Breaking Up Is Hard To Do: What Do You Do With Your Community?

It's easy to understand why every marketing plan seems to have a Facebook strategy these days. According to a recent Nielsen report, Americans spent more time on Facebook in May 2011 than on the next four most popular sites combined.

In the past year, marketers and pharma have turned to developing Facebook communities as a means of recruiting patients for clinical trials. By providing relevant content, facilitating discussion and interaction, advertising, and integrating with other vehicles, thousands of patients currently like these study-specific pages.

However, in the world of clinical trials, communities -- virtual and otherwise -- are temporary. Recruiting patients for clinical trials can take weeks, months and even years, but eventually the trial will reach its enrollment goal and end.

So when the study ends, what happens to the community that you spent countless hours developing, encouraging and motivating? Do you have a responsibility to the community? Should you continue to manage and grow the community? Or do you simply flip the switch and abruptly end it for all?

Typically, this aspect of the strategy is an afterthought. The norm for these communities is to post a message that the study is no longer enrolling patients and then shortly thereafter the administrator will change the page visibility to "unpublished" or delete it altogether. It doesn't have to be this way. There are effective methods to either conclude or continue a community in these circumstances that don't require pulling the plug. Here are a few tips to consider for developing an effective Facebook transition strategy as the study (or campaign) approaches its final days.

Keep It Going
In the best of all possible worlds, don't kill the community! Keep it going. That being said, make sure users are aware that the focus of the community will change as the study is no longer seeking patients. Then, communicate your desire for the community to live on and provide members with an overview of what kind of content they might expect to receive in the future (i.e., disease information, new treatment options, recipes, lifestyle tips, etc.)

As you know, managing a community can be a lot of work. So what's in it for you and why keep it going? A community is an incredibly rich source for insights. And a proprietary community is doubly valuable. As the community administrator, you can pose questions and encourage dialogue, allowing you to better understand member concerns, how they describe their condition, and how the disease affects their lifestyle. It's a forum to test new messaging and creative concepts.

Provided there are resources to support it, these activities are obviously worthwhile. However, a vibrant, engaged community needs continuous content, updates and incentives to stay involved. In the absence of these dedicated resources, there are some options for closing, or redirecting, a community that don't involve "unpublishing."

End It, Gently
If there will be no other opportunities to engage members, or no funding available to support a long-term community, then a finite community may be the right path. As with any online communication, always be transparent. Let members know ahead of time that this will be a short-term community. Include language on a community rules tab that discusses the purpose of the group and perhaps ask them to opt-in to be contacted should another project arise.

Consider providing links to other well-established communities, associations or advocacy groups. For example, if it was a diabetes trial community, let patients know about the American Diabetes Association's local chapters, or the online diabetes support community, dLife.

A Facebook community can be a great tool for clinical trial recruitment or other short-term marketing projects as a way to energize, inform and educate its members. As long as careful consideration is given not only to the creation of the community, but also to its possible conclusion, a happy ending can be ensured for all.

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