What will Timeline format mean for businesses using Facebook?

Facebook announced last week that it would be switching Pages – its online offering for businesses, organizations – to the same Timeline format it began rolling out for its personal users months ago. No longer will visitors to a business’ Facebook page be greeted by a landing tab to entice consumers to “Like” them. Now the previous conversations on the business’ timeline – which are more easily accessible under the new format – will have to attract new subscribers.

The idea makes some sense. Since Social Media emphasizes two-way conversation (as opposed to the one-way shouting of an advertisement), wouldn’t you want your conversations to be the focus of your Facebook page? But what will this impact mean in reality for for businesses and organizations using Facebook?

What new opportunities does this change provide? What challenges does it provide?

We discussed this topic – at least in a healthcare context – last night on the weekly Health Communication and Social Media Tweetchat that I participate in most Sunday nights on Twitter. One participant noted that the Timeline format, and the ease it provides in accessing older content, allows businesses to engage their audience using older content. Another participant noted that the new format allows page viewers to send a private message to the administrator of that Facebook page, even if said viewers don’t “like” that page.

I’m a little skeptical of the latter point. A private message on Facebook is essentially the same as an e-mail (or a direct message on Twitter), so I have a hard time considering that “engagement” in the Social Media sense. But making it easier for current and potential future customers to contact you via Facebook could build more trust. You need to make sure, however, that the administrators can truly speak on behalf of your company. Ideally, they will be actual employees of your business. But since that may not be economically feasible in this day and age, a really good agency with outstanding knowledge of Social Media, consumer engagement and your brand could do this too.

What do you think of this change? Do you see Facebook going to the Timeline format as a positive for businesses and organizations? A negative?

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.

Are the obstacles to hospitals using Social Media really “myths?”

The Mayo Clinic and Ragan recently held their third annual Health Care Social Media summit. And among the presenters was popular writer and Social Media expert Shel Holtz, who debunked the myths that he says keep hospitals from utilizing Social Media.

I highly respect Mr. Holtz’s opinion, but I believe it is a stretch to call them myths. They are certainly obstacles hospitals can and should overcome. But they are legitimate obstacles.

Holtz specifically mentions the possible negative effect on workplace productivity, the risks of exposing the hospital’s networks to viruses and malware, HIPAA concerns and consuming the hospital’s bandwith. You can definitely overcome those obstacles by investing in sound IT infrastructure and putting clear guidelines in place and strictly enforcing them. Yes, hospitals can and do exaggerate the dangers of these potential pitfalls. But to call them myths is a similar exaggeration. Just ask any hospital that has been slapped with a fine and/or a lawsuit for revealing a patient’s identity on Social Media, however unintentionally.

Another reason hospitals, particularly religious ministry hospitals, block Social Media are ethical concerns. This was the case at one hospital I worked for, which is run by the Sisters of Mercy, a Roman Catholic religious order. Such institutions are not only providing healthcare, they are also doing so in the context of their religion’s principles and values. While we may not agree with another religion’s beliefs, how can we expect a hospital supported by a religion to not adhere to that religion’s beliefs?

Are there other reasons you can think of for why more hospitals aren’t using Social Media? Would you consider those reasons to be myths?

Clinical trial sponsors, investigators must now account for social media in study designs

The Pink Sheet is a newsletter on the pharmaceutical industry read by many drug manufacturers. One recent issue had a report discussing the impact of Social Media, such as Facebook, on the design and execution of clinical trials.

You can read the whole story here: Social Networks in Clinical Trial Design

Clinical trials, in particular the all-important Phase 3 Pivotal trials, cost many millions of dollars to execute. They are designed meticulously, especially when it comes to blinding and randomization controls. Study subjects can’t know whether they took the study drug, the placebo (or, if applicable, the comparative drug) until after the trial is completed. If they did, they might not react naturally or adhere to the study protocol, and the trial results could be compromised.

Derrick Gingery reports:

Craig Lipset, Pfizer senior director in clinical research, said patients are using chat rooms and forums directed at specific diseases, in some cases talking about the clinical trials in which they are participating and their experiences with the study drugs. The online talk could threaten a trial’s blinding and randomization, especially as patients are more able to interact with other trial participants, he noted.

