Everyone else is doing it – can pharma communicate in 140 characters?

This week I attended @jeffpulver‘s 140Conf in London.  It was a one-day event dedicated to Twitter, as the name implies.   

The day consisted of 35 short sharp presentations, with presenters hurried off the stage to loud music at the end of their 10 or 15 minute slot.  There were advantages and disadvantages to this format.  On the one hand, you got to hear a lot of different examples and didn’t get bored.  On the negative side, some of the sessions (such as panel discussions) were not able to go into sufficent depth to tease out some of the issues people had faced and how they had dealt with them. 

The whole thing was enriched by guest speaker Stephen Fry (@stephenfry) in his usual witty and engaging style, concluding that this Twitter thing is “not business-shaped or technology-shaped, it is human-shaped”. 

In short, my bottom-line takeaways were

1.  An incredible number of useful applications of Twitter are out there, from the Police to flower shops to X Factor.

2.  Everyone is learning as they go along, there is no established best-practice, just a lot of people who have tried stuff and succeeded or failed.

3.  Where is the phenomenen going?  We don’t know.

I am grateful to J P Rangaswarmi (@jobsworth) and Jeffrey Hayzlett (@jeffreyhayzlett), because they gave us, respectively, the 3’A’sand the 4 ‘E’s of Twitter.  Something to do with the way my mind works, I like these alliterative lists of things.  Here they are with some examples from the event and beyond:

What is Twitter for?   The 3 ‘A’s – Alerts, Advice and Assistance

Alerts – a great example of this is #iranelection (thanks @mazi) – the world learned what was really happening in Iran’s general election first through Twitter, resulting in a huge freedom movement personified by Neda, the girl shot by police, becoming a global symbol of the voice of freedom.

Advice – a fun example from @jobsworth who asked “how do I rescue the hamster from under the floorboards” and got the answer very quickly from Twitter (broccoli and a knitted tie, apparently).  Could he have got that from Google?  I don’t think so.

Assistance – BT, the UK telecoms group(@BTCare) tracks the twittersphere for their customers complaining and steps in with “how can I help you”? and yes, actually solves problems (thanks @wiggled)

What should we be doing withTwitter?  The 4 ‘E’ s:  Engage, Excite, Educate and Evangelise

Engage – for example, Radio 1  in the UK – the presenters themselves (e.g. @Fearnecotton)  Tweet, as themselves, not as “Radio 1”.  They get very high levels of engagement – more requests come through Twitter than email. (Thanks, @raypaulbbc)

Excite – a great example from @jeffreyhayzlett – Kodak wanted to rename the Zi8 pocket video camera, so they ran a Twitter contest.  Thousands of responses were received and a new name (soon to be launched) was chosen.   I leave you to imagine the relative cost of this exercise versus traditional brand-naming technques.

Educate – this is nearly always us being educated by our customers, not the other way round.  For example – the mental health charity Rethink Tweeted that the Sun Newspaper had published an inappropriate headline “Fury at escape of killer schizo”.  Within days of a Twitter-led online protest the Sun revised the headline.

Evangelise – a lovely example of this from the 3 young men of @buyacredit.  These moviemakers need to raise £1 million to make their film, so they have launched a website and Twitter account asking people to pay £1 towards the movie in order to get their name in the end credits.   It was picked up by @stephenfry (who else?) and thence passed through on to other influencers in the entertainment and movie world.  They have recently met Gordon Brown and appeared on UK national TV, and are well on the way to their target.

How does all this apply to healthcare?  Well, healthcare is the most networked market of all, with doctors, patients, carers, nurses, policymakers and others in the mix.  Further, it is an information-rich environment, with some players (such as pharma companies) in possession of a great deal of information  and others wanting and needing information.   It is also a field that is continually changing, with new information coming up all the time.  This must be a field where Alerts, Assistance and Advice are required all the time. 

It’s our job to figure out the best way to do this.  Sadly, so far our efforts have not been very inspiring.  The few pharma-sponsored healthcare Twitterers (such as @racewithinsulin) out there are providing information, but are they really exciting and engaging us?  By and large, they feel like a monologue rather than a conversation.  

We all know why this is – we don’t yet know the “rules”, we are in a difficult legal and regulatory debate, but we just have to figure it out.  The conversation is happening, whether we are in it or not.  “Twitter is like a freight train, you either get on it or you get hit by it” (@lawscomm).   The FDA conclusions from the recent public hearings may help, but this is still going to be a moving feast and we can’t wait for it to stop moving while someone writes the rule book – it ain’t going to happen.  How difficult can it be to engage customers, listen to them and discuss important healthcare issues – isn’t that what pharma has always done?

To help us think about this I’ve distilled some key learnings from @140Conf into my very own alliterative list.

5 Twitter Tips (Twips):

Tips: Share useful informatin versus your own promotion in a ratio of 10:1.

Tone: if you wouldn’t say it in print/on air/to my face, don’t say it in Twitter.

Talk: Listen to, respond and retweet others, this is a conversation not a broadcast.

True: Be yourself, not your brand.  Don’t use those automatic direct messages!  Really talk to me.

Topical: Look at trending topics and, where relevant, join in the discussion .

I discovered (through our Tweets of course) that my colleague at CMG Mike White (@Mike2U) was at @140Conf too so we hooked up and had a good day together, and came home with lots of ideas we might apply to client projects.

Were you there?  What were your takeaways? 

You can find out more about the event at 140Conf .

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Managing Director and Principal Consultant at Kanga, a digital transformation agency. I help global companies with their digital strategy and projects. Most of my clients are pharmaceutical companies.

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by Kay Wesley of Kanga Health Ltd

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