Friday, September 28, 2007

Pharma's virtual world community challenge

Since my current work is heavily health-care oriented, I will often attempt to justify my writing time by bringing issues into practical examination within the health care space.

The value pharma companies bring, as different from Coke, is vast amounts of health knowledge locked up in their product development processes. Pharma virtual communities will need to compete with Coke by delivering more of this knowledge out to community members accepted into their fold.

Unbranded, condition-specific communities of interest sponsored by a pharma has, at this early stage, the opportunity to be utterly generous with knowledge as well as allowance of free discussion about treatments. Luxury only because once the environment is more evolved, the pressure to convert from unbranded to branded will grow. Right now the PR value of entering this space successfully is much greater than the need for conversion. The transposed (from current web and DM practice) pressure to convert will be present at the beginning, but a brave and legally thoughtful pharma will benefit greatly by gathering and engaging communities related to their brands and listening to their every word, not simply what they want to hear. Later, once the ability to gather community members becomes competitive, attention to conversion will justifiably return.

Creating a presence in a virtual world environment successfully means the legal model will be understood well enough to proceed, which in itself is a big win. the resulting PR is a bigger win yet.

Right now, companies crawl blogs and newsgroups for conversation about condition and brands to better understand opportunities for brand positioning. When communities come to fruition, the notably long engagement times that avatar environments bring is a wealth of easily and continuously accessible strategic fodder. This is gold, not a threat.

Governmental and non-governmental agencies such as the CDC,
NIH, and National Cancer Society have begun to investigate and even embrace this environment. They have worked out adverse event responses and have used virtual worlds as the pinpoint to much broader PR effects. When the CDC drives thousands of vaccinations of children using direct contact in Whyville and a lightly applied community structure, they succeed. When they continue to create buzz about it years later, they succeed admirably. Bertalan Meskó notes that Virtual hospitals, virtual first aid, and communities of survivors are popping up everywhere. Msoft showcases bloodtracking and Second Health launches medical care machinima to demonstrate complex medical scenarios.

Pharmaceutical companies cannot adopt TOS models that Coke contemplates because healthcare is not entertainment, and is limited by the $10 value of incentives. Unlocking some of the vast knowledgebase of the pharma company is a key to creating enough value for conversion from unbranded to branded communities. People facing cancer are notably persistent in digging for detailed, research-oriented information, understandably.

Personalities and causes work on the unbranded side of the fight against many conditions, and are given greater value when framed by an avatar-based community. “Meeting” a public figure in the context of an avatar-community is more powerful than the diffuse -TV appearance-woman’s magazine article-way this sort of PR is handled now.

Branded experiences are limited to non-claim based positioning content. It’s static, one-way and highly regulated. Missing ingredients today are KOL’s (Key opinion leaders), clinical trials information, pure research-based content, online education, treatment demonstration, and a way to harness patient’s ability to disseminate information into their condition community about tangible benefits that a brand brings.

Create the branded community and fill it with active staff delivering useful information at varied levels of complexity. The problem of complexity in health care information is best dealt with by bringing patients into direct contact with experts or empowered community members who can use questioning to guage how detailed and protracted the delivery of information should be in a given session to a given avatar. Addtionally, developing methods that carry avatars into the real world are critical. Examples of connecting virtual and real with prepaid cards such CVS Pharmacies and Habbo and Target with Kaneva show value transfer in action.

Add an unbranded, condition-specific community to enlist consumers to provide active and consistent events, seminars, gatherings, and personality sightings and together you have a workable mechanism for avatar-based marketing. Use the result in the wider social network as reach to new consumers.

The HCP (health care professional) side is even more in need of the presence of KOL’s, online education, and in-depth research information. HCP’s also need to hear differing opinions about treatment options and methods. Accomplishing this under the firm gaze of a KOL to navigate the antagonistic regulatory environment that conversations with real people face is critical and impossibly inefficient any other way than in an avatar-based environment. A flexible framework for the virtual world that allows these different interactions is a critical decision point.

Not to say that companies have done any of this well, yet. Lack of engaged staff and constant inflow of useful information, lack of consistent, round the clock activity, and lack of distribution mechanisms that allow a connection to the community to remain while the avatar is away in their other communities.
has resulted in “ghost town” corporate presences and cries of faddism. Not true for the simpler, more controlled worlds, however, as evidenced by the Whyville effort by the CDC.

So, which pharma is far-sighted enough to negotiate with regulatory agencies and their own risk-averse culture to create a value-driven, condition-specific community?

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