Looking for a community to solve your Philadelphia Parking Authority woes for scooter riders? There's a place for that. How about the best ways to feed your pet using a raw diet? Yahoo Groups has you covered. This specificity manifests itself prominently in the health sphere.
What once was a difficult prospect -- finding highly personalized and detailed information about others' experiences with specific medications, treatments, even physicians -- is now commonplace. You can see what others think about everything from books to LED TVs, so why not your prescriptions? One would argue that a person's health is infinitely more important than these consumer goods.
In study after study, it's apparent that information "from others like me" consistently rates as highly trustworthy. This has always been the case, but now the universe from which to find these people is global instead of local, driven by the Internet. Communities like iGuard.org and PatientsLikeMe.com are springing up that allow patients to compare their experiences directly, without input from pharmaceutical companies, and creating their own aggregate outcomes data. Even WebMD has taken a page out of the Amazon.com book, integrating consumer reviews of treatments into the site.
Smart pharmaceutical companies are working with these sites to make use of this newly available source of outcomes data. In mid-2009, UCB announced a first-of-its-kind partnership with PatientsLikeMe to sponsor the epilepsy community. The mission? It's not about pushing a message, but instead "to better understand people living with epilepsy and ... help us design clinical programs that incorporate real-world patient needs and experiences in a measurable way."
Sure, there's likely to be criticism about UCB products in the community, but the point is that UCB really wants to know what their patients think about their products, as well as how they're performing in the real world. The aggregate data to which the company has access will help UCB conduct better research, produce better products, and develop new strategies to increase adherence in the long run.
It's important to remember that patients generally aren't out to hurt your brand with consumer reviews, but to help others by sharing their experiences -- both positive and negative. Information from doctors, nurses, pharmacists, patient brochures, and commercials is now compared with user reviews and opinions available online to get a "complete" picture of the product.
This trend is not going away, as the younger a person is, the more likely he or she is to use the Internet and social media to find health information. And the older these generations get (and the more health problems they develop), the more central this issue will become.
You can't control what people are saying about your brand online, but you can listen, understand the conversation, and be proactive. It's more important than ever that brands are aware of what's being said about them in the social space, and that these perceptions are accurately reflected in brand assets and advertising, since any misalignment has the potential for backlash -- and it can come in the blink of an eye.