The best businesses allow customer criticism

One of the blogs I have feeding into my RSS Reader in Outlook is Phil Baumann’s “Health is Social” blog. In his latest post, he makes the argument that the best hospitals enable customers to provide negative feedback.

I would venture to say that this same argument can be made for businesses in most or even all industries, not just hospitals.

Nobody likes negative feedback. Nobody likes being told that they’re bad or doing something wrong. But such feedback can be very valuable as well. You can learn about your mistakes and flaws and (hopefully!) fix them before they become more costly. And businesses can learn about how to adapt their product or service offering to better serve its customers.

The ability to receive and harvest that feedback is the greatest benefit of Social Media. Previously, the only way businesses could get steady feedback from customers was from watching whether their sales increased or decreased, by which point the problem was costing the business money. And even then you might not ever know what the problem really was.

The pharmaceutical industry has been perhaps the most hesitant to embrace Social Media, partly because of the lack of guidance, and also partly due to its fear of patients sharing adverse events that, even if they had nothing to do with the drug itself, could still convict the company in the court of public opinion (see my earlier blog post on this subject). But even that feedback can be beneficial. If nothing else, it could provide more insight as to who their customers are, where they are and what they do, allowing the company to refine its marketing strategies and tactics. This knowledge could even identify a new therapeutic area might want to investigate.

It never feels good to get criticized. But it is often the best thing that can happen to us. When the news is good, we are more tempted to ignore the areas still needing improvement. But negative feedback allows us – and businesses – to confront our shortcomings and fix them.

Social media can be powerful…if used properly

Phil Baumann is one of the healthcare industry’s top social media voices. A nurse by training, Baumann runs the website Health Is Social and was writing about the ways Twitter could be used in healthcare before many healthcare organizations knew Twitter existed. And in a recent blog post, he raised the question of whether or not  healthcare marketers are ruining Twitter by overusing hashtags, sending out spam and other lame tweets simply to shout their message and otherwise abusing what can and should be a very powerful communications tool.

The same lesson applies to other industries.

Social Media is not only another tool your business can leverage to improve its product/service offering, it’s something that businesses should use if it adds value to your business. But as with any tool, you need to use Social Media correctly or it could backfire. Just as a construction worker shouldn’t use a jackhammer without knowing how to use it and what to use it for, nor should a communications professional use Social Media.

The key to using Social Media properly is the ability to listen to what your customers are saying about your product and/or its market. Social Media allows even Ordinary Joes and Janes to become, in essence, Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs in marketing venacular) if they’re followed by enough people interested in the subject. A tweet or blog post is not just another means of shouting your message the way you would with a television advertisement.

Loading your tweets up with hashtags just to maximize your tweet’s exposure won’t turn that exposure into a return on your investment. If anything, it will come across as just another cheap play for their interest. Same for sending out an automatic tweet to someone whenever they follow you. The most annoying ones are the automatic tweets that you receive whenever you mention a product in a tweet, regardless of the context. I randomly mentioned the iPad in a tweet one Sunday night during my weekly participation in the Healthcare Social Media tweet chat and promptly received two autotweets from people offering to sell me an iPad. Oh joy.

Don’t use Social Media unless you’ve thought through what you want to get out of it, you know how to use it and you and your organization are ready to make the commitment necessary to do it. When you are ready to jump in, be ready to do a whole lot of listening and reacting. Save the one-way shouting for your paid advertising and media outreach.

Do it, but do it right.

FDA social media guidance delayed again….until 2013!

I’m never surprised when government acts very slowly. But it has gotten beyond that now with the FDA’s pharmaceutical social media guidance. As Ogilvy’s Rohit Bhargava appropriately notes in the headline for this piece, the FDA just doesn’t appear to be that into providing guidance on social media.

Bhargava, citing an FDA document that outlines the agency’s priorities for 2011-2015, reports that a social media guidance, originally expected to be released by the end of last year, now likely won’t be released until at least 2013. Not for another two years. Even if the FDA actually releases a guidance that year (yeah, right), it will be almost four years after it held its public hearing on social media. It will also be almost 10 years after the debut of Facebook, seven years after the debut of Twitter, and even longer after message boards, blogs and ratings sites became available to the masses.

By then, the FDA will be way behind the times on this technology.

Pharmaceutical companies should probably give up waiting for FDA guidance at this point, if they haven’t already. It’s clear that they need to participate in social media. So they should just develop their social media plan and policies as best as they can using existing DDMAC guidelines. Use common sense and pay attention to when the FDA flags other pharmaceutical companies for violating DDMAC guidelines with social media, so you can learn from others’ mistakes.

It’s by no means an ideal way to go into social media. But the FDA clearly doesn’t care enough about this to publish a guidance anytime soon. Pharmaceutical companies still waiting can’t wait any longer. Just do the best you can with what you have.