At the same time, as Lipset says later in the story, asking clinical trial subjects to refrain from using Social Media is not realistic. Recruiting subjects for clinical trials and getting them to follow existing protocols is hard enough as it is. So trial sponsors and investigators need to account for these tools in designing clinical trials.

Lipset’s employer, Pfizer, took a step in this direction this past June by conducting a virtual clinical trial for the long-acting formulation of Detrol LA. Other drug sponsors, investigators and CROs (contract research organizations) will likewise need to design clinical trials with Social Media in mind.

At the same time, researchers and pharmaceutical companies can also use Social Media to their advantage. While comments on a Facebook page or an internet message board are not statistically reliable or a substitute for the FDA’s adverse events reporting guidelines, they can provide hints of problems  before they become catastrophic public relations disasters. On a more positive note, sponsors can, as Gingery reports, tap into social media to recruit subjects for clinical trials.


NLRB’s first “Facebook Firing” ruling has implications for employers

The issue of disciplining or firing employees over their posts on Social Media is a natural consequence of these tools being available to the masses. And now there is some legal precedent – or at least National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) precedent, anyway – for future cases of this type. Brian Hall of Employer Law Report has the story.

Fired for complaining about a co-worker on Facebook

An NLRB Administrative Law Judge ruled this week in a case involving employees of the non-profit Hispanics United of Buffalo, Inc. The organization fired five employees for complaining on Facebook about the job performance of a co-worker. The co-worker complained to management, and the employees were fired.

From Hall’s report, here is how the Administrative Law Judge in the case ruled:

The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) concluded that the Facebook “communications … in reaction to a co-worker’s criticisms of the manner in which HUB employees performed their jobs are protected” under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). According to the ALJ, the terminated employees were “taking a first step towards taking group action to defend themselves against the accusations they could reasonably believe [the co-worker] was going to make to management.” By discharging the employees, the ALJ concluded, the employer prevented them from taking further action. In short, the ALJ stated,

“Employees have a protected right to discuss matters affecting their employment amongst themselves. Explicit or implicit criticism by a co-worker of the manner in which they are performing their jobs is a subject about which employee discussion is protected by Section 7.”

The ALJ went on to hold that the terminated employees did nothing to forfeit the protections of the NLRA. There was no evidence that the terminated employees violated any employer policies or rules. The Facebook posts were not made at work or during working hours and the postings contained no abusive “outbursts” that overrode the right to protection under the NLRA.

Implications for Employers and Employees regarding Social Media use
According to Hall’s report, this ruling fits with the NLRB’s Advice Memoranda on this topic. So terminating employees over complaints about co-workers on Social Media could be problematic. Of course, the terminated employee would need to pursue the entire NLRB process on his/her own, but it can be done. And even if an employer can successfully defend a legal complaint, it costs time and money and can result in the airing of other dirty laundry that they’d much rather keep hidden in the closed laundry basket. So employers should think twice before terminating employees over Social Media comments.
What do you think of this ruling?

With Social Media, one size does NOT fit all

This past Sunday, on the weekly Healthcare Social Media tweet chat, we discussed whether or not patients need to find their own way with Social Media. Is there a right way for every patient, provider or hospital to use Social Media?

The answer to that question is a resounding NO.

One size does not fit all with Social Media. Sure, there are some general guidelines people (and certainly for providers and hospitals) should or must follow. But that’s the key – they’re general. What works specifically for one entity isn’t guaranteed to work for another, no matter how similar they appear to be. This is true for all fields.

In the case of healthcare patients, you particularly need to let them find their own way. Not everyone has the same degree of comfort in sharing information about their health over Social Media. For various reasons, not everyone can share the same information over Social Media. And people have different degrees of comfort using these new tools at all. As with any tool, Social Media can backfire if you don’t know what you’re doing with it.

Similarly, not all healthcare providers can or should use Social Media the exact same way. Their patients are different, with unique needs and characteristics.

Think of it this way: if you were a public relations professional pitching a story for a pharmaceutical company in the Philadelphia area, you wouldn’t pitch the story to the Doylestown (Pa.) Intelligencer or the Philadelphia Inquirer the same way you’d pitch it to Drug Topics. Or, to use a non-PR example, you don’t tell a story to a 4-year-old child the exact same way you’d tell it to a 30-year-old adult.

