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"I want to build a healthcare community..."
06th Mar 2014
Carwyn Jones

The immortal phrase that should bring everyone out in a sweat; whether client side or agency side. Building an online community is one of the hardest things to do, not simply in healthcare. It needs considerable investment, time, research, and also a little bit of luck. 

When I was Head of Pharma at Doctors.net.uk, few people realised the amount of money and effort that had gone into creating an online community of doctors in the UK since 1998. This was most especially the case with the doctors, as well as with the pharmaceutical industry. It’s a tough job! I’m not sure of the exact numbers these days, but Doctors.net.uk will still be seeing over 40,000 individual doctors accessing the website each day in the UK. This makes it very difficult for pharma to set up other communities for doctors, when one so large already exists. To do so would be like trying to create a new eBay or Facebook, and I can’t imagine who would try to do that…

So is it possible to create online communities, and if so, what are the best ways to do it? There are five key elements to consider:

1. What is a community?

Many businesses actually don’t want (or need) a community at all. Based on a variety of definitions, we define a community as: A group of people living in the same place, sharing a particular characteristic or having certain attitudes and interests in common. By this definition, a website with no social element is not a community. However, if individuals feel passionately about a particular issue or cause, then this can drive community values, which may not be demonstrated as all members discussing everything on an online forum.

Univadis is arguably one of the best websites for HCPs produced by any pharma company; but it is not a community, as doctors cannot interact with each other. That said, it is still a fantastic online asset. If the commercial requirement for any business is to contact a specific group of HCPs, this can be achieved by email; a community may not be required at all.

2. Don’t just build it…

…they are unlikely to come. No one needs a lecture on the ‘death of push marketing’; the internet is awash with articles on the changing consumer in today’s digital age. Instead, businesses need to ensure that what they are building has all the appropriate strategic thinking to maximise the likelihood of success. Many pharma companies have tried to create communities for HCPs; very few (if any) have succeeded. Maybe pharma just aren’t the right people to do it.

Let’s use Facebook as an example: Facebook hasn’t succeeded because Mark Zuckerberg has told us all to join. It has succeeded because the community has developed itself, it has evolved over time, and it provides value to its members. Also, Facebook learns from its mistakes. It changes things. It re-thinks. It improves. It demonstrates the importance of dynamism, rather than taking a ‘build and move on’ approach.

3. Understand the user

The word ‘user’ is often over-used, but a community cannot be created without understanding the needs of the users. User profiling is essential for understanding all about the personalities, beliefs, needs and wants of the likely members in the community. This community is not for agencies, clients, pharma or other businesses. In fact, unless anyone in the business is one of the community members, it doesn’t really matter what they think about the colour, navigation, content, etc. Instead, it is vital to understand what potential community members want from an online community, and whether anything online currently delivers on this. It is imperative to determine: Is there a gap?

At The EarthWorks, we’ve created a community for medicines management pharmacists based on this thinking. We have identified this gap, and there is nothing available currently online for this group of individuals. They want to connect to each other. They want to share pertinent information. Therefore the community we are helping to build has a real chance to be successful!

4. It takes time

Building a community rarely happens quickly. However, growth is often exponential after achieving a critical mass. A plan and a strategy are essential to maximising the potential of any community. It will not happen overnight, and not all customers are waiting in desperate need for the community to exist. It is important to be realistic as to what success could look like.

I haven’t spoken about social media, but any online community must have presence on social media channels. This again takes time to establish, and the right channels need to be chosen to support a successful community website.

5. Resource it

It is likely that any community needs a number of core members who drive the success of the community (a faculty). A content manager will also be required to manage content and communication within the website.  This individual will create a content strategy to drive discussion, consumption and review. A measurement strategy is also essential to ensure the effective evaluation of the community’s performance. Metrics relating to registration, activity and feedback will all need to be looked at. Ensuring the right people are in place, as well as a robust strategy, definitely improve a community’s chances for success.

So, which communities are currently worth looking at? Here are five that I think are worth a visit:

Patients Like MeHealth UnlockedDiabetes.co.ukDoctors.net.uk, andBen’s Friends.

It is clear that building a community is no mean feat; it requires planning, a solid understanding of target audiences, excellent content, the right social media links, a select faculty, and a great deal of hard work and determination. With such a formidable list of requirements, I wish luck to anyone on the verge of setting up a community! It’s not easy, but if done right, the results speak for themselves.