 

 

Pharma Marketing Fail: Letting a third party execute your social media strategy

As I have mentioned here before, one of the big (if not the biggest) reason why Pharma is hesitant to engage in social media is all of the regulation the FDA places on drug marketing. The FDA still hasn’t put out its long-promised social media guidance. And while pharma companies are slowly beginning to enter the social media waters, there are stumbles such as the recent one involving AstraZeneca’s “Take on Depression” discussion on Facebook.  John Mack describes it in more detail on his blog, but to sum it up, discussion participants waiting for the application to load noticed that the URL http://www.seroquelfbdiscapp.com/ was also being accessed. That would be cross-marketing for Seroquel, AstraZeneca’s new anti-depression drug. This act is a violation of FDA guidelines.

The real interesting thing here, though, as Rich Meyer notes, is that this social media program was being executed by Edelman, one of the world’s largest PR firms. Some of the work for this program was also being outsourced to other individuals. Bad move on AstraZeneca’s part.

With all of the complex regulation involved in pharmaceutical marketing, social media programs need to be executed by the pharmaceutical companies themselves. They have the staff on site that thoroughly understands the FDA’s drug marketing regulations and what they allow and don’t allow. Even large agencies like Edelman may not have specialists in this area. Certainly smaller agencies may not have the expertise in this area. And when you don’t know what you’re doing with FDA-regulated marketing, you could find yourself getting a warning letter or a fine from Uncle Sam.

It’s one thing to have an outside agency help with designing your social media strategy. But once it is designed, it should be executed in-house. If you’re a major pharmaceutical company like AstraZeneca, there is no excuse for not doing this. If you’re a small company and absolutely don’t have the resources to dedicate someone on staff to this task, make sure that the agency you outsource it to knows FDA drug marketing regulations and how to comply with them.  It may cost you a little more money now. But it could save you A LOT of money (in the form of FDA fines) later.

The Top 10 Corporate Blogs, and why they’re important

Happy New Year! The calendar has flipped to 2011. And a new year means new developments in technologies. Corporate blogs are a relatively new phenomenon. But as time goes on and more people join the groundswell, they become an increasingly important tool for companies to reach and build relationships with their customers.

Social Media Today’s Mark Schaefer came out with his list of the Top 10 Corporate Blogs in the world this week. Here is what he came up with, in no particular order:

Caterpillar

Starbucks

Marriott

Manpower

Wegman’s

General Electric

Fiskars

Southwest Airlines

Patagonia

Whole Foods Market

Notice how diverse this collection of companies is. And a lot of them are not from industries that we necessarily call “hip.” It includes a major international hotel chain, a construction machinery manufacturer and one of the oldest major corporations in America. And the people posting content are not just the company PR representatives or regurgitating press releases and marketing talking points. Marriott’s blog is written by its CEO. General Electric’s blog builds brand awareness through telling stories about its products, fitting with the company’s old slogan. And Wegman’s – one grocery store chain in a country filled with them – uses a fun style and pointers on where to find ingredients for good meals to stand out from the crowd.

Not all businesses can do a corporate blog the same way. And you obviously need to have a plan of what you want to accomplish and how to get there. Don’t just start a blog for the sake of doing so.

But businesses whose customers participate in the groundswell need to have corporate blogs. In addition to increasing your company’s online presence (the more times your name is mentioned online, the more prominent you are in search engine results), it makes you more transparent. This builds trust with your customers, and in a time when people are more skeptical of corporations than ever, that is no minor accomplishment.

Social Media in Healthcare: Do it to help patients, and profits will follow

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending a workshop run by the American Marketing Association’s Washington, DC chapter on social media’s impact on healthcare. The workshop’s leader, Joel Selzer, is the founder and CEO of Ozmosis, a social network exclusively for physicians to exchange knowledge, facilitate consults more easily and combine the collective wisdom in their field.

Mr. Selzer raised a number of great points – some of which I knew already, many of which I didn’t. But he made one particular point that explains what should motivate health care providers and organizations to use social media: Don’t use it as just another marketing tool to increase profits, do it to help your patients, and the rest will take care of itself.

Marketing in healthcare is not like marketing in education, computers or any other industry. Healthcare is, obviously, a very emotional subject to people, and one where price is a less important factor in purchase decisions. After all, you’re not going to just let yourself die from a medical condition because of the monetary price of treatment.

Consequently, healthcare can’t look at the use of social media as a marketing tool just to help your bottom line. If you do, you’ll sound callous to your customers, and your efforts will probably backfire. While healthcare providers, like any business, need to make money, they should use social media as a means to improve their patients’ healthcare outcomes. Do that, Selzer says, and the profits – the ROI that drives business decisions in almost any other field – will follow.

For example, they should write a blog to raise their publics’ attention to health issues and news and to explain those items in layman’s terms. The goal of that should be to make their publics more knowledgeable about their health, and therefore better patients. Make that the focus, and that blog will have the byproduct of driving more patients to their practice.

You can follow Selzer on Twitter.

E-patients: The changing face of healthcare

In honor of its 100th Anniversary, Swedish Medical Center of Seattle ran a two-day symposium on health care in the age of reform. I really wish I had been able to attend this in person (if only it didn’t take 6 hours and more than $500 to get from Philadelphia to Seattle, not even including hotel), but technology and my work schedule fortunately allowed me to watch parts of it online. I especially enjoyed one of the preliminary events covered health care in the age of social media – a topic very dear to my heart (as you can probably tell from this blog!).

