PR-Squared's "Social Media Tactics" Series … Using Twitter To Create & Inform Communities

TwitterThe last two posts weren’t crazy enough for ya?  Let’s get really wacky.  Let’s figure out how to use Twitter to help a Big Pharma company.  That should be an interesting challenge. 

Everybody who uses it tends to fall in love with Twitter, and meanwhile everyone seems to pretty much despise Big Pharma … is there a twitterific way for one of these monolithic drug companies to soften our distaste?

First let’s pick a Big Pharma company.  I’ll choose Pfizer.

Now let’s look at some of the diseases that Pfizer drugs try to tackle.  “Clinical Depression?”  That works.  Depression seems to be on the rise.  Pfizer offers a drug called Sinequan to help manage clinical depression.  A quick Google Blog Search reveals over 12,000 hits mentioning this drug.  That’s enough critical mass to warrant a campaign like the one below.

Now, on to Twitter(I need to assume that you are familiar with Twitter.  If not there are many posts out there that can explain it all to you.)

If we’re a marketer from Pfizer, we can create a new Twitter account called “” 

Of course we could also choose usernames like “Pfizer” (too broad) or “Depression” (too depressing – who’d want to publicly “follow” a Twitter account with a name like that?)  The username “Sinequan” is kinda mysterious-sounding; only those who have a prescription (or know of friends/family on the drug) will catch on to the import of the name; and besides, we’re not trying to HIDE; we are actively trying to be FOUND – just in an unobtrusive way.

Now we go to Terraminds to conduct some twittersearches on the term “depression.”  (Apparently Twitter will offer this functionality itself, soon.) 

Plenty of the microposts that mention this term via Twitter are inappropriate for our purposes, e.g., “Watching an episode of Scrubs about depression” or “ Looks like that tropical depression (#10) has broken up.”  We can safely ignore those.

But this same basic search quickly turns up tweets like these:

“Online test scores me at 76% for adult ADD – but notes that depression and anxiety must first be discounted as causes.”

“Feeling very down… today has not been a good depression day… Hate being a freak.”

I’m still not in the mood to write a new sensible post because of my postnatal depression… was I even pregnant?

(Before you bitch me out for insensitivity for “outing” these posts, please keep in mind that these were written and posted in a public forum!  Clinical depression is horrible & debilitating; using the Social Media techniques described in this post is not intended to exploit but to help these sufferers.)

Ultimately (and sadly), it seems that there are scores of tweets containing the phrase “depression.” 

Now, the Pfizer marketer who manages the “Sinequan” account on Twitter can begin to “follow” any & all of the twitterati who use the word “depression” in an appropriate way in their tweets.  These twitterers will receive an email that “Sinequan is now following your updates on Twitter.  Check out Sinequan’s profile here:” 

Most twitterati I know can hardly resist the urge to check-out the profiles of any new “followers.”  At the “Sinequan” profile page, they’d find a Web link pointing to the official Sinequan webpage maintained by Pfizer.  Actually I’d recommend that Pfizer create a beefed-up landing page for folks who find it via Twitter, e.g., with info on “Why is ‘Sinequan’ following me on Twitter?”, with quizzes (“How can you tell if you are clinically depressed?”) – and, with info on community resources … in other words, a page designed to help sufferers whether they become Sinequan users or not!

And “why is Sinequan following me on Twitter?” – This could be easily explained.  “If you found this page because you saw that ‘Sinequan’ is now following you on Twitter,’ it’s just because you once posted a tweet that used the word ‘depression.’  If you think you might suffer from clinical depression, this site may help you.  If we got it wrong, we’re really sorry: just let us know through this web form and we’ll remove our subscription to your tweets.  (No need to give us any personal info beyond your public Twitter name.)  Thanks!”  Short, sweet, human.

(Speaking of “human” … Ideally there’s a true human personality behind the “Sinequan” account.  It would be nice to introduce them via this beefed-up landing page.)

Now, what should “Sinequan” tweet about?  Because once “Sinequan” has started “following” a few dozen (or few hundred!) twitterers, we can assume that a decent handful will reciprocate and start “following” Sinequan’s tweets.  A community will form.  A community “founded” by Pfizer’s Sinequan rep, sure, yet also a community of people with similar issues who might also start to help each other out.  A virtual support group.

