Friday, June 13, 2008

Social Media Marketing Not All It's Cracked Up to Be

This is very difficult for me to admit, but the social media emperor has no clothes and the hope that pharmaceutical companies will ever embrace this new technology to reach out and communicate with consumers and physicians is a pipe dream imagined by over-zealous entrepreneurs.

I have some personal experience and recent news items that back up what I say.

First, this bit of news reported in MM&M: "Revolution Health reduces staff by 50 to 'consolidate synergies'"

As you may know from at least one post to Pharma Marketing Blog, an interview on Pharma Marketing Talk, and an article in Pharma Marketing News, Revolution Health was founded in March 2005 by Steve Case and is a social networking site for consumers and patients.

Case blames pharma's notoriously puny e-Marketing budget for the need to downsize:
"...Case has publicly lamented the pharmaceutical industry's hesitation to embrace interactive marketing and inject a greater share of promotional budget into online initiatives.

'It is astonishing to me how under-invested this industry is in digital media,' Case told delegates at the seventh annual ePharma Summit in Philadelphia in January. 'This is crazy.'"
What's crazy is the idea that social networking sites can make money serving pharmaceutical ads, especially a site like Revolution Health that includes many comments from patients dissing brand name drugs!

But the causes for the failure of social networking sites goes much further than the lack of pharma buy-in.

I've been experimenting with social networking applications for some time. One site is the Pharma Marketing Network Forums to which marketing professionals can post content, engage in discussions, build "buddy lists," rate other posters, create polls, etc. The benefits of submitting content to the site are staggering -- eg, extremely HIGH search engine visibility -- but very few people are participating, even when I register them and set up their basic profiles!

You might say that I have not explained the benefits well enough to my audience. But that's not what I hear when I talk to colleagues. The main issue they cite: NOT ENOUGH TIME.

Given all the things we need to do in a day, WHO HAS THE TIME to post content on a regular basis to social network sites? Not me! I have engaged RSS technology to AUTOMATICALLY post content from other sources. From surveys I am finding that THAT is the most useful feature of my social networking site.

Only losers, malcontents, and bargain hunters have the time to engage in social networking. Is this the audience you want to reach with your ads? I think not!

OK, tell me how WRONG I am! Inquiring minds want to know!


  1. Anonymous1:04 PM


    You are dead wrong here. The reason that you are not getting people to leave comments on your SM site is value. I have received many invites from you to add comments but frankly I don't have the time to comment as much as I would like to. However this is much different than social media sites for people who have health concerns.

    People engage in social media when they have a health concern and to learn more. They trust each other a hell of a lot more than promotional content on websites. Does this mean that pharma should serve up ads? Hell no ! It means that pharma needs to listen to what people are saying and find a way to engage these people who want information and are looking to make sometimes tough choices.

    It starts with a belief that we need to communicate with patients and consumers not push ads to them which contain promotional same old messages.

    Mr Case is spot on target. The pharma industry is woefully underspent in digital because they just don't know how to make the transition from talking to listening.

  2. Anonymous3:25 PM

    First, it certainly seems, John, like you're looking for criticism on this one almost like you're playing devil's advocate. We'll see, I guess.

    I say this partly because there's no way you can really believe anything in your posting. The only thing that I think everyone can agree with is Case's comment that pharma isn't spending nearly enough in digital.

    Let's be clear that social networking is only one aspect of digital marketing, so if pharma isn't interested in social networking, that shouldn't be their free pass to ignore everything else digital.

    Let's also be honest about why Revolution Health is failing. It really isn't a differentiated product or anything unique (despite its name). The content is pretty much the same thing you can get at WebMD or a hundred other reputable sites that come to mind for consumers before they get to Revolution Health. Yes, they have a community area of sorts where you can form groups, but the interest seems pretty low here as well. I'd say this is a function of the overall low interest in the site and not of the community feature itself. According to traffic reports, WebMD has 2.2 times more traffic a month than Revolution Health (that's almost 8 million more visitors). That's a big gap to overcome and is rarely done online.

    Some healthcare social network sites are doing well including Patients Like Me ( They have highly engaged users who have a very intense desire to find out more about their disease and interact with each other. Check it out to see what healthcare social networking can be.

    The other reason why the social networking features on a lot of relatively new sites (like Revolution Health) are not utilized is because so many people already use a social networking platform and don't want to add another. So, rather than accept this fact, company after company still wants to create their own community instead of leveraging and creating communities on existing sites (with built in, loyal audiences) such as Facebook.

    And as for this fairly ridiculous comment: "Only losers, malcontents, and bargain hunters have the time to engage in social networking. Is this the audience you want to reach with your ads? I think not!" Check out a recent eMarketer report ( to get maybe a little different picture of this. At least 30% of all Internet users under 54 use social networking sites. This is higher among younger groups (75% for 18-24). That's a lot of bargain hunters, malcontents, and losers. It's also probably a lot of your audience. I personally don't consider myself any of these.

    Don't throw around comments like this just for shock value. You've got so much more to talk about and be recognized for.

  3. What's it going to take to have an open and FRANK discussion of the benefits of social media?

    It's going to take someone playing the devil's advocate that's what!

