Friday, August 13, 2010

Are Pharma Marketers Using Viral Social Media Techniques to Promote Products?

Subtitle: This Bayer Sexy Youtube Video is Popular, but Will It Help Levitra Sales?

Is viral, peer-to-peer pharma marketing an effective tactic? Jeff Chester, who heads up the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), thinks so. Speaking on NPR's All Things Considered show (summarized on NPR's blog), Chester commented on Bayer's funny "InBedStory" series of YouTube videos and claimed that "the drug company marketers are counting on you to forward the funny video. And," he says, "that's the idea behind all these techniques."

By "all these techniques," Chester includes techniques like the infamous Novartis Share button that recently was dinged by FDA (see "Implications of FDA’s Warning Letter to Novartis Regarding Facebook Share Widget" and "Who's in Charge of Your 'Invisible' Metadata? WARNING: Don't Invoke the 'Invisibility Rule'").

First of all, there was nothing "funny" about the Novartis button, which included this message: "Home - Tasigna (nilotinib) 200 mg capsules." I can't imagine a more uninspiring, absolutely non-viral message! Why would I bother to share that unless I was working for Novartis?

Ah! I think I really hit upon pharma's viral social media strategy -- get your agents, acting like real patients, to spread the word. By agents I mean ad and pr agencies who hire ordinary people to do the dirty work. I believe that this is happening (see "Professional 'Hired Gun' Pharma Tweeters. Is It a Good Idea?").

But Chester's point was that funny, sexy stuff like Bayer's InBedStory videos are popular and easily spread far and wide by ordinary Joes like me. Well, not like me. I am not among the "one in four men" who have ED, which is a claim made in one of Bayer's videos; in another video, the male character claims that "maybe there's a whole army of men out there needing to put more balls into the cannon, so to speak" (BTW, I have issue with these exaggerated ED prevalence claims; see "40over40: Lilly's DTC ED Awareness Campaign in the UK").

The funny thing is, Bayer has shut down practically ALL of the social media, viral functions on its InBedStory Youtube channel. You can't submit comments and you can't embed any of the videos in blogs like this one. So I can't embed Episode #9 ("Sex Tape"), which is by the far the MOST popular video in the series, in this post. But here's a scene from it, which you can click on to get to the Youtube site.

View the Video

I should mention that you can "Share" InBedStory videos by distributing links to them in Twitter, Blogger, email messages, etc. I guess that counts as viral. It seems, however, that not many people are doing this EXCEPT for the "Sex Tape" video, which has been viewed more than 126,000 times! This video really has no message other than hinting at various ways of having kinky sex (go ahead, have a look!) All the other videos, which are at least educational and have the message to go talk to your doctor, have been viewed only about 1,000 times -- less than 1% of the views racked up by "Sex Tape." In contrast, "Macks' Osso bucco recipe" Youtube video has over 1,100 views (see embedded version at the end of this post).

BTW, there's also an InBed web site. "See one man's journey from droop to Don Juan" is how the site describes the series of videos. You can "Share This Site," but not by using any nifty social media tool -- you just enter some one's name and email address and Bayer sends them a message like this: "Hi, John Mack sends you the following recommendation" which is pretty enticing. NOT! I spent all morning entering email  addresses of everyone I know and I hope they will do the same. Yeah for the latest in viral marketing!

Curiously, the InBed website does NOT include Episode #9 ("Sex Tape"), which is the most viral of all videos in the series!

Even if Bayer allowed viewers to comment on and embed its videos, I doubt that it would help the sales of Levitra. The whole effort is UNBRANDED, except for the Levitra flame logo off to the right of the screen. You'd have to be pretty savvy to know that Bayer markets Levitra. The fact is, these videos may get more men to ask their doctors about ED treatments, but it's likely that the doctor will prescribe Viagra, the number one ED drug, and NOT Levitra (#3 in most markets).

But getting men to see their doctors about their erectile dysfunction problems is a good thing whether it sells more Levitra or not. Maybe some of these men have real underlying, untreated medical problems such as diabetes or hypertension that is causing ED. Unfortunately, only one of the 9 InBed videos I viewed mentioned possible underlying medical conditions (ie, high blood pressure).

So, the most viral aspect of InBedStory (video #9) is the least effective in promulgating Bayer's cause (get men to see their doctors about ED) and is the least promoted video on the official website. This hardly seems like a case in support of Chester's contention that pharmaceutical marketers are "counting" on the viral nature of social media to spread their drug messages.


  1. Your post makes a lot of sense to me. Amd it has implications wider than pharma. In all of health, people may be suspicious of the motives of organisations who they do not expect to see there. Are you familiar with the 'creepy treehouse' discussion in education?
    In ways, we seem to be moving beyond that because students do seem to be happy to sign up as fans to FB pages for their courses, in my experience.
    But it feels like it will be a long time before people start 'liking' products for ED, or groups to support those with alcohol problems. People may be more savvy about the oublic nature of social media than we give them credit for, and those who are not probably aren't the people who would spread a worthwhile message anyway.
    Of course, I would rather see initiatives that prevent illness rather than treatments in any case. There may be more success with promoting healthy lifestyles through SM because these are aspirational and we will be happy to tell the world about what we are proud of.

  2. I suggest your readers review our FDA social media comments, plus--for those not in the online marketing industry--materials on our sites related to interactive ad techniques, such as "buzz" marketing. Consumer protection must come first in digital pharma marketing, including privacy safeguards.

  3. No, no, no. Pharma marketers aren't "using viral social media techniques". They are TRYING to use viral social media techniques. I'll be shocked the first time I see a video or any other piece of content created by a pharma company that is truly viral. Their content is never compelling enough and is never promoted in ways that make virality happen. If you can't share it or comment on it, it will NEVER be viral.

    You might have a modest success (like the inbed video), but that's it.

  4. If the comment don't fit, you must quit (trying to do viral social media)

  5. Great Blog!
    I would rather see initiatives that prevent illness rather than treatments in any case. There may be more success with promoting healthy lifestyles through SM because these are aspirational and we will be happy to tell the world about what we are proud of.

  6. John- you're still talking about that Osso bucco recipe video. It appears most of the videos are driven by organic search (it's coming in #1 for me when I search of "Osso bucco recipe" on YouTube). That's often reason enough to have video content on YouTube (search "fart" to find me on the first page. InBed appears to be designed to get patients asking about ED, which seems like a worthy goal if you're a market leader. But they're not viral videos by definition. They're just short videos that are not getting many views organically and are unlikely to rank high for people searching the condition (for a variety of reasons). That could be fixed, and a better approach might be to hire a YouTube "weblebrity" (someone with a recurring audience) in the target market, and ask him to encourage others to visit the site or the doctor. Like you I'm not volunteering. We've got 4 kids and a dog, so I wouldn't even know if I had ED. :)

  7. Nalts,

    It sounds like what's needed is a YouTube "weblebrity" agency that can hire out different weblebrities who fit a specific patient profile. For example, you might be a candidate for ADHD weblebrity, but not, of course, ED.

  8. Maybe some, they are using that viral social media. MOstly thet get the original.


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