My colleague Pete Blackshaw recently hosted a conference call through Nielsen Online's Social Media and Advocacy Round Table, focused on how brands can leverage the power of consumers' contributions to the online community. In the call, Scott Wilder, Small Business Online Communities manager for software publisher Intuit, described listening to customer feedback through Intuit's call center and realizing that customers thought their problems were unique, and that they felt alone in trying to deal with these problems. The solution: Intuit created an online community to help users connect to one another. The company then took it a step further, tapping individuals from the community as "credentialed authors" who can serve as discussion moderators within their areas of expertise.
How is this relevant to healthcare? We know from our Buzz research that patients -- like Intuit's customers -- often feel alone with their condition, and come online looking to connect with others "like me." The online community already is home to influential patients in many different disease categories who are highly informed about their condition, experienced with different treatment options and respected within their communities. When these influencers share their personal experiences with different medications, their online peers listen. Could there be a credentialed role for some of these influential patients, like the model of Intuit's online customer community?
Case study: In GSK's alli discussion forums, weight loss experts with different areas of expertise serve as community moderators. According to the site, the moderators are "compensated for their time but the opinions are their own." GSK is very direct with visitors to the forum that "what you and we can say about alli and how to use it is restricted by Federal laws and regulations," meaning that comments must be reviewed before they are posted and that some information shared on the site will need to be reported to the FDA.
I fully recognize that OTC is a different world from prescription treatments, so alli does not face the same types of restrictions that many other brands will. But consider this: In EyeonFDA's recent interview with Dr. Jean Ah Kang of the FDA/DDMAC about pharmas and Web 2.0 (see my earlier blog post on this topic), Dr. Kang notes that a pharmaceutical company might enlist a consumer to act on behalf of the brand to communicate information within the online community. A brief mention, yes, but it's not off the radar for the FDA.
Has the time come for pharma companies to bring some of these influential individuals into the fold? There will be challenges, to be sure. And, as Intuit's Scott Wilder noted, one size does not fit all -- it will take some experimentation to find the best solution for any company and its customers. But, as Wilder also noted, the benefits in engaging customers and providing the answers and information they need can be well worth the investment.