Is Facebook Moving Into Healthcare?

Facebook has been in the news a lot lately announcing new initiatives including Rooms, Facebook at Work and Groups. While Groups, a place in which users can interact with the Facebook Groups that they join, continues the trend of the social media company spinning off individual features of the Facebook app into their own apps (such as with Facebook Messenger and Paper), the other two projects perhaps hint at something a little different—Facebook developing more focused, niche offerings. And a healthcare community could be on the way.

The news that leaked about the potential Facebook at Work offering suggests a new social network separate from the Facebook we all know that focuses exclusively on your professional relationships. This could include interacting with work colleagues, others within your professional network and even collaborating on work projects. This is especially interesting to healthcare marketers—but for a very different reason.

In early October, Reuters reported that Facebook “is exploring creating online ‘support communities’ that would connect Facebook users suffering from various ailments” and “a small team is also considering new ‘preventative care’ applications that would help people improve their lifestyles.” Since then, no more news has been forthcoming about the potential healthcare communities, and Facebook did not respond to requests for confirmation or more information.

However, considering news soon followed about Facebook at Work, it at least gives some credence to the notion that Facebook is working on more niche communities. Of course, the official announcement about Rooms—the app that allows for anonymous discussions on any topic—also came out shortly after the Reuters report and it is possible the anonymous forum app is what Reuters was hearing whispers about. Even though much is still up in the air at this time, healthcare marketers are intrigued by the idea of Facebook-dedicated healthcare communities.

Why It Makes Sense

One of the reasons that healthcare marketers are not ready to dismiss this news until actual confirmation: It seems to be right up Facebook’s alley.

“Facebook is a natural to do this, as there are thousands of health-related communities already on the social network,” explains Ritesh Patel, Chief Digital Officer at Ogilvy CommonHealth Worldwide. “If Facebook could organize them by disease/condition, provide proper community management guidelines and standards, use their tools to raise awareness/funding, etc., this would make sense.”

Of course, there would be privacy concerns, but Patel suggests that users could create private communities much as they can now do with private Groups. Patel also points to the already established health social network HealthUnlocked.com as a model that Facebook could follow in order to ensure the communities are run in a compliant manner.

“Given its current dominance and population density, it is a convenient option to be able to engage health support communities in Facebook—as long as I feel I can trust them with my information,” adds Craig DeLarge, Digital Healthcare Strategist at WiseWorking, LLC and former Global Leader, Multichannel Marketing Strategy & Innovation at Merck. “If you trust Facebook with your personal information—and you probably do if you are an avid user—then this will not be too big a leap.”

And it is not as if Facebook is entering unchartered territory. In addition to the plethora of health-related communities that Facebook already boasts, Patel notes Facebook’s efforts to deal with the Ebola crisis. The company is using their platform to raise awareness, garner donations and encourage participation, including promoting posts from UNICEF at the top of newsfeeds in places affected by Ebola. Facebook has even donated satellite terminals to remote parts of Africa so that healthcare workers in those areas can use mobile phones to more easily communicate with those providing supplies and assistance.

How This Affects Pharma

If Facebook actually comes out with these communities, pharma marketers will want to know what it means for them.

“The effect on pharma will not be much different than what it has been with other communities,” DeLarge says. “Facebook is not hindering pharma’s move more deeply into social—the social media applications that pharma chooses to focus on are. These communities would be good for patient outreach and advocacy as well as for marketing research. They could also be sponsored via unrestricted educational grants to assist patient advocacy and disease-specific groups.”

Even though pharma already has a presence on Facebook, Patel believes more health-specific communities would benefit pharma companies.

“Pharma is all over the map with regard to Facebook communities,” Patel explains. “There are unbranded and branded communities, as well as communities based on partnerships with third parties. Companies like Medici have also created large communities around disease states such as https://www.facebook.com/AlzheimersTeam purely for clinical trial recruitment.”

Not to mention product pages, such as https://www.facebook.com/Podhaler and https://www.facebook.com/GilenyaGO. Or disease awareness campaigns like https://www.facebook.com/DRIVE4COPD. Or an unbranded presence such as https://www.facebook.com/merckengage.

“Facebook could actually bring some order to all this chaos,” adds Patel, “and help pharma organize and manage the communities better with proper tools and services.”