There were two featured speakers at this preliminary event – Seattle Pediatrician Wendy Sue Swanson (author of the Seattle Mama Doc blog) and Dave deBronkart (better known in the twitter-verse as “epatientdave“). Dr. Swanson’s keynote speech was certainly outstanding in its own right. But deBronkart’s speech was particularly noteworthy because he discussed a concept for which he is one of the leading champions – the “e-patient.” And that concept is becoming an increasing factor in healthcare, one which patients, providers, pharmaceutical companies and insurers alike would be well-advised to heed.

In January 2007, deBronkart was faced with Stage IV cancer. He was given about 24 weeks to live. But he beat the odds, and defeated the disease by that September. Since then, he has advocated for patients to have more access to health information, and for patients to use this information.

The graphic in this post (credit Kru Research) gives a very specific definition of an e-patient, but the bottom line is that e-patients are smarter health care consumers who are able and willing to participate more in their health care. Both through reading on their own and conversing with others through social media tools, patients are entering the doctor’s office armed with more knowledge about their condition(s) than ever before.

The resulting practice, commonly called “participatory medicine,” is having a major impact on health care. Patients who know more about health issues and treatment options are able to ask better questions in the doctor’s office. Rather than blindly follow “doctor’s orders,” patients are increasingly managing their health in partnership with their doctors. This trend is also apparent with pharmaceutical manufacturers and even with insurers.

deBronkart’s story is a very moving and inspirational one, and can be read in more detail in his book Laugh, Sing and Eat Like a Pig – How an Empowered Patient Beat Stage IV Cancer (and what healthcare can learn from it).  Click here to order it through Amazon.com.

The new challenges in switching from journalism to a career in PR

I was recently given the great priviledge of writing a guest post for PR at Sunrise on the new challenges involved with moving from journalism into public relations.

To read the guest post, click here. And while you’re there, be sure to read the other submissions on PR at Sunrise. The author, Andrew Worob, is an experienced and accomplished PR practitioner. Between his posts and his guest submissions, PR at Sunrise is a good source of insights on the industry.

Pharma can learn lesson from GSK re: Avandia, social media

Pharmaceutical companies, and any business for that matter, can use social media to communicate directly with customers. They can also use it to monitor their publics’ reaction and get feedback – both directly and indirectly.

According to one report that crossed my Twitter feed this week, pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline could have found out about adverse events with its diabetes drug Avandia if it had been monitoring social media in 2004 – two years before meta analysis officially linked the product to a higher risk of heart attack.

Obviously, few, if any, businesses monitored social media in 2004. But message boards and blogs (albeit more rudimentary ones than found today) did exist then. And according to Marc Iskowitz of Medical Marketing and Media, even then, consumers were raising questions about Avandia’s safety on blogs and message boards.

There is a lesson here for GSK and other pharmaceutical manufacturers reluctant to embrace social media: use those tools to hear what your customers are saying. You may be able to nip a problem in the bud before it becomes an all-out catastrophe for your business.

Since GSK didn’t actively monitor social media back in 2004, Avandia’s potential safety issues didn’t come to light until 2006. Now the product has become the subject of more than 13,000 lawsuits (of which GSK has settled approximately 11,500). Late last month, the European Medicines Agency recommended that Avandia be removed from the European Market. The drug is also under investigation by the FDA in the United States. And Avandia sales dropped by almost 50% from 2006 to 2009.

Had GSK seen that patients were complaining sooner, it might have been able to identify the problems, or potential problems, on its own, before someone else did. It still may have lost some sales, but it would have avoided the PR damage. It could have demonstrated transparency in an industry that has very little of it and quickly worked to rebuild trust with its customers and the general public.

Hopefully, now that even pharmaceutical companies are increasingly using social media, they will learn their lesson.

 

Anonymity limits what you can get out of social media

I participated in the weekly health care social media tweetchat on Twitter this past Sunday night. As always, it was a riveting discussion featuring healthcare communications professionals, individuals who have built a personal following blogging about their medical conditions and a few healthcare practitioners.

One of the topics that came up this week was whether or not patients using social media should be allowed anonymity. Of course, HIPAA always must be strictly enforced by healthcare practitioners. But aside from that, should, say, someone who is being treated for cancer and wants to blog and/or tweet about their experience be allowed to do so without revealing his or her identity?

The answer is yes – it’s your blog. But then you’re not going to get the most out of your use of social media.

Simply put, you have to give something to get something. If you won’t reveal who you are, you’re going to have a hard time building trust with your audience. And if your audience doesn’t trust you, you can’t engage them and get feedback, thoughts, advice or whatever else they might otherwise be willing to share with you. Why should I trust you with information about my experiences if you won’t trust me by identifying yourself?

Remember, social media is about conversation. It’s two-way communication. And your conversation will only be so fulfilling if one side wants to hide behind a cloak of anonymity.

If all you want to do is have an online diary, available for all of the world to read, then I guess you can remain anonymous. But if you’re going to be putting your story online, you probably want to get a positive return on that. And in order to get that positive return, you need to reveal yourself. The more you provide others, the more you’ll get back.

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