    After experimenting around with discussion boards, Twitter, My Google Maps, and other "user generated content" apps, I am totally frustrated.

    And to all my Forums site visitors who complain about using its features, I say, "I hear your pain!"

    First of all, many people do not remember their usernames and passwords! Of course, I use cookies and have my browser remember all that stuff. Someday, however, some computer glitch will wipe all that out and I'll be stranded!

    No one knows how to access their online profiles -- can't they see "User CP" is small letters right in front of their eyes? Jeez!

    Oh, I've tried like dickens to understand how to use some of the features of LinkedIn, but every time I delve deeper, I run out of precious time to ferret out the 411. Is their a "LinkedIn for Dummies" book? Maybe I should quit my day job and write one!

    When I organized my NETWORKING event, I laid before attendees all these cool social networking tools -- like an attendee Google map -- that could edit and upload information about themselves before the meeting. Only 2 people bothered! One of them changed his logo from a pin to a dollar sign! What's that about? No-one uploaded a photo of themselves so they could be recognized at the meeting.

    I think social media apps are not easy enough to use. When I managed a community by e-mail listserv, it was much simpler and there was much more conversation and information sharing, All you had to do to participate was to hit the reply button! Of course, it was a shitload of work for moi! Now, I've just exchanged one load for another and less community!

    Bah! I'm madder than hell and I'm not going to take it any more!

  4. Anonymous4:53 PM

    Try something SIMPLE and NON-time consuming, like TWITTER. I know John uses it (because I follow him on TWITTER).

    You can't post a TON of info, but it's EASY to use, and you can do it from anywhere, even standing in line at the grocery story, posting from your BlackBerry.

    Using TINY URLs, you can post links to longer pieces elsewhere.

  5. Anonymous5:09 PM

    Now who's the devil's advocate?!?

    I like it when John gets fired makes for better columns I think.

    Just a clarification to my earlier comment...most social networking is crap. It's not needed and serves no purpose. So, I give John credit for using some "Web 2.0" features for his networking event with the Google Maps mashup. Here's the thing with these types of tools that many people and marketers miss. For the most part, they are worthless. To John's point, what's the point of me uploading my photo and pinpointing my place on a map? What's the benefit for me? To see if anyone is close to me so I can meet up with them? I'm going to the event in person, so I can meet them there.

    Far too many applications touting social networking exist that add no value whatsoever to users lives, but thousands do with millions of users. The successful ones have figured out some feature that people look at and say, "this is an investment in my time, but I know I'll get more out than I put in." Most social networking isn't this way and it's the key to success.

    I also agree with John that some of the largest social networking site, like LinkedIn, are somewhat inscrutable. They shouldn't be, but they are. The focus at too many of these companies is adding more users and figuring out how to monetize them and not user experience. Over time, they need to get people like John to sign up, but they won't if it's not easy to use. So, what should these companies focus on first? Getting users or user experience? Anyone remember GeoCities? It used to be the biggest, baddest social networking (and the first) out there, but does anyone use it now? No...they've moved onto the next thing. That's what people do. So no matter how good your social networking site is, eventually it won't be cool anymore and you'll lose everyone to the next big thing (or you'll go bankrupt because you don't make any money).


  6. Re: Twitter

    It is easy to use, but even so, I don't have time to post there -- I have to to the Twitter Web site, etc, etc.

    I am waiting for my Verizon Wireless plan to end so that I can get an ATT plan with an iPhone and use the touch screen to send txt messages to Twitter, which is REAL easy.

    That being said, I think social networking via mobile devices and great apps for those devices (forget web access) is the NEXT BIG THING!

  7. Anonymous6:19 PM

    Actually ppl are looking for some remedy which they never got on pharma sites, ppl receives only online shopping cart which is the last step to cure anything.

  8. Anonymous10:31 AM

    In 1939, the New York Times said in an editorial that television would never be a competitor to broadcast radio because people simply didn't have the time to sit and stare at a screen. I think the same can be said of new media doubts. Yes it is different, but the truth is, especially in budding crises situations, you can pick up early warnings of what is to come by monitoring twitter. Pharma has been slow to move on new and social media, but there is a cost to that sluggishness and eventually, they will catch up.

  9. Well, TV didn't make it big until after the war when people had a lot more disposable time and income.

    Today is different. Life is much more complex and there are many COMPETING entertainment and communications channels to choose from.

    I still stand by my belief that unless you are an unemployed teenager, stay-at-home wife or husband, college student, or retired person, you are not likely to have much time to devote to Web 2.0 apps.

    We are the experts that are totally immersed in this and believe everyone should be.

    But my main point is that the apps are too cumbersome to use in the way they were designed. As I said, most people visiting my Web 2.0 site are there merely as passive visitors and contribute virtually nada to the conversation! Maybe this is a difficult audience -- not consumer focused at all.

    I am also flabbergasted that the Sermo CEO said physicians were lonely and that's why they posted to Sermo. However, when they did a survey about Pfizer joining in the discussion, less than 100 of these physicians even bothered to vote! I forget what percentage of registered physicians that represented -- but it was much less than 1%!


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