Here’s what Sinequan should NOT tweet about: Sinequan.  If this becomes a Pfizer commercial in execution, it’s a campaign that deserves execution – as in “death.” 

Rather, the Pfizer rep could use the “Sinequan” account to microblog about Clinical Depression.  I envision statistics (“National survey: 25% of the population reported having symptoms severe enough to warranty the diagnosis for an anxiety disorder”), news (“Study: Employers benefit from treating depression”), helpful tidbits (“Pregnant Smokers May Suffer Depression”), etc.  Any one of those tweets could change a sufferer’s life.

Will Sinequan sales soar?  Not likely.  Will more people who may suffer from clinical depression seek out a doctor? – maybe ask their physician about Sinequan?  No doubt. 

More to the point:  would anyone object to this use of Twitter?  If it is handled with sensitivity, I think not. 

And that leads us full circle.  The use of a Social Media tool like Twitter – used with subtlety, grace and in adherence to the idea of contributing to the community – could make a Big Pharma company like Pfizer look downright humane.  Maybe even human.  Whodathunkit??

UPDATE:  GREAT conversations happening in the Comments section of this post, thank you!  To those of you who may be “creeped out” by the Big Pharma example, try thinking of a completely different example before shutting down on this idea. 

What if the twittering marketer was a rep working for Amazon’s new MP3 download service, who wanted to conduct a grassroots campaign by “targeting” people who had tweeted about some cool new indie bands?  The subsequent tweets might be news about upcoming cool concerts, links to free MP3s, factoids about up-and-coming artists, etc.  By creating this community of “followed” folks, the community that might form could also more readily discover and follow each other… 

Again, the marketer would have to focus on being helpful, not exploitive.  Give this happy-friendly-musical example, do you still object…

Posted on: September 27, 2007 at 9:31 am By Todd Defren
16 Responses to “PR-Squared's "Social Media Tactics" Series … Using Twitter To Create & Inform Communities”


  • I’m not hung up on the pharma example, Todd. I think it’s quite illustrative of the kind of approach that can work well from time to time.

    While I would generally agree with Scott Monty, Doug Haslam, and others in saying that Twitter users need to be conversationalists (using the @ symbol to respond/answer others), this isn’t an absolute.

    Here are a few examples:

    * I follow Tweets from @RedSoxCast. I don’t remember ever seeing him interact with others, and I don’t really want him to. I often check his Tweets on my mobile phone when I’m away from a TV, computer, and radio and want a quick update on the game. I just want to get the score and highlights and move on.

    * Ditto for @wxBoston, which provides weather updates for my city a couple of times a day. I’m not looking for any personality there — just the weather forecast.

    * Same story for updates from my webhost, Dreamhost (@dxStatus)

    * I subscribe to Tweets of ESPN headlines (@ESPN). They provide me with an occasional glimpse into the latest sports happenings. If a certain message interests me, I’ll follow the link. It’s very helpful.

    So put me down as saying there’s more than one approach to being successful on Twitter. And making good use of tools like Terraminds to find the kind of people whom you’d want to reach with your Tweets just makes good business sense to me.

  • Dan Schawbel says:

    This is a tactical way of targeting your audience and solving a problem with a known drug or product that you offer.

  • JoeC says:

    Great comment stream, folks!!

    Regarding the notion of Twitter being “public”: Firms that try to exploit people’s public utterances in a personally-oriented medium are doing both themselves and the public discourse a disservice. Yes, of course, the posts were made publicly, but the effect of that is for people to withdraw from or abandon it because of its negative effect on them. This is exactly what happened to UUNET newsgroups and what’s now happening to email. More and more people are abandoning email because it’s become mostly stuff they don’t want. And I lump in that category so-called “legitimate” unsolicited email. You can talk all you want about companies having an “obligation to inform” people about their products. That’s just a self-serving rationalization, in my opinion.

    There is clearly a vast shift going on now toward what I would call white-list or purely opt-in communications. That’s what Twitter is, if you make your posts private. In fact, that’s why mine are private. I think soon you’ll see telephones that will block any unapproved number.

