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O’Dwyers, How to Engage Health Advocates Online

October 1, 2015

Kelly_KGone are the days when patients diagnosed with a disease would rely solely on the advice of their physicians. Like virtually every other aspect of modern life, personal health management has become social, and patients today in need of everything from treatment recommendations to emotional support are finding it online. As a result, PR and marketing professionals working in the healthcare industry should look to social advocacy engagement as part of their overall communications plan.

For pharmaceutical companies, medical device companies, or business offering healthcare solutions, it’s essential to recognize the power and influence of online health advocates in reaching the patients and even caregivers you seek to educate, treat and support.

According to research by Pew, nearly half (45%) of the U.S. adult population lives with a chronic condition, and 72% of those individuals use the Internet on a regular basis. This research also found Internet users with chronic conditions are more likely than other online adults to turn to the web for information regarding medical problems, treatments and drugs; to look at reviews about drugs and treatments; and read or watch others’ personal stories about their illnesses. These facts alone should convince communications or marketing professionals to invest in social advocacy engagement as part of their marketing communications plan.

Building trusting and mutually beneficial relationships with online influencers isn’t as easy as designing a creative ad and buying the media to share that ad with a targeted demographic. Just like relationships in the “real world”, engaging online health advocates as a valued partner takes time. So where to start?

Identify the influencers

Who’s the most influential blogger in diabetes, or where are patients with inflammatory bowel disease going to find support? No matter what disease or condition your company is focused on, the key to finding the most influential online advocates is discovering the social communities and networks visited by patients or caregivers. Conduct a thorough analysis of patient advocacy organizations, their social platforms, online patient communities and individual blogs and microblogs. Take notice of their activity level (followers and likes, posting and engagement activity, how often their content is shared). The most influential voices among a given patient community will start rising to the top.

Follow and share

Once the most influential online advocates are identified, start following their blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter. “Like” their posts, and share relevant content via your personal and corporate social media networks. Comment on their insights and commitment and demonstrate that you are listening and interested in what they have to say.

Listen to their needs

Once you’ve started following an online advocate and sharing his or her content, it’s time to make an official introduction and start a dialogue. Remember it’s a relationship, so ask questions and listen. A simple, personal email to him or her directly is enough to make the individual realize you appreciate their advocacy and want to hear more. Once a personal dialogue is established, discuss: What does he or she see as the biggest need for the patients or caregivers living with that disease? What are the biggest challenges or misperceptions that patients or caregivers face? And just as importantly as what is needed, what isn’t needed for that community?

Offer solutions

Once you’ve established an open dialogue with online health advocates, it is important to demonstrate that you are not only listening, but also committed to offering solutions. Whether it means offering financial support for an event or fundraising initiative, offering services to support their efforts or simply just providing a forum for advocates to meet, by demonstrating a commitment to providing tangible support your company will quickly be recognized as a leader in patient/caregiver engagement. The key is always to work together to provide solutions and answers that address the patient communities’ needs first … and in the end, your company or brand needs will, in almost all cases, be met as well.

Keep them in the loop

Nobody likes a friend who’s always springing things on them last minute. Ongoing, open communication is the key to any successful relationship. If your company is planning the launch of a new campaign, ask your new friend’s opinion of planned activities and enlist his or her help to improve upon them. If a new indication is on the horizon for a brand, keep online health advocates informed of regulatory actions and offer the most influential advocates exclusive access to leadership to discuss the news.

And let us not forget that in the life of every company or brand, there comes a time when things aren’t so sunny. When a product or company issues arises, turn to these online advocates to share your side of the story and seek their support in addressing the challenge with the patient community.

Remember that building relationships with online advocates requires time, trust and commitment. You can’t rush it, and you can’t buy it. Over time, however, it will likely be one of the most beneficial investments you, your brand or your company makes.

~Kelly Kutchinsky is Senior Vice President of Tonic Life Communications.