When working with clients, agencies should help them develop specific plans tailored to their specific needs, then teach them how to execute those plans. Whether you hire an agency to help you or go completely on your own, you need to carefully develop and execute your own strategy, a strategy based on methodical research of your customers or patients, the market you serve and your competition. A generic, one-size-fits-all approach is not only lazy, but a recipe for failure.

U.K.’s proposed Social Media ban is too late

Social Media played a significant role in two of the major political uprisings of recent years – the post-election protests in Iran in 2009 and the demonstrations in Egypt this past spring which ultimately led to the ousting of Hosni Mubarak. And it is reportedly playing a major role in this week’s massive riots in London and across the United Kingdom – to the point that, according to MediaPost’s Erik Sass, Prime Minister David Cameron told Parliament that they should consider laws allowing officials to ban people from using Facebook, Twitter and other Social Media platforms if they believe they are using them to organize riots or otherwise plotting violence.

Cameron also reportedly said that U.K. home secretary Theresa May will meet with executives from Facebook, Twitter, and Research In Motion, which makes Blackberry devices, to determine the feasibility of a social media ban.

Let’s put aside the obvious civil liberties argument here. There is another problem with this action that is more pertinent to this blog’s discussion of communication technologies – it’s too late.

The horse is already out of the barn. The riots have been going on for a week. Even if officials can develop a means to block people using Social Media for these purposes without inadvertently violating the freedoms of those not doing so, it’s too late to make a difference.

Plus don’t forget that, if these people can access Social Media, they also likely have text-messaging and other communications tools to set up riots, flash mobs and other illegal behavior. Even the most basic mobile phones can do that. Blocking their access to Facebook and Twitter is akin to playing Whack-A-Mole: as soon as you knock one mole down, another pops up. Are they going to take all mobile phones away?

It is sad to see the images of these riots on TV and the societal problems in the U.K. that appear to have led to them. But blocking Social Media access, in addition to being hypocritical (after all, we applauded the people of Iran and Egypt for rising up), simply won’t work. It’s way too little way too late.


Pharma Facebook Pages: Did Facebook kill the Social Media star?

OK, I know that headline was a bad 80’s music pun. But John “Pharmaguy” Mack, author of the Pharma Marketing Blog, raises another great point in his post on Wednesday when he notes the timing of Facebook opening up commenting on Facebook fan pages (effective August 15) and two large pharma companies moving to shut down Facebook communities.

First, a little context here: the pharmaceutical industry has been waiting for almost two years for the FDA to issue a guidance on the use of Social Media in the industry. Yet that guidance has not come and, as I noted here months ago, isn’t expected to come until 2013, if then. So pharmaceutical companies have slowly begun dipping their toes into the water, understandably moving very carefully due to their uncertainty over how the FDA’s extensive and complicated drug advertising and marketing rules apply to these new communication tools.

One aspect of Social Media that they have great concern about is user commenting. The FDA has very specific rules regarding the reporting of adverse events, and those rules don’t include posting those tales in a public forum like a Facebook fan page. In addition, like any business, pharmaceutical companies are very protective of their reputation and don’t want one nasty, ill-informed comment to jeopardize a product that they have spent hundreds of million dollars and many years researching, developing, testing and bringing through the FDA’s new drug approval process. So they moderate user comments carefully in the Facebook communities that they set up.

Now that Facebook is opening up user commenting on Facebook pages, several pharmaceutical companies are getting cold feet about engaging patients (ie, their customers) in this space. As Mack notes, Jannsen Pharmaceuticals is shutting down its ADHD Moms community, abandoning almost 24,000 followers. And Sanofi-Aventis is shutting down its “Voices” page, redirecting patients to its Sanofi US page.

Are these companies being prudent in response to Facebook’s changes? Are they overreacting? Or, as Mack suggests at the end of his piece, is this just a cover story for other reasons to shut down these communities?

