As the Diabetes Social Media Summit hosted by Roche approaches, I've been thinking and reading a lot about the question of Pharma engagement here. Is Social Media destined to be just another forum for them to push marketing mantras and build brands? Or can there really be valuable two-way interaction between the chronically drug-dependent (us PWDs, for example) and the industry that sells us our meds?
As a "veteran" diabetes blogger and a relative newbie on Twitter, here are some of my current thoughts:
First off, why such a sharp focus on Twitter? If you ask me, Twitter is enjoying a somewhat outrageous popularity "bubble" at the moment that's got everyone in a tither. Come on, do companies like Whole Foods really need a Twitter feed? What exactly is covered by "fresh organic tweets," anyway? Yes, I know: they have over a million followers. But that doesn't mean the whole exercise isn't a bit inane.
Still, I do enjoy tweeting myself. It's addictive. But it certainly has its pros and cons -
- you can connect with friends and acquaintances with similar interests
- great way to find links to interesting/offbeat sites and blogs
- entertainment value!
- it's a huge time-suck
- loads of tweets are generic/stupid/inane
- advertising and spam is creeping in fast
For more on a patient's-eye-view of the Twitter backlash, Scott Strumello's 'All You Twits' post is a must-read.
Second, the problem I have with any big company's Twitter feed or corporate blog, etc., is that the content is still generally created and controlled the old way: by corporate communications departments, and/or pricey agencies that aren't really connected with anything big that would matter to a patient — for example, how to get your insurance company to cover the meds you desperately need. So why bother interacting with a simple PR channel? If it's interactive at all...
Most of these feeds are not. John Mack of Pharma Marketing Blog points out that Novo Nordisk's @racewithinsulin — its feed from race car driver Charlie Kimball on using Levemir — doesn't actually follow any other Twitters, nor allow direct messages from anyone. It is "using Twitter as a one way information stream." So they've taken the 'social' out of Social Media.
Have a look at John's "three little pigs" story illustrating two bad and one good use of Social Media by Pharma companies. He thinks UCB has found the Holy Grail with the new community they're planning to open on the Patients Like Me site. It will be both a place to interact, and to actually log and share statistical data on treatments. It constitutes another pharma-sponsored community, like ChildrenwithDiabetes now is. What remains to be seen is how much the sponsor's presence will be felt...?
Which brings us to a third key aspect here: the potential conflicts of interest, for example, when journalists, bloggers, and other "influencers" find themselves "dining on pharma's dime" (with our clothes on, thank you very much.) Does it compromise 'Us' to be hosted by 'Them'?
I would argue not necessarily, if it's done right. An occasional dinner or once-yearly Summit isn't going to stop me from shouting out loud if the company in question does something unethical, exploitative, or just plain dumb.
In fact, the Diabetes Online Community had been in heated discussion about possibly pulling together some sort of conference for Adults with Type 1; we were pretty clear on the fact that we couldn't pull it off without the sponsorship of one of the big Pharma companies, which have both a vested interest and the cash to make it happen. How would that be much different than hosting us 'at their place' for this upcoming Summit? And Roche isn't dumb; they're being very careful to organize this event in a way that no one feels compromised.
In summary, all I do know is that we patients not only co-exist with these companies, we depend on them. And they depend on us. It's a symbiotic relationship. Thus, we want and need to interact — not with hired mouthpieces, but with real employees (real people), who have real influence on what's going on inside.
To date, nobody has the magic formula for how Pharma can do Social Media just right. So, um, why not ask the patient community directly? I give Roche a lot of credit for dipping in and giving it a go. It certainly will be fascinating to see what comes out of our on-site conversations this week...