Pharmaceutical marketers want their cake and eat it too when it comes to social media marketing. That is, they want to engage in patient communities but they don’t want to hear what some patients have to say about their products — it might be an adverse event that they will have to report to the FDA.

Now, thanks to The CementWorks — UCB’s agency of record for its Crohn’s disease drug Cimzia — pharma companies have a way to build a “community” online and NOT worry about pesky comments from patients.

What CementWorks did was to create an unbranded disease awareness campaign called Crohn’s and Me. Its digital agency partner Heatbeat Digital created a website ( that it calls a “faux community,” which “gives visitors a feeling of community without the risks of open-ended social networking” (I’m quoting from an article in the March 2009 issue of MedAdNews).

Click on the image for an enlarged view.

The sense of “community” is heightened by using the phrase “community” as often as possible and inviting site visitors to “join the community” rather than saying “register.” And you MUST join in order to view most of the videos of “community” members who tell their stories.

It’s a very nice faux community. I joined it and asked to receive everything they wanted to send me about “products.” I can’t wait until I receive my “welcome to the community” e-mail!

MedAdNews should have added “without the benefits of open-ended social networking” in its description of this faux community. Because there are definite benefits of “real” online communities, one of which is ENGAGEMENT. And that’s exactly the word MedAdNews uses in the headline describing the community: “And engaged Crohn’s community.”

However, when you read down you’ll find that Heartbeat Digital defines “engagement” by the “average length of visit.” Since the site is chock full of videos, the average length of visit is much higher than would be the case with text. Hence, increased “engagement.”

However, I don’t think this is what most people mean by “engagement” when they talk about social networks. Engagement means to me allowing users to engage YOU in conversation by submitting comments and getting comments back from YOU and from other site visitors. Maybe that does not increase the average length of visit, but it will increase the number of visits and the number of times you can get YOUR message in front of the same visitor. Isn’t that MORE important than how long someone stays on your site ignoring your message while watching shiny moving objects?

The drug industry more than any other should understand that risks always accompany benefits and just as they advise their customers about balancing drug risks with benefits, drug marketers need to learn how to balance social media risks with benefits.

But just like dumb Rx drug consumers, drug marketers want all the benefits and NONE of the risks!

Oh well. I can’t have MY cake and eat it too!

Further Thoughts
On further thinking about this site I must take back the “shiny objects” criticism. The message that wants to convey is precisely what’s in the videos. So it was unfair of me to suggest that the message was not getting across while users were watching the videos. This might not be the case, however, with other sites that try to emulate this faux community.

Still, I don’t think like the concept of “faux” communities when perfectly “real” communities could be created. Of course, agencies must work under the constraints imposed upon them by their clients and good luck to them convincing pharma people to accept the risks of doing that. Maybe faux is the best we can hope for.