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Healthcare and Blogs Interview Series Part III: Robb Hecht
Over the past two weeks, I have been publishing a series of interviews with expert bloggers and communications experts about the impact of blogs on healthcare.  Following is the third and final interview in this series with Robb Hecht.  My first two interviews were with:

-John Cass of Backbone Media.

-Hsien-Hsien Lei, PhD of b5media.

In addition, you can read an interview I conducted with Steve Rubel of Micro Persuasion on this subject back in March.

Robb Hecht is author of the well-regarded blog, MEDIA 2.0 - The PR Machine Brand Trends Marketing Blog Project.  He is also Media Solutions Director, Client Services at IMC Strategy Lab, a consultancy providing a number of services, including marketing communications, research, and public relations.

I'd like to thank all of the people featured in this interview series for participating and providing such insightful commentary. 

Finally, for more on healthcare and blogs, see this resource.

What do you think of this interview series?  Your comments are welcome.


Q1: You recently said that “Web 2.0 is not about hype” but represents a “true growth in the utilitarian value of the Internet.”  Can you talk a little bit about how this statement applies to healthcare?  

A1: Web 2.0’s principles are user-empowerment and user-friendliness, giving users (patients) unprecedented ability to perform complex tasks. Plus, many of Web 2.0’s services are free. It’s very “do-it-yourself”, a new “people-helping-people” environment.

Web 2.0’s utilitarian principles have started to apply to healthcare in many ways. First, and most importantly, patients are creating content and starting a “do-it-yourself” mentality in the healthcare industry. So, along the “Consumer-Generated Media” line or CGM, we can start labeling the process now and call it  “Patient-Generated Content” or PGC for short. Pew Research recently found that 32% of Internet users are now considered “content creators” - people who create content on the Internet and in the blogosphere. Those are large numbers.  Number which will only grow further and in turn include healthcare related content.

Secondly, the step that's following, via the “people-helping-people” utilitarian Web 2.0 approach, involves people sharing their content with others, distributing it (via blog links, comments or RSS feeds. Patients, via PGC, are now not only generating content regarding their illnesses and healthcare concerns, but they are sharing the information with other patients online, via email and virally. The effect could be a profound change in the physician-patient relationship.

Finally, the utilitarian value or inflection point of Web 2.0 and healthcare that follows are the tools called widgets that are now in development -- online consumer developed tools for healthcare information, prescription information, and diagnosis evaluation on par with mainstream user-tools like Google Spreadsheets, wiki shareware, Mash-ups and calculators. These tools are being developed online by users and give patients unprecedented Web 2.0 capabilities to perform complex tasks on their very own.

Q2: Overall, what impact do you believe blogs are having on healthcare (patients, pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, etc.)?

A2: The utilitarian aspect of Web 2.0 allows patients to build and sustain blogging’s “talk-amongst-yourselves” mentality isn't much different than people speaking on the phone. But the deep reach of search engines into Internet and blogosphere content allows the average patient access sophisticated material. It's now not uncommon for patients to visit their physician carrying an article they’ve pulled from a Google search, a website, or a blog. With this material in hand a patient is more informed and able to better assess physician recommendations. In this manner, some patients are starting to challenge the diagnosis or expertise of some of their physicians because they believe they have more current information.

Q3:  According to a Harris/Makovsky & Company survey, Fortune 1000 executives are not very keen on blogs.  In fact, many of them do not believe blogs are very credible.  Do you think these results apply to healthcare blogs (specifically the data on blog credibility)?

A3: If a company is talking to its customers and being open and honest, how can that not be credible? Fortune 1000 companies like Sun Microsystems and Microsoft are successfully blogging. Yet, the Makovsky study found 74% of the 150 top-level executives they interviewed doubt the credibility of blogs for brand building. It could be the executives chosen to be interviewed weren’t Internet savvy, but it’s an interesting read on the perception of blogs as brand threats. If the feedback on blogs is negative, there must be something threatening to brands about them. I cover this topic in article I wrote called: “Corporate Brand Threat: Blogs & Disruptive Messaging” – found by clicking here.

Remember, blogging isn't a noun. Blogging is a verb and a process. Blogs are living, breathing beings which are fed content, grow in size, and morph and propagate like viruses online. Many people still think of blogs as simple websites where an individual or company is “speaking from the heart”. Blogging isn’t just an executive sitting and writing on a website. Blogging is about being open to conversations from consumers and patients. Blogging is instead a movement whereby individuals are interacting and talking back (for better or worse) to institutions and corporations online in a recorded manner.

In this way, blogs are credible. Blogging is becoming so credible that many people are now looking upon blogging as more credible than advertising supported old media properties and related content. Why? Because old media’s content is traditionally tied to editorial guidelines agreed to in the historic advertising supported editorial relationship. Some feel that bloggers (not tied to this agreement) – via Google AdSense - are able to provide more “credible” information. This doesn’t mean that every blog’s content should be believed, but it does give light that an individual non-expert voice has power to be heard now, whereas in the past it did not – as easily. However, many fine healthcare content resources couldn’t exist without advertising, a factor which must be weighed in.

