People dealing with illness need social networks especially for them.
When people get sick, their social world often takes on a different dimension. Old friends and acquaintances are joined by a new network of people who are (or were) patients just like them. It makes sense that people surround themselves with others who are going through a similar struggle. An empathetic social circle is fundamentally important. Doctors and nurses can explain the various stages of the treatment process, but only other patients can share their real experience. This social empathy can help manage expectations throughout the course of the illness. Patients suffering from any kind of illness want to understand in real-life terms what to expect and know that they aren't alone in this new world.
These new social circles can live in different contexts, such as in-person support groups or online communities. In fact, technology has proven to be a huge boon to many people facing illness looking to connect with others who share their experience. Think of the person living in a small town of 3,000 or someone who is homebound because of their illness. Online communities make it easy to overcome these barriers to social connection.
Navigating social worlds around health and wellness as a brand or as a consumer.
However, if face-to-face conversations about illness -- or even wellness -- have the potential of being awkward, that dynamic is multiplied many times over in the context of online social networks. Is it always appropriate to post that you're trying to give up smoking, or that you're on a diet, or that you're battling cancer? Finding the right tone in the complex dynamic of a social network can seem daunting, especially when it comes to commentary and conversation that doesn't come off as trite or inappropriately humorous. And if it's difficult for individuals, then the pitfalls for a brand attempting to create a social platform are manifold. When we initially logged on to Facebook, the first few weeks and months were a bit strange, even awkward -- much like adolescence. And while the Millennial generation went through their physical and online social adolescence in parallel, the rest of us have had to repeat our "adolescence" for our digital personas.
Brands, too, must go through their social adolescence -- whether it's the infamous backlash of the Motrin moms campaign by which moms resented the underlying assumption that their infants were a physical burden and that they needed Motrin to save the day or the Facebook campaign to reverse its change in privacy settings. These are both examples of social blunders, as well as social wisdom, and they are almost inevitable at some level as brands become socially mature.
Social brands need to understand nuances within the consumer's social context
There is, however, a basic mantra that works for embarking on all things social -- both for individuals and for brands -- and that is to emulate real-world behavior and then translate it into an online social corollary. For example, if people don't generally discuss their struggles with giving up smoking or losing weight in an office meeting or a party, then a brand probably shouldn't attempt to create a fan page on Facebook for Nicorette.
In real life, there are many forums for social connection: one-on-one conversations; soapbox speeches; support structures that naturally bring many people together to the aid of one -- say someone involved in an accident; and also mobs that collectively create a ruckus (a/k/a a movement). Social interactions online have similar dynamics and need to be designed with a human context at the core. For example, a "get well" eCard with a "send to friend" feature might be appropriate where a tweet might not. A treatise on healthcare costs might best be presented on a blog, but sponsoring orphaned children in Congo might best be done as an opt-in online group. An expert panel for disease education might be ideal as a scheduled Web event, but a caregiver program might be best as a physical meet-up that's coordinated online.
When designing social engagements, it's important to reiterate that the human social dynamic doesn't change because of technology -- it only compounds itself using the network's multiplier effect.