    Twitter, as well as Facebook, MySpace and any number of other social networks have proven a very important point. Unsolicited communications are unnecessary for personal use. Indirect first-contact (e.g., the friend request through the service itself), coupled with reputation statistics are all one needs to know.

    It’s an opt-in world and companies need to adjust. It’s going to call for real creativity and true focus on what people need and want, not what you want to sell them.

  • Kyle says:

    I think the example of big pharma is a good one, particularly the sometimes controversial topic of depression.

    Twitter, and other social communities, garner their popularity through the power of collectives. Any company can determine a use for something like Twitter; but it is for the community to decide whether they ‘follow’ or ‘friend’ these individuals/company-bots. The great thing about social media is that the best ideas truly float to the top; even when others are abusing the privilege.

    If a company such as Pfizer, no matter how ‘evil’ some may think they are, figures out how to create a solid following within a social network (and I think Todd has some great ways to actually make that happen) then I believe they deserve that success.

    The one aspect of all of this that is interesting to me are how the FDA and FCC regulations would apply when it comes to compliance of drug information? Pharma has a hell of a time simply doing proper SEO compliance b/c of regulations…teaching them how to comply while using Social Media could be an entire cottage industry.


  • Jason Falls says:

    Great use of the tool. And congratulations for the illustration of the usefulness of a tool I still can’t quite understand the fascination with.

  • Todd,

    Now the PR side of me is saying, “Yes!”

  • paula sirois says:

    I’m all for this and think it’s a natural extension to a corporate employee paid to write a blog. They would need the freedom to express personal points of views and not be constrained by corporate pr rules of engagement. I suspect that this would be difficult for most companies. Allowing the employees to not only have personal opinions, but create, enter into and react to conversations that may question the company/product or service. Without that freedom, it could quickly devolve into spin or just a customer service outlet.

  • This post really caught my attention and pulled me in. I think this was a great example of how a creative person can apply the new tools of marketing to nearly any industry.

    I agree with you Todd that using allergies may have been a better option to keep people from getting “hung up” on the idea of depression, but I also disagree with some of the comments in this regard.

    I tend to disagree with JoeC …to a point. I mean, yes it is a personal condition and a debilitating one. But, I think posting it on Twitter is very different from talking privately to someone at a party. You know that ANYONE can find the post on Twitter, but may not expect an eavesdropper at a party.

    Ultimately I agree that it would need to have a personal voice to be successful and not just a repository for Pfizer press releases.

    Is this offensive or creepy for a company to approach people in this way? I think it depends on the company. If the company/person that is using this tactic TRULY believes that their product will help people suffering from this disease, isn’t it more irresponsible to NOT tell someone about the product and how it can help? It certainly must be done tactfully but I think it can be done.

    I love these kinds of posts especially because of the industry. I think that so many times the usage of new “social media” tools focuses on the tech industry primarily. If they will truly overtake other tools, they will need to be applied to most industries. Unfortunately, I struggle to find usage in my industry (insurance) so these types of posts encourage me to try to find a way.

    Thanks Todd!

  • Mike Keliher says:

    Wonderful post, Todd. Very good ideas here. It’s unfortunate that too many readers are getting caught up in the specifics of the depression/pharma example.

    Haslam is right on about the importance of “using the @” to really make it a conversation. That should be included as a critical part of what is an otherwise outstanding approach to using Twitter.

    Also above, JoeC says: “I’m not sure there really is a way that a corporation can try to have a presence on Twitter and not be seen as exploitive.”

    Maybe not. But I certainly think it’s possible for a person at a company to “do the Twitter thing” on behalf of that company well enough that the people getting value out of the effort would outweigh the people getting creeped out by it. (Does that make sense?)

  • Todd Defren says:

    Dang, Sarah, “allergies” would have been a MUCH better way to go with this example. (Now where’s my time machine?)

    Thanks to ALL for your comments so far. I hope my UPDATE to the post (along with Sarah’s idea) may change your perceptions of the concept, a li’l bit?

  • Sarah Wurrey says:

    Definitely agree that using a condition as sensitive as depression may have skewed how some people are looking at what you’re pointing out here, Todd, but I think it’s a valid idea for any company, Pharma or not.

