Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

About This Blog

Josh’s Tweet Stream

  • More tweets

« How should your brand site share with your community? | Main | The future of the Social Web, according to Forrester »

April 22, 2009

How to create a social application for life sciences without getting fired

by Josh Bernoff

That's the title of my latest report, and it's not a joke. All your social application instincts here will get you in trouble. In the topsy-turvy world of regulated medical products and devices, the FDA calls the shots -- and it hasn't made clear what's allowed. In fact, one person I interviewed for this report called back extremely worried about getting fired if I spoke about the company's application, even though it's right out there on the Internet for everyone to see. The level of concern and paranoia here is breathtaking.

To conduct this report I conducted 25 interviews, including 10 pharma companies. All the pharma company interviews were confidential for obvious reasons. (As usual, the report is available for clients only or for a fee. Or you can get the slides from my presentation at HealthCampBoston for free.)

Because of the regulation, I structured the report around risk. Since every company in the pharma industry tells me "we are the most conservative company in the pharma industry", I decided to focus on who has the most to gain from social applications. Because if you don't have a lot to gain, the regulatory issues mean you may have a lot at risk, and it's not worth it. Among the important risks are companies violating rules on adverse events reporting, off-label usage, and fair balance.

This led me to the following chart:

forrester social pharma

In this chart we plot all the medical conditions we analyze on two scales. On the horizontal scale we locate points based on the question "Do the people with this condition participate in social media?" On the vertical, we use our judgment on how much those people could benefit from social applications.

For example, Depression is in the upper right quadrant ("Misery Loves Company") because it has socially active sufferers and because those people can benefit from helping each other out with support and information. At the other extreme, people with osteoporosis don't participate much (because they're older) and wouldn't get all that much out of it if they did.

The report lays out strategies based on which quadrant you're in. Upper right quadrant, you want to look at less conservative, more effective strategies like pre-moderated communities, like alli circles and sponsored communities like the type 1 diabetes community Juvenation, sponsored by Novo Nordisk.

If you're in "Connectors Who Don't Care" or "Lonely Fellow Sufferers," consider more conservative strategies like restricting open text fields, as AstraZeneca did with its Celebration Chain application for Arimidex, or vetted contests, like Fight HIV Your Way for BMS' Reyataz.

The safest strategies, like Listening Platforms, Communispace private communities, or working with the doctor community Sermo, are appropriate for all life sciences companies.

There's lot of other advice, but probably the most important is to involve the regulatory staff in your company early. Otherwise they'll shut you down before you launch. Get 'em in on the planning.

Looking forward to your reactions. And it sure would be great if the FDA would set some clear policies on this.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference How to create a social application for life sciences without getting fired:

» Online Communities: Make 'Em Out of Legos! from TrueView, the Ryan TrueHealth POV
Pharma companies have always felt more than a little bit of tension when it comes to social media. On the one hand, many disease states are absolutely natural communities, and as we have blogged many times, perfect platforms for marketing,... [Read More]


Melanie King

this is great, thanks. Doing some research for university, so appreciate your help. However, when i tried to download your presentation, I had to pay - shame. Any other way you can provide you presentation?


The chart is quite interesting, but I think it fails to account for the complexity of the disease or condition. A patient with a condition like MS is going to be drawn to a site like Patients-Like-Me that addresses multiple medications and other treatments (e.g. physical therapy) versus visiting a social application built around a single drug to treat MS. The life science companies certainly have less control on these 3rd party platforms, but discussions about their products are going to happen there whether they like it or not. It's better for them to participate and deal with possibility of hearing about adverse events than to get pie in their face with a story that could fester and become a PR nightmare before they know about it.

Julie Wittes Schlack

Great paper, Josh, and thanks for the shout-out to Communispace. While I certainly agree with you that private communities are the safest way for pharma companies to dip their toes into the social media/networking world, and also agree that they don't provide the kind of reach that public sites with tens of thousands of visitors do, I would urge you not to under-estimate the power of the word of mouth – offline as well as on – that can be generated by even one 400-person private community. I do also want to speak to your generalization that patients suffering from the kinds of conditions in the lower left quadrant of your graphic -- conditions like acid reflux and osteoarthritis – are not good candidates for social media because the people suffering from these conditions tend to be online less than those who are younger and/or facing illnesses for which new treatments are frequently being offered. I agree with your observation, but this actually speaks to the unique value of small, *recruited* communities, as pharma companies need as much insight into those populations as any others. We have, in fact, recruited and run very vibrant communities of people suffering from "older person" conditions like arthritis and GERD. Anyhow, thanks as always for the clarity and utility of your work.

Josh Bernoff

Thanks for the comment Julie.

I agree that your service is great, especially for diseases where participation would otherwise be low.

I would be careful about characterizing how your service as helpful for marketing, though. Pharma marketers will see Communispace as safer if those communities are characterized as being for research, not for spreading word of mouth.

Tracy Sullivan


The slides for Josh's presentation are still available for free at that link. However, you do need to create a guest registration on our site in order to download them. Sorry for any confusion.

Tracy Sullivan
Forrester Marketing Team

Alexandra Carmichael

Hi Josh,
Wow, I'm so glad you posted those slides. I understood the upper right quadrant immediately, since these are the most active condition research communities at CureTogether - chronic pain, migraine, depression and anxiety (http://tr.im/jEXd).

It feels somewhat validating that your research came to the same result we are seeing in terms of which patients are most active online. Thank you!

Alexandra Carmichael
Co-founder, CureTogether

Atul Chatterjee

I've been visiting forums for the past 2 years. Over the past 6 months I have noticed a lot of women not just searching for additional work but with tones of desperation in their thread posts.
I am quite sure you would do well to measure the Increase in anxiety and related disorders in this period of time. This would prove helpful to American society.


Excellent presentation! Thank you for making it available to all Josh. Question about slide 15 -- "Medical professionals are spectators", does the $75K refer to physician income level? Seems to be such a low split point (?).

Donna Vetter
Healthcare Communications Service Provider


I can only speak for my opinion of the allergy placement on your graph as it is way off from a web research program we ran recently for a client.

From looking at the 2008 allergy season and the various social interactions that took place in 6 country specific markets I think that 'allergies' sits very firmly in the 'misery loves company' portion.

Be interested to compare our methodology because I know that Orbitsville are right!

Tony Law

I'd only add one thing, Josh - regulation has always lagged the potential, as it's bound to. In the early days of the Internet, there were exactly parallel concerns. There were no specific regulations for posting pharma information on web pages. The existing regulations about publishing information varied across different jurisdictions and some disclosure rules could be exactly the opposite in two countries. More importantly, there was no case law to help companies see how the existing rules would be applied.

Same answer. Assess the risks and, within fairly cautious limits, do it.

The comments to this entry are closed.