pharmaceutical marketers by trade publications. Such awards are very suspect because of the inherent conflicts of interests involved -- the winners tend to be the agencies that advertise the most in the sponsoring publication or purchase big page ads announcing that they won the award.

Recently, Dose of Digital, which maintains a wiki list of pharma and healthcare organization social media initiatives, hosted the "2010 Dose of Digital Dosie Award" to be given to the most deserving sites on the wiki list. You can find the finalists here. The winners will be announced at the upcoming 2nd Annual Social Communications & Healthcare Conference in New York City. Unfortunately, I won't be able to attend that conference. I am sure attendees will have fun despite my absence ;-)

The Dosie award process was a bit unique in that the finalists were determined solely by soliciting votes among Dose of Digital's Twitter followers and blog visitors. The voting process did not require any identifying information, so we will never truly know much about the population who cast votes. I am sure everything was on the up and up, but contenders were allowed to promote themselves to their followers on Twitter and game the system in other ways.

It's safe to say, however, that most of the people who cast votes for the Dosie were pharma professionals, marketing agency people, and social media activists. In other words, people who should know what constitutes a "winning" or outstanding social media application or social networking site.

The finalists in the Best Brand Sponsored Patient Community (Communities created by a pharma or healthcare company for a brand or corporate effort) are:
  • Accu-Check Diabetes Link (Roche)
  • Children with Diabetes (J&J Lifescan)
  • Crohn's and Me (UCB)
  • Diabetes Handprint (J&J Lifescan)
  • Voices of Diabetes (Novo Nordisk)
Wow! This list is completely dominated by diabetes sites! That's not surprising. People with diabetes have long engaged in online social networks.

Between 1996 and 2000 I was the owner of the DIAB-EHLB listserv, which was an email-based discussion group for people with diabetes, diabetes educators, caregivers, and endocrinologists. It was sponsored by Hoechst Marion Roussel, a pharma company that later merged with other companies that eventually formed Sanofi-Aventis. "EHLB" was short for "Electronic Highlights Bulletin," which was a source of highlights from medical conferences such as the annual meeting of the American Diabetes Association. Highlights, which were produced live at the meeting, were pushed out to the list of subscribers (see here) during the conference. Subscribers could also post their own comments to the entire list and anyone in the list could respond to those comments (see this sample discussion thread about Hemoglobin A1c). It was a lively community.

Most of the "social network" Dosie finalists, with the exception of Children with Diabetes, are "Faux Social Media" sites that cannot hold a candle to even my primitive diabetes listerv in terms of real conversation! I am not trying to get praise for DIAB-EHLB. I am pointing out that these modern-day pharma-sponsored networks actually represent a step BACKWARD along the path toward true pharma-sponsored conversation with stakeholders.

Let me use  Novo Nordisk's Voices of Diabetes to illustrate my point.

I just registered with Voices of Diabetes, which publishes stories submitted by registered users. The registration form is nothing more than a market research ploy. No self-respecting, truly social network would require information that this site requires such as your name, physical address, age, when you were diagnosed with diabetes, and what drugs you are taking. You are also REQUIRED to agree to have information from Novo Nordisk sent to you (see registration confirmation screen below)!

I was not permitted to complete my registration unless I checked off one of the boxes to receive information from Novo Nordisk. If I were a real person with diabetes wishing to share my story on this site, this would stop me in my tracks! But, I am a sucker for punishment and opted to receive information in English.

I wanted to submit a comment about a story already published, so I clicked on "If you would like to comment on this story, click here to share your voice..." I expected to start a discussion about Catherine M's "Finding Motivation" story ("It has taken me years to come to grips with my diabetes. Talk about denial. Then I went on insulin and my sugars are coming down, which is motivating me. It definitely is a day-by-day adventure.").

But, instead of being able to post a comment like "Good luck with managing your diabetes, I hope my sister finds motivation to deal with her condition too.", I was only asked to Share Your Story and presented with these rules, aka "Guidelines":
Please use the following form to submit your story. You will first have to pick the "category" of your story. This may place your story in one of the many areas of this website.