    Maybe think of it from the p.o.v. of an allergy drug. I’ll bet there are scores of Tweeters complaining about allergies, depending on the time of year. And some of those people may find a community discussion about their ailment quite useful.

    The biggest challenge for a company would probably be the initial building of the community, but as long as the Tweeted content was human, informative and helpful, the followers would probably come.

    Great discussion!

  • JoeC says:

    Personally, I would find this highly offensive. I think “creepy” is the word that best fits my reaction to a company scouring Twitter for people’s potential medical conditions. This is a violation of the spirit of the community and an exploitation of people’s trust.

    Yes, it’s a public forum, but that doesn’t excuse abuse of it, or mean that anything goes. Twitter is a place where friends meet to talk. How would you feel if you went to a party and someone who overheard you talking to a friend about depression cornered you at the bar and gave you their Pfizer business card identifying themselves as on the Sinequan project? I’d feel spied upon.

    I’m not sure there really is a way that a corporation can try to have a presence on Twitter and not be seen as exploitive. Again, it’s like having sales reps at a cocktail party. They just don’t belong.

    There may be a place for employees as individuals to join, and by helping people put a positive light on their company, but it would have be with full disclosure and without a purposeful specific “campaign” goal.

    There was a bit of stir amongst my Twitter friends yesterday, in fact, when a bunch of people from one company all joined and starting friending us. After two or three people noticed it, there was a sudden cloud of suspicion thrown on the company. It looks now like it’s all innocent, but it just shows how sensitive people are to companies trying to come into the social commons.

  • Doug Haslam says:

    Great topic, Todd– my only thought as to what might be missing is that the most effective use of Twitter is to make it a human. Have a person who interacts with the audience and doesn’t just push out microblog posts about depression. Use @’s to respond to discussions in real time (or time-shifted when appropriate).

    I think people will be more receptive– and responsive-if they know it “sinequan” is a person who is listening and interacting, along with enlightening.

    Having written that, I think I feel my position forming on the “relationship vs. content” discussion that Josh Bernoff of Forrester started at the Social Media Club Boston meeting last week.

  • As a human, I scream “No!”; as a professional, using twitter is a cool tool. Your example is rational, but though these tweets are on the public timeline, does not mean these individuals want to be called out. If Twitter syncs up to their FB page their Twitter account must be public for automatic updates.

    It’s our job to cut through the clutter and communicate in a trustworthy voice. However, it’s those of us who would handle communications with grace receiving the backlash of hateful spammers.

  • Scott Monty says:

    This is an interesting and controversial subject. While “Sinequan” may have some success by following other Twitterers, from what I’ve seen, they’re not likely to pick up a large community that way. Any number of entities that have followed me look as if their following-to-follower ratio is about 20:1.

    I’d also point out that if I did choose to follow Sinequan out of some knee-jerk reaction to them adding me, I might be turned off by (a) receiving messages about depression; and (b) being publicly associated with a group about a depression drug. While your idea is certainly innovative, Todd, I’d argue that it has the potential to backfire.

    Pharma is a tough nut to crack when it comes to social media – they’re overly concerned about legal & regulatory issues (rightly so, given the hoops they need to jump through at the FDA and the lawsuits just waiting to happen in our litigious society). They want to do DTC marketing, but they want to cover their ears when the public speaks back – especially in any forum hosted by the pharma company.

    Here’s a less interesting way to use Twitter – and I mean that it’s less interesting from a product marketing perspective; I think it’s completely relevant to marcom professionals – is to use it as a communications tool for the sales force. Individual managers could set up group accounts with all of their sales reps and blast out messages, perhaps about FDA news, updated clinical trial information, sales quotas, etc. Drug sales reps are notoriously bad at looking at their emails, so giving them something that fits into their mobile lifestyle would increase the chances of getting their attention.

    While my idea isn’t necessarily groundbreaking, it’s the kind of toe-dip into social media that pharma needs. They need to start demonstrating some willingness to have a conversation, while still being careful about the aforementioned areas. Being less corporate and more human is the only thing that’s going to bring them out of the reputation pit they’re currently in.

Show some social media love would ya?

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