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On Alli & Social Media Marketing: It’s About Efficacy & Side Effects Stupid!

carville.jpgMuch has been made lately about the poor sales of GlaxoSmithKline’s over the counter (OTC) weight loss medication Alli.  The company famously relaunched a low-dose OTC version of its prescription medication Xenical with a snazzy advertising campaign and a branded blog and message board.  

What surprised many people is that the company freely acknowledged the drug’s messy side effects on the Alli blog.  GSK’s hope was that it could get people to make a commitment to changing their dietary habits in order to lose weight and avoid an “oops” moment.  

Recently, it has become clear that Alli is not doing as well as analysts expected.  The problem may be the company’s marketing message.  Those willing to make lifestyle modifications may be less inclined to take a pill – especially one like Alli.


Recently GlaxoSmithKline noted that founding blogger and public Alli champion Steve Burton resigned his position with the company. Some have taken his resignation as a sign that GSK will soon discontinue its blog and abandon its push for transparency.  I hope this does not happen.  Since its launch, the blog and bulletin board have likely become lifelines for people seeking help losing weight – with or without Alli.  The company has painstakingly built lasting relationships with these people that should not be quickly abandoned.  

I think GSK shares this view.  On the alliconnect blog company spokesperson Karen Scollick said: "Transparency is important to our identity and it will to continue to be on alliconnect and throughout our communication."

Does Alli’s disappointing sales mean that drug firms will view marketing via blogs, bulletin boards and other social technologies as a failed strategy?  I don’t think so.  GSK knew that it would have a tough challenge convincing people to take its drug, which is why it decided to be upfront about its side effects.  In my mind this was a good strategy.  Unfortunately, it has not been enough to convince lots of people (yet) that the risks of the drug outweighed its benefits.  At the end of the day, it comes back to the patient/physician experience with the drug.  If the experience is bad, people won’t come back, no matter how much you prod them.  

However, here’s where GSK can benefit from its experiment in social media marketing.  Currently, the company has a rich lode of data on its bulletin board (and to a lesser extent on its blog) that it can mine for insights and information about:

-Consumers’ real-world experiences with Alli

-How different subpopulations respond to specific marketing messages

-The type of person who will be most likely to stick with Alli despite its side effects  

GSK can use this information to tweak its future marketing efforts so that it can ensure it is reaching the people who will be most likely to take the medication over the long-term.  While sales may not meet analysts’ expectations, conducting such an exercise could ultimately result in a steady, but significant, revenue stream for the company.  In today’s difficult market, that’s an outcome I think many would be wiling to accept. 

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