Voices of Diabetes Story Guidelines:

1. Stories must be no less than 1 paragraph and no more than 8
2. Stories must not contain any drug or device names (neither Novo Nordisk nor any other company)
3. Stories must not contain information on any "reactions" or adverse events relating to the use of insulin or other types of therapy

Please note: The submission of your story does not guarantee its publication on the website.
Also, I had to agree to the following "Individual Release and Waiver of Rights":
I hereby irrevocably grant Novo Nordisk and those acting with its authority the following:

1. All rights to use my name (first name, last initial only), voice, likeness, age, city, state and/or image;
2. The unrestricted, absolute, perpetual, worldwide right (but not the obligation) to use, copy, modify, edit, create derivative works, display, transmit, perform, distribute, publish, exhibit and otherwise use the submitted materials ("the Materials") in any and all media or form of communication, whether now existing or hereafter developed, including on Novo Nordisk's Web sites or those Web sites owned by Novo Nordisk affiliates or anyone acting with Novo Nordisk's authority (the "Web Sites"), all for the purpose of publicizing Novo Nordisk's programs (the "Purpose").
I waive any right to royalties or other compensation arising from or related to the use of the Materials.
I acknowledge Novo Nordisk's right to crop, splice, treat and edit the Materials at its sole discretion. I waive my right to inspect or approve the finished product, now and in the future, whether that use is known or unknown to me.
Novo Nordisk reserves the right to discontinue the use of the Materials without notice to me.
I represent and warrant that I have full power and authority to execute this Individual Release and Waiver of Rights (the "Release"). I hereby waive all rights and release Novo Nordisk from any claim or cause of action, whether now known or unknown, for defamation, invasion of right to privacy, publicity or personality or any similar matter, or based upon or relating to the use and exploitation of the Materials as contemplated herein, including but not limited to any reuse, distortion, blurring, alteration, optical illusion, or use in composite form, either intentionally or otherwise, that may occur or be produced in production of the finished product.
*I have read this Release before checking this box, and I fully understand the contents, meaning, and impact of this Release. (Check box must be clicked for your story to be submitted.)
No wonder that the latest story was dated January 9, 2010! This site is dead to me and probably dead to every person with diabetes who would like to share his or her story. Which leads me to ask: Why is this site on the Dosie list of finalists? Sure, there are very few "Brand Sponsored Patient Communities" to choose from. But we need to have some MINIMUM requirements for sites to be classified as "communities." My opinion is that this minimum should be "real conversation."

So, that's why I don't like awards. Defenders of these awards will say that we must reward even the most elementary attempts that pharma is making to have online conversations despite all the regulatory obstacles that they face. Well, then maybe we should call these the "Close But No Cigar Awards!"


  1. John, I think Jonathan specifically outlined that the original list of nominees included everyone and everything that was on the wiki. Apparently enough people liked this site enough for it to make the finals!

  2. Sarah,

    Yes, of course, enough people liked the site, but who are these people?

    In any case, we need to promote REAL social networking sites, not sites that are "fake" social networking sites. We need real role models for pharma to follow. Like I said, It's close, but no cigar!

  3. John,

    Thanks for the coverage of the Dosie Awards. Any PR is good PR, eh?

    Just a couple of things...

    First, I did ask people (optionally) to supply information about who they were (patient, pharma employee, agency, etc.). I'll be releasing that at the conference, but let's say that the majority of votes did not come from where you suggest.

    I do agree that some of these sites, particularly the "Brand Sponsored Patient Communities" aren't as social as I'd like. These are sites that are owned and controlled by pharma companies, so they are a lot more restrictive (whether right or wrong) than 3rd party communities.

    So, a better comparison for DIAB-EHLB listserv might be some of the sites in the "Patient Communities (Non-brand Sponsored)"(which I'm starting to call "Non-brand controlled", as some of these sites get grants from pharma companies, but the companies have no control over the sites).

    If you compare DIAB-EHLB listserv to some of the Finalists in this category, I think you'll see something different. The Finalists are: American Diabetes Association, Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America, dLife, Juvenation.org, TuDiabetes. I'll specifically call out TuDiabetes because I follow it pretty regulary. For my dollar, I'd put this site up against any community (health or not) when it comes to value of the content and engagement and participation of the community. When you look at something like TuDiabetes as a comparator, you should start feeling a lot better about the communities that are out there.

    Of course, TuDiabetes isn't owned by a pharma company. Could they do a site like this? I'm not sure. Not with the current level of fear today, they couldn't. Since your site was totally independent (i.e., not regulated by DDMAC), when you make a fair comparison between it and other independent sites, I think you might see that we've taken a step forward, not back.

    When pharma will catch up is another story.

    Dose of Digital

  4. Jonathan,

    Thanks for your comments and pointing out the other categories and contenders that are more like one would expect of social network sites.

    I'm beginning to think that pharma-owned social networks are a lost cause. DIAB-EHLB was sponsored in the beginning via an educational grant. That is probably the best way for pharma to help build social networks. They can do exactly what they claim they want to do in such cases: engage in conversation. They can also monitor conversations and learn from the community.

