Yesterday, I sat in at several presentations made at ExL’s Digital Pharma conference in Princeton, NJ. Underlying practically every presentation and in my discussions with a few attendees, was the issue of barriers that pharma companies themselves are putting in their way to using Web 2.0 tools. Before I get to that, however, I’d like to summarize a few of the presentations I found of interest.

Sermo — Are Members Really On Board with Pfizer Deal?
Daniel Palestrant, Founder & Chief Executive Officer of Sermo, gave a presentation in which is described how Sermo works and how “clients” gain access — for a fee — to the wisdom of the Sermo crowd. For those among you who do not know, Sermo is an online community of about 35,000 physicians who post discussions about their clinical practice and other issues of importance to them. Sermo’s clients include pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer (see “Pfizer Has a Gold Mine in Sermo” and listen to my podcast conversation with Palestrant).

Sermo physicians spent over 4,000 hours last week on the site. Palestrant attributed the success of Sermo not to the popularity of the Internet among young doctors — 55% of Sermo’s members are between the ages of 40 and 59 — but to the fact that physicians are “lonely.” They don’t play golf any more, said Paltestrant. Perhaps that’s due to pharma cutting back on all-paid “junkets” to golf resorts!

I wondered what other group of people in the 40-59 age group also was lonely that I could target for membership in an online social network. The best I could come up with was divorced men and women! But they probably already have a network.

BTW, if YOU are a lonely pharmaceutical marketing person working within the pharmaceutical industry or in one of the many agencies that service pharma, I have a social network just for you! See “An Online Community to Call Our Own” and visit the Forums at Pharma Marketing Network.

Palestrant was given the presidential privilege of NOT being required to answer questions from the audience, so I couldn’t ask him the one question I had, which concerned his poll of Sermo members regarding pharma clients.

Palestrant said that over 50% of Sermo members consistently said that Sermo should invite pharma companies to be clients. He based this partly at least on a poll of Sermo members conducted between May 19, 2007 and June 2, 2007 that showed 54% favored pharma clients, 18% were against it, and 28% were not sure.

The problem is, there were only 89 responses — a self-selected group of less than 0.3% of all Sermo members! Hardly a scientific poll as many of my Pharma BlogosphereTM colleagues would say. In fact, most of the poll data that I saw in Palestrant’s slides had fewer than 100 responses.

Palestrant said that Sermo also did “extensive focus grouping,” but did not show any data from that endeavor.

It will be interesting to see how Sermo’s deal with Pfizer and other pharma companies pans out considering that there may be a large contingent — dare I say a silent majority? — of Sermo members who are opposed to pharma companies snooping on them.

You can read more about Sermo’s deal with Pfizer in the Pharma Marketing News article “Collaborating with Online Physician Communities.”

Online Health Literacy Principles
Barbara Pagano, SVP, HealthEd Interactive said in her presentation “Uncovering the ‘A ha!’ moments on your Website” that pharmaceutical companies needed to learn some Web 1.0 principles of health communication before they delve into Web 2.0.

To illustrate her point, Pagano showed a cute cartoon based on the character “Ed U Ka Te,” an Ali G sound-a-like, Ninja boy who has the “power of medical education.” His nemesis is the incredibly politically-incorrect “Miss Communication,” a nurse poser who locks up the real nurse and runs rampant in the doctor’s office disseminating difficult-to-understand medical information to unsuspecting “Joe Average” patient.

Pagano’s take-away message was “What you say, how you say it, and how you display it, can save lives.” She might have also said “can destroy lives,” but she was obeying one of her communications principles of being positive rather than negative — tell people what to do instead of what not to do. This is a principle I have not yet mastered…to whit:

HealthEd — which was a client of mine in the past, but not now, and maybe never in the future! — probably shouldn’t show this cartoon too often. Miss Communication’s dress code needs some modification and Joe Average needs to be modernized — today’s patients are very savvy about their medical conditions and treatments, thanks in part to the Internet and despite pharma’s lame attempts to educate them.

To Develop Guidelines or Not to Develop Guidelines, That is the Question!
I intended to write about pharma-sponsored Web 2.0 guidelines that some presenters and attendees expressed the need for at the conference, but I am running out of time.

I plan to attend the Digital Pharma conference again today and joust with Marc Monseau, Director of Media Relations at J&J on whether or not pharma should embrace Web 2.0 (see my slide deck here) and I need to get prepared. I will have more to say on guidelines and review other Digital Pharma presentations tomorrow or in the following days.