A few weeks back, I read a really simple, but (to me) really important blog post from Stephen Saber, CEO of CrossTech Group – the parent company of New Marketing Labs, CrossTech Media, and CrossTech Partners. (Like many of my best finds, I came across this on Twitter, so I’ll say it again, if you don’t have an account, get one now.)
The premise of Stephen’s post was simple: should marketers be creating communities or channels in the social media space? Stephen argued for channels and I completely agree. I also think that as far as pharma and healthcare marketing goes, this is the only way to go. So, what’s a community and what’s a channel? Here’s how Stephen defined them:
“Communities, in their truest sense, are made up of a large number of equally important individuals meeting each other, sharing ideas, and communicating with and amongst each other. While a community might have a community manager and / or a community leader, all people are – for all intents and purposes – treated equal.
Channels – on the other hand - still have many of the same aspects of community – the ability to communicate, comment, share ideas, and connect – but they are focused on a certain, designated group of content providers who formulate the thought leaders of the group.”
Okay, simple enough. Communities feature everyone having equal weight in what the community is about and what is said, like Twitter. Channels feature a handful of people with a disproportionate amount of weight, like editors and like every newspaper or news site.
Healthcare marketers have struggled to figure out how to effectively use social media without some of the regulatory worries that surely would come by having a completely open community. Some companies have tried (and even been successful) by providing a limited amount of social interaction among site visitors (check out the Pharma and Healthcare Social Media Wiki for examples). But many are still looking for a way to engage with people and create true communities. Many in the industry, including John Mack, have advocated for a public hearing and clear guidelines from the FDA on the proper use of social media (i.e., how to do it without getting in trouble). I’ve even advocated this on a number of occasions.
But now I’m not so sure. Is it really important to have a completely wide open community where everyone can publish every thought they have on every the topic? Is that really meaningful to people? Do people really look at everyone as providing equal value? No, they don’t. A great example Stephen use is Twitter: “While most Twitter users are following hundreds of people, they are truly only following a select few people and paying much looser attention to the others. In fact, for new Twitter users – the first questions are always the same – who should I follow – who is worth listening to. They are readily admitting that while they will follow many, they will only listen to some.”
I know this is true for me. I really only pay attention to probably 30 of the 1500+ people I officially “follow.” I know that these people are providing information that is consistently valuable and provides a real benefit for me. Everything else fits in one of two categories: noise or nonsense. Noise is simply the massive volume of information out there that I simply (as a human with limited time) cannot process. Some of it may be good, but I can’t read everything. Nonsense is just that…the “crazies” that are part of every community and spend a lot of time shouting at the rain. So, to avoid these, I have to focus what I pay attention to. Twitter is officially a community, but for me, I use it like a channel.
I realized from reading Stephen’s post that I really only engage with channels. They are sites where one or a handful of people controls the content and discussion and everyone else can simply add their thoughts if they’d like. A big reason for this is because I know who the people are that are supplying the information. I know that they are credible, have excellent experience, and have things to say that make sense to me and I can relate to. You probably do this too. You read one newspaper (online or off). What are those? Channels. A community newspaper would be a disaster. Just read some of the community-supplied “news” you can find on Twitter regarding the swine flu. You read product reviews. These are community supplied, but you probably look for those where others have deemed the review useful (as they do on Amazon). You also probably read expert reviews first. That’s channel behavior. Even things that appear to be true communities usually aren’t. Take Wikipedia. Yes, anyone can edit Wikipedia, but in reality, what ends up actually staying edited is controlled by a really small group of people who closely monitor changes and are very picky about what gets changed (and rightly so).
I’m not saying that true communities don’t exist, but I am saying that most people don’t use even these as communities. They use them as channels (according to the definitions above). They ignore the vast majority of what’s said and gravitate towards a handful of people that they either relate to or they see as experts. The question becomes can healthcare marketers use this idea to do more social media that’s more closely controlled (and therefore less likely to violate FDA guidelines), but still valuable to visitors? The answer is yes.
Take this post I pulled from WebMD. Here’s someone telling another visitor to stop taking their statin medication:
People don’t want medical advice from catspajamas. Who is catspajamas? I’m guessing he/she isn’t a doctor and probably doesn’t have any medical training. Do you think that the person who initially asked “Is my doctor going to the extreme?” actually taking catspajamas’ advice? I’d say almost certainly the answer is no. It may weigh into their consideration about whether or not to continue treatment, but it’s far from a deciding factor. On the other hand, if this response was from someone certified by WebMD as a physician (which they do), I’m certain that the person who asked this question would find the advice far more meaningful, valuable, and would likely follow it.
Consider the case of how new information gets out to people. Instead of letting anyone post any article or piece of information that they think is important (like on sites like Digg or Mixx), would it be more valuable if the articles on, say, a diabetes-related site all came from registered dietitians and endocrinologists? Wouldn’t this be seen as more useful to people versus 25 articles submitted by catspajams on the benefits of shark cartilage?
So here’s my new advice on social media for pharma and healthcare marketers. Forget communities and instead make valuable channels. Here’s what you need to do:
- You need to find neutral (key word) experts to lead the channel and discussion. As soon as it becomes clear that they aren’t neutral (i.e., bias towards you and selling your wares), you’re done.
- You need to create a space that doesn’t exist that people have real need for. Maybe a site that only discusses hyperlipidemia. Not every cardiovascular condition, just hyperlipidemia.
- Allow for some discussion of the expert provided information, but manage it. It’s okay to moderate comments. Many, many (and more than you think) sites do this already. Just make it clear that this is the policy ahead of time. Don’t squash the debate, just make sure that it is controlled. That’s what you have the experts for. Catspajamas isn’t going to argue with the leading cardiologist in hyperlipidemia. If he/she does, no one’s really going to listen anyway.
- From time to time, you (or your neutral moderators) can promote members of the site to “expert” status. This shows that you’re really letting the discussion happen without your involvement. Promote those that are consistently providing fair, valuable, and interesting content. The content that people came to your channel for in the first place.
Perhaps in the future, you’ll aim towards even more community features, but wouldn’t it be great just to start with a really good channel instead?