Q4: What are the top three questions you are getting from healthcare executives about blogging and what are your answers?  

q1: The number one question I get is: “How is a blog different than a website? What's the need? It sounds like hype.”

a1: I answer that Web 1.0 is about providing one-way information (marketing brand messages or educational materials) to consumers or patients via established channels like affiliate relations, paid and defined channels. Developed content or marketing messages would appear only where they were approved. With Web 2.0 and the blogosphere the system of content propagation has changed. Consumers and now patients are the ones in control of content, so much so, that if they aren't given the reigns they'll leave your web property for a site that will enable them to be in control. So, if you want to “keep customers” you must give them tools to talk back to you and make them a part of your viral marketing efforts and medical education programs.

q2:  The number two question I get is “If I put up a blog, how am I going to handle negative or critical comments of my company and its products?

a2:  I covered this topic of how Pharma Marketers can think about participating in the blogosphere in a recent interview with Med Ad News

To handle negative commentary either via a negative or critical blog post on their healthcare institution’s blog, I suggest moderated comments. Comments being the key distinguishing factor between a traditional website and a true blog, introducing moderated comments along the lines of a panel discussion moderator – making sure everyone commenting is abiding by comments policy (staying on topic an appropriate to the conversation) is an approach which is catching on. In a business context, conversations need to be professional and respectful. Having a blog moderator at the ready to facilitate professional and respectful conversations and comments is an approach which can facilitate

q3: The third most common question I get is: “How can I become a blogosphere thought leader and generate sales leads?”

a3: One of the main powers of blog marketing is its ability to affect search engine results. Thus I make healthcare professionals aware that generated expert content can be pushed into the blogosphere, causing conversations, and ultimately driving new people back to their blog via simple key-word searches by patients or consumers into search engines. I encourage existing or potential thought leaders wishing to expand their voices into the blogosphere to develop talking points and key message points so that all blog posts, comments and content is focused and succinct (just like traditional public relations).

But, I also encourage thought leaders to approach blogosphere communications much like they would in consulting or advising students – not using the blogosphere as a blasting tool, but rather as an enlightening educational tool – driving people to develop their own conclusions simply by use of strong positions supported by research and recognized links to other online resources.

Q5: What are the best ways that healthcare organizations can connect with their stakeholders through consumer-generated media?

A5: The best way for a healthcare organization to connect with stakeholders through consumer-generated or patient generated media is to be a resource of information to online conversations. The key is not always to assume that the healthcare organization has to be a communicator, instead becoming a facilitator of information is the key. Consumers and patients coupled with the "Marketplace of Ideas" theory leads to consumers making up their own decisions in the end, anyway. The role of healthcare organizations in social media at this time may simply be to facilitate information flow, assisting consumers and patients with decision making.

Q6: Some have said that blogger backlash against Dell has significantly damaged the company.  Do you see healthcare bloggers having a similar impact on healthcare companies (especially Big Pharma)?

A6: The two main threats to Big Pharma’s involvement in the blogosphere include: 1) negative comments on blog posts of Big Pharma companies and 2) written and recorded conversations in the blogoshpere propagating negative information to current or potential patients or consumers.

Alternatively, there are two main positive results to Big Pharma of involvement with the blogosphere include: 1) positive comments on blog posts of Big Pharma companies and 2) written and recorded conversations in the blogoshpere propagating positive information to current or potential patients or consumers. 

You get the picture. The marketplace online will hear all sides of the conversation (just like the offline world) and ultimately the positive or negative conversations will balance or outweigh the other. This is called the “Marketplace of Ideas Theory.”

Q7: How has the practice of healthcare public relations changed with the advent of blogs and other forms of social media?  

A7: Healthcare public relations has become Internet-savvy in light of social media. The industry has started monitoring social media. The next step for healthcare public relations professionals is true professional engagement with the blogosphere, be it cautiously. Monitoring online chatter in the blogosphere vs. confronting or correcting content generators with correct information (educating the marketplace) are two entirely different steps. Reactive vs. proactive.

Q8: How can public relations practitioners help healthcare organizations understand and credibly participate in the healthcare blogosphere?  

A8: Public relations practitioners can start educating clients that the end of “one-way marketing” is upon us and that consumers are wanting to be engaged with and able to converse with companies they purchase from and do business with.

It boils down to credibility (a skill which public relations experts are versed at). Companies involved with the blogosphere are stepping into a new environment exposing themselves to their customers, but the “credibility building factor” of engaging with the medium seems to be the winning way. To not be engaged with the blogosphere is lost opportunity cost.

Public relations practitioners can encourage companies not to be afraid of the blogosphere and embolden their clients to look at the blogging revolution as a new “two-way” consumer partnership in marketing.

Q9: What are your thoughts on the future of healthcare blogs, especially as they relate to healthcare organizations?  

In the future, healthcare websites and blogs will become integrated as one – there will be no difference. It will be as if there were never a difference between a healthcare website and a healthcare blog. Patients, users and consumers will become so accustomed to seeing comments, that in time they will be expected and looked at to assess any medical or purchasing decision.

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