    If pharma wants to OWN communities to capture registration data, then it's all a marketing sham and should be called such. That emperor has no clothes!

  5. Hi John:

    I think your comment is exactly on point.

    Why does Pharma need to own the communities? As soon as they step in, the human-ness of the interaction is gone.

    Pharma can own communities, but they can't control where people choose to congregate (virtually) to learn from, support and share with each other about a disease or condition.

    Why don't they engage, support and participate in the existing communities in a helpful, human and humble way?

    My $0.02

    Tom O'Brien
    MotiveQuest LLC

  6. John and Tom,

    Totally agree with you. I don't know really know the point of pharma controlled communities either. I've written about this before after I did a survey that showed marketers wanted to create communities above any other tactic in social media.

    I said (among other things): "There’s another problem. People don’t like pharma companies. Sorry, but you probably knew that. They don’t really trust pharma companies all that much either. Sorry again. So, why on earth do you think they’d want to join your community instead of one maintained by a completely unbiased third party like WebMD? Why? What’s the value? When it comes to a branded community, you simply can’t offer anything they can’t get somewhere else." Here's the full post: http://www.doseofdigital.com/2009/09/crushing-pharmas-digital-marketing-dreams/

    To Tom's point: "Why don't they engage, support and participate in the existing communities in a helpful, human and humble way?" That's the question of the year in my mind. Why create something that's not as good as something that already exists. They wouldn't market a product that tested worse than existing drugs.

    Dose of Digital

  7. Whoa!!! Just because Pharma hasn't figured out social media yet it doesn't mean they won't come around to supporting something that their customers value and trust and enage with. Pharma brings a viewpoint, and even with a commercial bias, Pharma brings a wealth of knowledge with that viewpoint that ought to be of value to a community of patients and caregivers or healthcare practitioners. I think that some companies in Pharma will figure out how to do it well and then like everything else we will get a lot of copycats.

    I agree that the Novo Nordisk program misses the mark in a big way. I found the Twitter initiative by Novo Nordisk of the race car driver to be as far off the mark. But they are trying. I don't know anyone there but it appears that they believe there is important value that can be gained and we are going to keep trying until we get it right.

    I am not giving up either. I think Pharma will get social media.

  8. Great post! social media conversations should be easy to share and make. Many industries still leery of social media make so hard to participate, in order to protect themselves, that they actually kill the offering. great blog, I will be sure to follow it more!

  9. Ambre Morley8:56 AM

    Hi John,

    Saw your post and want to catch up soon. You know probably better than most that Pharma companies have very specific FDA guidelines we must follow when talking directly to any of our constituents. Unfortunately, this means we can't always quickly make posts or respond to them. We wish we could, but it's the reality.
    But we do try and will keep trying.

    In terms of the info we require from people to post ... yes, we want to know who the people are who are using our site. It helps us do our job better. I don't think that's much different from most industries who want to know about the people using their products or services.

    Paul- I'm from Novo Nordisk. I don't work on Voices of Diabetes, but do work on Charlie's partnership with @racewithinsulin. My info is on the Web site. DM me @ambremorley. I'd be more than happy to discuss the bigger picture behind that tactic.

    John- again, hoping to catch up before the summer. We're always willing to talk.

    Ambre Morley
    Novo Nordisk

  10. Ambre,

    Thanks for your comments.

    Of course you can collect any information you want from site visitors. However, truly social networks put as few obstacles as possible in the way for users to interact with each other on the site. You are likely to learn much more about people visiting/using your site if #1 you make it valuable so that many people visit and return often and #2 once you have that community, ASK them to fill out a survey. By requiring all this info up front I am sure you are collecting much less information than you could be collecting, IMHO.

  11. Alin Wagner-Lahmy said..."Great post! social media conversations should be easy to share and make. Many industries still leery of social media make so hard to participate, in order to protect themselves, that they actually kill the offering"
    I agree with your opinion. I believe Social Media Networking will give better personal understanding on how their (industries) threat us on economic perspective.

  12. Charles5:35 AM

    Great post, such an intersting topic. What about HCP on-line communities sponsored by pharma ? We do it well off-line and as much as I can see online (KOL management solutions through virtual advisory boards), it seems to be very interesting and not so "restrictive". Of course we are more in a market access scheme...


  13. I am a regular reader of Pharma Marketing Blog...and i do agree with your points...nice post really.

  14. Unfortunately nowadays the web is full of pharma companies, which unfortunately do not provide any services than just reselling some low quality pills from India and Singapore.


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