How Facebook spurred the rebirth of a minor league hockey franchise

I began my career as a newspaper sports reporter, and still dabble in that field some. One of my beats (subject areas that I covered) during those years was the ECHL minor league ice hockey team in Trenton, NJ. And the story of its revival yesterday after ceasing operations three weeks before is a testament to the power of social media, and specifically Facebook.

First, a little background. The franchise was born in 1999 as the Trenton Titans. It was affiliated with the nearby Philadelphia Flyers (who, not surprisingly, have a huge fan base in the area), but was owned by a local family and marketed an entertaining and affordable family fun experience to the area. That’s the ticket to success in marketing a minor league sports franchise, and not surprisingly, business thrived. While attendance did slip after the first season, it remained in the top tier of the ECHL.

Then the New Jersey Devils NHL franchise bought the Titans in the summer of 2006, decided to rename it as the Trenton Devils, use it as a tool to develop a few players in their system (a notoriously dull system at that, but I won’t bore the non-sports fans here with that story) and to grow their brand in the state of New Jersey. In the process, they ignored all of the things that make minor league sports franchises – particularly ECHL ones – successful. Throw in the Devils’ remarkable ineptitude when it comes to marketing (a long story unto itself), and it was a recipe for disaster. Attendance plummeted to barely 2,300 per game – dead last in the league, and the actual number of fans in the seats was often much lower. The relationships between the franchise and the surrounding community languished.

I covered the team during the first three of its four seasons under the Devils name, and it was indeed a disaster. This July 6, the Devils decided they had had enough and pulled the plug.

Photo Credit: The Times of Trenton (NJ)

Along came a group of season ticket holders going back to the franchise’s beginning, led by Bernie Haney. They formed a Facebook group called“Bring Back The

Titans” to rally support and a potential customer base that would attract a new investor to save the franchise. Hundreds joined this group, and more than 300 people pledged to buy full season tickets. Eileen and John Martinson of Bucks County, Pa., who both head successful businesses, were alerted to this group by Haney, area sports marketing expert Rich Lisk (the Titans’ GM from 2001-05) and the ECHL. The Martinsons were sufficiently impressed by the support that they bought the franchise and brought back the original Titans name and branding.

This story and its happy ending demonstrate the power of Social Media to build a successful grassroots effort. This outcome came about not through expensive TV advertising, but through Facebook. And it engaged people of all ages.

Google Plus: A worthy foe for Facebook, or another mere foil?

Late last week, I finally snagged an invitation to try Google Plus, the web search engine giant’s latest attempt to expand its brand into other aspects of the web. Notifications that people have “added” me to their various “circles” have started coming in. And when I haven’t been working late (I didn’t get home until 10 p.m. four straight nights), I have been trying out the latest Social Media tool to become all the rage.

The question is, is this just another Web 2.0 fad? Or is Facebook, the Social Media behemoth, finally getting a worthy foe to compete against?

One advantage Google Plus has is its method of arranging friends. When you add a friend, you immediately are prompted to indicate which “circle” you want to put him/her in. You can put friends in multiple circles, and you can use these circles to communicate and share content with only specific groups of friends. This process is far more cumbersome on Facebook.

Another advantage to Google Plus are “hangouts.” If you have a webcam and the necessary computer software (and can afford the several hundred dollars required for both), you can start and conduct online videochats with people in your circles. You need the right hardware and software for this, but if you have it, you can do something with Google Plus that you can’t do with Facebook.

Google Plus is also integrated with Google’s other web-based products, including the ubiquitous GMail. When you’re in any Google product, a task bar appears at the top of your screen that both allows you to post updates and receive notifications.

But will this be enough to topple Facebook from its pedestal? Google is a very well-known brand, but so is Facebook. And you don’t have over 500 million users worldwide, as Facebook has, if you don’t have a damn good product. Google’s previous attempts at competing with Facebook (namely Google Buzz) haven’t succeeded. And the other social networking sites that have taken off since Facebook are more focused on sharing specific kinds of content (such as Tout), as opposed to an all-encompasing Social Networking platform like Facebook has become. Do Facebook users really need or want another such platform? If not, will they like Google Plus enough to switch over?

We’ll see what happens. It might not be such a bad thing for Facebook to get legit competition, because competition forces you to improve your product offering. But Google Plus has a long ways to go before it can think about beating Facebook.

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