For instance, Patel mentions four potential benefits partnering with Facebook could allow. Pharma could:

1) Provide better, up-to-date product and scientific information.

2) Work with advocacy to raise awareness of a disease.

3) Form communities for clinical trials with third parties.

4) Expand their use of Facebook to reach specific audiences, such as the rare disease community who are very active on Facebook.

“Imagine if there was an organized way to do all this, with compliance and proper community management,” Patel explains. “Facebook could provide that to pharma on a paid basis.”

As for how this will affect pharma’s current communities on Facebook, DeLarge says we will need to wait and see how the potential new communities differ from what Facebook currently offers.

“I tell you one thing—pharma will not allow itself to be anonymous,” DeLarge adds. “The lawyers will disallow that and I think they should.”

What Pharma Can Do Now

Just because the news is not yet official doesn’t mean pharma marketers should just sit on their hands until more details come out. “Pharma should keep an eye on this as the potential is huge,” Patel advises. He says that there are four things pharma companies can do right now. They include:

1) Exploring SOPs and processes to take advantage of this kind of community and ensure that the right protocols are in place. If not, think about updating your SOPs.

2) Evaluating current communities and creating a list of strengths and weaknesses to allow a comparison with Facebook’s health communities once they are formed.

3) Reviewing the current advocacy groups you are working with and finding out what their Facebook presence is like. It is likely that Facebook will approach advocacy first, before pharma, and there may be an opportunity to partner.

4) Understanding how the clinical groups are using Facebook (if they are) for clinical trial recruitment and retention. This is another very big area that the Facebook community programs could impact.

The Opportunity Within Rooms

Another area that pharma could potentially jump on right now is Rooms, which is already up and running. As mentioned previously, this app allows users to create a message board on any topic and invite others to join. Users can create a different profile for each room they enter, with no requirement to use real names or emails so they can remain anonymous if they choose. Similar to other message boards, you can also set moderators, age restrictions and kick out unwelcomed guests. The room creator can also control fonts, cover photos, whether people can link to other material on the web and more. Facebook will also be monitoring the discussions for anything offensive such as hate speech, threats or spam.

“Social networks and/or apps that require anonymity have become very popular of late—examples include Whisper, Secret, Yik Yak and, of course, the slightly older Reddit,” says Malcolm Bohm, President & CEO of Liquid Grids, which helps healthcare companies with social media marketing and advertising campaigns. “So this looks like Facebook’s attempt to keep people on the major social network while allowing them to create their own anonymous communities where open, unfettered dialogue and expression can occur.”

Bohm adds that so far the reviews are “minimal and mixed” and “there hasn’t been much fanfare” for this new app. However, he says while the implications for pharma remain to be seen, this could become a popular alternative or adjunct to disease forums.

As Bohm explains, disease forums are relatively easy to find and join, often by just creating an alias username. Many pharma companies join or use listening techniques to learn the topics users are talking about, to sometimes participate in and analyze these forums when the terms and conditions allow. But some of the more structured forums allow advertisement—and this could be the area in which pharma can benefit from Rooms.

“If Rooms does take off and they are created for disease (or even treatments),” explains Bohm, “Facebook may open up the ability to place specific ads that would be shown within the rooms directly.”

Currently, Patel says he’s found only two rooms within the app that are healthcare oriented. One is for diabetes support and the other is for depression support. Within the depression room, he says, almost 200 people (all using pseudonyms) seek advice, trade stories, pin pictures, share videos and find support among others who suffer from illnesses including depression and bipolar disorder.

“Overall, Rooms could be a great tool for healthcare, but it is sponsored and created by Facebook, and not part of the Facebook infrastructure, but more of a mobile forum app,” Patel explains. “If more forums are created around healthcare, it could take off as a good platform for communities in health. But it has a long way to go.”

If that happens, DeLarge believes pharma could play the role of community participant as an unanonymous avatar—making it clear who they are and who they represent.

“The monitoring and moderation is a definite nod to pharma, and will make it easier for us to take this to legal/regulatory out of the box,” DeLarge adds. “This is far from a new offering—but the offering in the context of a space as popular as Facebook is what makes it a potential game changer.”

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