Thursday, June 18, 2009

Procter and Gamble's Dysfunctional Asacol Community for UC Patients

Lately, my Twitter friends have alerted me to all sorts of examples of pharmaceutical companies delving into social media for marketing and corporate communications. I'd like to focus on just one example here: the Asacol Community for UC Patients. UC stands for ulcerative colitis - a form of inflammatory bowel disease. Asacol is a product marketed by Procter & Gamble (P&G) for the treatment of UC.

"In the Asacol Community, consumers are encouraged to provide stories or to ask questions," notes Ellen Hoenig Carlson in the AdvanceMarketWorx Blog (see "Pharma Marketers: Think You Can't Do Moderated Chat?"). "Content is carefully moderated per the guidelines, but consumers can rate and vote on story content and answers."

The Asacol Community reminds me of other efforts of pharmaceutical marketers to build "communities" within their product or disease awareness websites, YouTube, or FaceBook pages. They all share one thing in common: they are FAUX communities that have practically none of the characteristics of a REAL community. Although Ellen calls this a "chat," there is NO chatting going on. You can submit a story and that's about it.

Here's why this is NOT a real community and NOT a real chat:
  • You CANNOT submit a comment in response to a story,
  • Your "vote" as to whether or not the story was useful is NOT counted. No matter how many times I voted "No", the counter still said "28 of 32 people found this story helpful" (probably a made-up statistic), and
  • When I submitted a story, I was notified "If your story follows submission guidelines, it will be posted to the site within 3 business days." That turnaround time is not conducive to community-building.
Perhaps because of these reasons, there are only two (2) stories on the site that appear to have been submitted by visitors. But I suspect that these stories were plants written by P&G agents and not real people. In a real community or chat (see below), I could carry on a conversation with the person and find out if he or she is real or not.

A Dysfunctional Community
Not only can't I carry on a conversation with people posting stories to the Asacol UC Community, I cannot even have a meaningful conversation with P&G or Asacol via the "community."

When I submit a story, for example, I am not asked for my email address so that I can be notified if my story was accepted or not. That's just a common courtesy.

In fact, P&G is sending confusing messages regarding submission of email addresses. Does it want to collect email addresses or doesn't it?

The guidelines for story submission says "you shall not submit any content...that includes information that addresses," among other things. Interestingly, however, the Terms & Conditions suggest that you can submit your email address with a story: "By submitting your email address in connection with your story, you agree that Asacol and its third party service providers may use your email address to contact you about the status of your story and other administrative purposes."

I'm totally confused by all this! Luckily, most consumers never read guidelines or Terms and Conditions as carefully as I do, otherwise they would realize how dysfunctional the Asacol Community for UC Patients really is.

A More Serious Problem
Aside from all this, I notice a peculiar problem with the story submission process, which is apparently provided by "Bazaarvoice, a company who provides a framework for capturing, managing, marketing and leveraging authentic user-generated content so that brands can capture and leverage their customer 'word of mouth' asset," according to Ellen.

When you submit a story, you can click on a "Helpful Tips" link next to the subject line. I am the sort of person who needs all the help he can get, so I clicked on it. The screen capture below reveals what I found.

(Click on image for an enlarged view.)

Although P&G's guidelines for submitting stories expressly prohibits mentioning product names, let alone benefits, the help message contradicts that warning and says that you have a better chance of getting your story published if you "Use the product before writing about it" and "Focus on the product's features and be specific."

This is obviously some kind of bizaare glitch in Bazaarvoice's software, which was obviously NOT modified appropriately for pharmaceutical company use.

P&G should thank me Profusely & Gratefully for pointing this out (I used to be a software tester and documentation expert; hire me next time before you launch a website!).

Aside from these "user-generated" stories, the Asacol site includes "Success Stories," which are obviously well-crafted stories written by P&G or its agents about seemingly real people. Links to these stories appear next to the link for "Shar[ing] Your Story," thereby giving visitors the impression that the "success stories" were submitted by people like them. Could be, I don't know. But have these people been compensated by P&G for use of their stories and images? From the Terms I guess that there is no compensation: "For any content that you submit, you grant Asacol a perpetual, irrevocable, royalty-free, transferable right and license to use, copy, modify, delete in its entirety, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from and/or sell and/or distribute such content and/or incorporate such content into any form, medium or technology throughout the world without compensation to you."

All these "stories," whether actually submitted by real people or not, contribute to a feeling of community on the site, but it is a faux and dysfunctional community at best. NOTE: I've written about faux pharma social media before (see "Faux Social Marketing: Have Your Cake and Eat It Too!").

What should a REAL UC Community look like?

I found one on the site (see screen capture below). This is obviously a real, vibrant, and up-to-date community of people suffering from UC. There are hundreds of topics being discussed and also products by name. That, however, did not discourage Shire from advertising Lialda, its UC product, prominently on the site (although when you click on the ad, you are directed to a survey instead of the promised free trial!). I am sure that Shire gets much better ROI out of that one ad than P&G gets out of its UC "Community!"

(Click on image for an enlarged view.)


  1. John

    Great post, thank you. I know you've discussed this before, but I think it's safe to assume (or maybe not) P&G (and other pharma's) is simply trying to prevent patients/consumers from trashing their product or discuss any side affects on a community forum? This makes sense, but leads me to another question, if you want to avoid negative posts about your product, then why set-up a community forum at all? That's what's so perplexing about this.

