Monday, May 11, 2009

Social networking and search engine optimization: E-Marketing for the healthcare and related industries

This post will take a limited look at social media and search engine optimization in the context of the healthcare and related industries and how some of their entities are using these new technologies.

As we all know, social media can be used by healthcare professionals and the public to talk about a biotech company's products and brand. But biotech companies, as a general rule, have avoided social media for various reasons, including the lack of guidance from regulatory bodies like the FDA on remaining compliant while using social media approaches and difficulties measuring results, tracking popularity and audience activity.

In fact, many companies’ internal legal and regulatory teams stifle the kind of free communication social media affords because of ever-present fears of the increased scrutiny and legwork that come with associated obligations like adverse event reporting.

But there are ways to use social media tools that avoid these kinds of quagmires and stand to deliver real value to biotech companies and others. This is actually where the true beauty (flexibility) of technology is. Some entities are using indirect approaches (such as creating unbranded Facebook pages) or even emerging social media tools like Twitter for non-traditional advertising forays, such as making “announcements” about products and activities (e.g., and

Caveat Emptor

Before you launch a campaign that depends on a particular social media (or any other) application, understand it well. A case in point: currently, more than 60 percent of U.S. Twitter users fail to return the following month, or in other words, Twitter’s audience retention rate, or the percentage of a given month’s users who come back the following month, is currently about 40 percent. To be clear, a high retention rate does not guarantee a massive audience, but it is a prerequisite. There simply are not enough new users to make up for defecting ones after a certain point.

Compare Twitter to the two heavily-touted behemoths of social networking when they were just starting out. When Facebook and MySpace were emerging networks as Twitter is now, their retention rates were twice as high. Twitter has enjoyed a nice ride over the last few months, but it will not be able to sustain its meteoric rise without establishing a higher level of user loyalty.

A pharmaceutical company

Consider the pharmaceutical company Pfizer's roll out of a pan-European digital campaign encouraging people to stop smoking using social media (see why their campaign is an example of viral marketing, later in this post).

Pfizer is trying to engage its audience through the use of social media channels where their audience is (i.e. Twitter and Facebook). This makes even more sense in Europe, where smoking is probably more prevalent and more acceptable, especially among younger folk.

Traditional marketing vs. social media

IMHO (In My Humble Opinion / In My Honest Opinion), a big difference between traditional marketing and the social media used by Pfizer is that the former really doesn’t take as much effort after the launch of the campaign, other than to monitor and analyze; whereas with social media, the big effort really starts at the launch, as the tools are designed to facilitate interaction and engagement in order to develop an ongoing relationship with the customer. And like with any kind of relationship, it takes effort, empathy, and regular communication in order for it to blossom and grow. A one time effort with no continuing engagement will lose the interest of the social media audience very quickly, especially if it’s just marketing/advertising in disguise.

An entire community

Social networks helped cause the FDA to rescind the ban on concentrated morphine:

The FDA demanded that the production of concentrated liquid morphine be stopped. Nine days later, they changed their mind and rescinded the decision. It's amazing that the FDA reversed course in what seemed to be record time. The entire palliative care community, including their organizations, physicians, patients and families presented a united front of dissent, which helped persuade the FDA. They used social networks, like blogs, Twitter and Facebook to rapidly spread the message as well as the ramifications surrounding the announcement.

Search engine optimization et al

E-marketing techniques such as search engine optimization (SEO), analytics and content monitoring offer organizations control over website content and promotion, while at the same time allowing them to use social media merely as a pointer to their website -- the more traditional source of information. In contrast to the activities at social networking sites, activity at these destination websites can actually be measured, categorised ... and all sorts of other nice things that marketing managers, analysts and executives like to do!

So, the general idea is to make your own sites (the entity, service, product or others you may have) the central information storage area. Whatever you want to promote, either directly or indirectly, lives there (where regulatory uncertainties are less daunting). But, of course, you have to ensure that all your content is of interest to the audience you're targeting and to search engines.

So, first you need to search engine optimize your content. This entails activities such as:

* finding out exactly what you want to promote
* compiling a list of keywords and phrases you want to use for that
* exploring the popularity of such keywords and identifying others which may be relevant but you are not using
* establishing a final list of keywords to be used
* ensuring that your website content contains the above keywords

Doing so will help you write and expose information which is in demand, in line with what you want to promote and that the public and healthcare professionals can easily find online. For an easy-to-read guide to SEO practices, see "Search Engine Optimization" by Rebecca Lieb (2009).

Next, ensure that your search engine optimized website can now track visitors and their actions: what they see, where they go, what they click on and the path they follow. This is where analytics come in. You’ll want to analyze your Web server logs or utilize third party tools such as Google Analytics to measure any activity on your website. Being aware of and understanding this activity can provide invaluable information, including market trends, personal preferences, regional/organisational statistics and a lot more.

Controlling the message

You’re now ready to turn to social media. Social media tools can now be used without hesitation when they are used to point to traditional and existing information already on your site, rather than to talk about your subject matter or organization in an open and uncontrolled forum.

So, for instance, if your website contains a wealth of well-exposed information related to a specific therapy area, people will find it and could start talking on social media about it as an information resource. This in turn will lead to more traffic to your site, from both healthcare professionals and the public, which can be measured, analyzed and classified according to your needs.

The proof is in the pudding

If you have a well optimized website, visitors to your site will spend more time there and tend to return. You can measure these parameters before and after optimization, using tools like Google Analytics to determine the extent of this success.

The general idea, therefore, is to use good, search engine optimized content to attract attention, analytics to measure it and social media as an extra channel for directing people to your site. Country-specific challenges remain, however.

Regulations in some countries, ABPI guidelines in the UK for example, may interpret this use of social media as promotional and hold you responsible for any links leading to your site, regardless of whether they are informational/educational or truly promotional. However, the fact is that even without social media being used as an extra communications channel, nothing spreads the word about your sevices, products or other content better than a well developed and SEO optimized site.

Viral marketing

Some call the practice of “re-directing” people to your website “viral marketing” instead of social media. Viral marketing facilitates and encourages people to pass along a marketing message.

Postscript I: Social networking at hospitals and other healthcare organizations

Hospitals can (and are) using social media to achieve certain of their goals. Ed Bennett of the University of Maryland has put together a very comprehensive list of social networking sites hosted by hospitals including their use of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. YouTube looks like the most common but many are moving forward with Twitter. Some have clearer strategies with Twitter and other Web 2.0 tools than others. Most are using Twitter for health advice, others as an abbreviated version of press releases. It remains to be seen where this will go in the future - how it might be used in emergency communication or employee communication.

At the time of this posting, Mayo Clinic has about 5000 fans on its Facebook page -- interesting posts from patients, family members, and physicians. Its Facebook site includes information on the Clinic, links to various web sites, videos, and more. But, most important, it has "The Wall" -- that empty page where you can write your thoughts, wishes, and other posts.

St. Jude's Hospital has over 25,000 fans and it appears that there are many hospitals on Facebook that have created their own pages. By comparison, Target stores has 173,000 fans, Starbucks has 987,000 fans, and Nike has over 1.1 million registered fans, to name just a few in the "power brands" category.

Postscript II: Website optimization

The relatively new field of website optimization (not to be confused with the search engine optimization discussed above) uses specialties such as statistics, user experience testing, and cognitive psychology to get visitors to convert (i.e., do what you want them to do, once they've landed on your site). I talk about this topics in my recent article Statistical and Financial Considerations in Website Optimization. There's a link to it at in my selected bibliography at the bottom of this blog, for anyone who's interested.