    Thanks again, great post.

  2. Nicole,

    You are absolutely correct! In fact, at least one pharma company has arranged to sponsor REAL conversations and is going to be able to handle AEs, if any are received. See "Finally, a Drug Company Embraces Social Media, AEs Included!" (


  3. John, appreciate your further analysis and viewpoint.

    While I do not for a moment feel that the Asacol community is the ‘Cadillac’ of social media programs (as I also said in my blog), I do feel that they’ve made a big step-and one that hopefully they will further improve upon , evolve and refine- in that they’ve worked through the potential regulatory issues and concerns to incorporate a new platform on their branded site that can begin to offer and engage ‘some’ social media and community building aspects on it—By that I mean one way through the ability to provide a story that others can learn from and rate as useful or not. (I’m assuming that the stories on the website are real and not planted by P&G. I would also hope that the turnaround time would improve from 36 hours with experience).

    Secondly, unlike other pharma sites right now, they are attempting to allow consumers to propose and answer questions, and again rate them. This can be a powerful benefit to consumers with UC. In this instance, it seems that some of their ‘problem’ is that they don’t have enough traffic on their site and it may not be graphically and functionally as strong as it could be (more an issue around lack of marketing and integration of tactics and media)… But providing the ability to ask and answer questions is a new form of community building that is not currently offered on branded pharma sites, not on other UC branded sites either…

    If not all aspects of the functionality is working as best it can to fulfill these community promises, then I also assume that P&G is working to remedy these. It’s no different than any other site that launches and continues to improve content and functionality while working through the kinks as they learn.

    Further, while I really like many other efforts that are occurring across the industry e.g.Shire’s in UC, UCB’s Epilepsy work in development with Patients Like Me, the asthma and diabetes stories on sites and YouTube, WEGO health COL’s etc, I still feel that taking the first steps to have moderated chat on a branded site is indeed a step forward in the social media world for pharma, and one that we should help support and encourage.
    Indeed the pharma industry continues to struggle to figure out how to apply web 2.0, health 2.0 and other SM platforms…not always as quickly as we’d hope, but often it can be better to jump in and try…So while not all of these new endeavors will ultimately live up to our different standards, I think you’d agree that most of us are all here to try to keep pushing and motivating more and better action across the healthcare industry.

    My personal hope will be that someone will take this platform and idea and execute it much better! It is also my hope that companies and brands will continue to realize that they can work around the fears of AEs in a way that can add further value to patients and meet FDA standards…and allow consumers/patients to directly ask and speak to treatment experiences.
    As you well know, there are many different ways to encourage a dialog or community…while some may say that if pharma can’t offer their consumers a chance to talk about brands then they shouldn’t do it all—I’m not sure I fully agree that it’s an all or nothing proposition—what’s most important is that pharma brands are providing added value to their consumers/patients and continuing to learn and evolve. I think there are many places that consumers can get their information and participate in fulfilling communities. Hopefully, pharma will try different aspects of community building and host different communities in different places to continue their learning and brand building…
    To be continued for sure…

  4. Ellen,

    I appreciate your comments.

    With regard to a defense of this site as a work in progress in which the kinks have to worked out, I would have to say shame on P&G for releasing a "beta" version that's not ready for prime time. To me, this is the ultimate in disdain for their visitors who should demand a "Cadillac" and not a "Yugo" when it comes to user experience! Especially from a consumer-centric company like P&G! Perhaps, as you suggest, there aren't that many visitors to the site to matter much to P&G.

    There have been a few previous efforts by pharma companies to build communities that P&G could have studied and learned from. I cite, for example,, which was created by GSK prior to launch of over-the-counter alli in 2006 (see "Question Everything"; Although I had some of the same criticisms of this community as I have of the Asacol UC community, it ran flawlessly and had REAL conversations going on. Surely, P&G could have learned from GSk and from my comments to improve upon a 2006 site in 2009!


  5. John,

    I'm writing as a representative from P&G Pharmaceuticals.

    Our vision for the Asacol Community is to provide disease state information and enable patients to talk to each other about their disease and their personal successes. In fact, this Community section is part of a much larger Asacol website that has been a very valuable resource for both patients and physicians for several years.

    With regard to the Community section, due to restrictions impacting the entire pharma industry for branded websites, we face challenges achieving the vision we have for this Asacol Community website. That said, we are committed to figuring out how to do this correctly in a way that is valued by patients, even if we stumble at first.

    We hold ourselves, as well as our partners, to the highest ethical standards, and we assure you that the patient testimonials you see on the site are from real patients. We understand the value of enabling patients to share stories and experiences. We are trying to take steps in the right direction and are currently exploring ways to make a more open Asacol Patient Community a reality, and we sincerely appreciate your comments.

    Scott Docherty
    External Relations
    Procter & Gamble Pharmaceuticals

  6. Scott,

    Thanks for your response. I look forward to seeing how the community evolves.


  7. Anonymous11:06 AM


    I'm sure the Asacol "community" isn't the only example of this. Glad you picked up on it and picked out the glaringly obvious attempts at feigning a community.

    This isn't far removed from the spam pages full of "testimonials" that run to great lengths and feature several hundred calls-to-action.

    I am surprised there isn't direct links to PayPal payments in the sidebars...


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