Physician online communities – sponsor or build? (part 2)

Kay Wesley

In the second half of her article, Kay Wesley concludes her thoughts on whether pharma should sponsor or build physician online communities. In addition, she explores the pros and cons of both.

Continued from Physician online communities – sponsor or build? (part 1)

In part one of this article, I considered the growth of online physician communities and the different types of community available –third party independent communities and pharma-owned, and the credibility of each. Here I’ll explore these two options in more detail, and point to considerations when choosing which is right for you..

Sponsoring an existing third party community

These communities, such as DocCheck or are ‘independent’, but the bulk of their income is from the pharmaceutical industry. Membership for clinicians is free.

They offer a variety of opportunities to companies, from insight research amongst HCP members to banner advertising, sponsored sections, pages or ‘mini-sites’ about a therapy or disease area, promotional content such as e-details about drugs, and many more.

You typically pay for a presence on the site in the appropriate therapy or disease area section. You provide the content, or the platform owner develops it with you, and you pay a monthly or quarterly fee for as long as your content is available or for a specific number of ‘views’.

The platform owner will promote your part to members (targeted by specialty, geography or a variety of other options) using email or on-site banners. In some cases you sponsor a section for a longer period – for example offers sponsorship of an entire ‘Knowledge Centre’ on a therapy area for a 12 month period.


“…go to where your customers already are and ‘catch’ them there.”


Although these sites make much of the ‘community’ aspect, the discussion forums are usually not directly available to the sponsor. Many offer insight reports from the discussions but sponsors do not take part in the conversation.

Advantages of third party community sponsorship

• ‘Fish where the fish are’. As Networks in Health often say – in other words, go to where your customers already are and ‘catch’ them there. If your country has a physician network or portal with a good number of doctors already signed up, it’s a great way to reach your target audience.

• Turn on, turn off. You can sponsor content, advertise or promote on the platform for precisely the period you need to. Once your campaign is finished simply turn it off. The platform remains in place for the customer.

• Little up-front cost. You have no platform to build, no hosting environment to sort out, no website to manage. It is all in place already, you just need to pay for content.

• User experience out of the box. Many independents have been going for years and have optimised the user experience of their platform, so you don’t need to worry about this.

Disadvantages of third party community sponsorship

• Its pay-as-you-go. If you decide to keep the content live for twice as long it will cost you twice as much. You pay for access to each doctor and if you want another campaign to target more doctors, you will pay again.

• You are not in full control. You may have control over the content you are providing but you don’t control the rest of the platform. The user experience and information architecture are the owner’s and they may change it at any time.

“This gives the opportunity of long-term engagement with these customers.”


• Not exclusive. Your sponsored content might appear in close proximity to competitors, or as your banner rotates and disappears, a competitor one may appear. Exclusive sponsorship costs more.

Choose third party sponsorship for: Campaigns of activity where you want to reach a new customer group, getting reach for some key content (e.g. at launch) or where you only have one product in the therapy area and long-term investment is not warranted.

Tips for third party community sponsorship

• Shop around. Make sure you know the size of the target audience and understand the cost and value of reaching each customer on the list. Different communities will offer different options and costs. Where possible, pay for results (e.g. e-details completed) versus presence.

• Get the targeting right. Ensure you match the target list on the platform with your own database and remove any duplicates if you’ll be emailing your own list to promote your content.

•  Measurement. The platform should offer detailed analytics about reach, dwell time, interactions with your content and cost-per-interaction.

• Create relationship opportunities . After your e-detail or webcast the doctor should be able to opt-in to receive more information from you – otherwise you may be paying again next time to reach the same physician.

Building your own physician community

You design and develop a website, populate it, promote it to your target customers and engage them with an ongoing relationship – this means regular updates, tweets, email newsletters and other interactions. To add credibility some companies appoint an editorial board of experts who define the scope and keep the information balanced, with clear signposts to promotional company-specific content.

If you have a significant user-generated content area you need to monitor it daily to deal with any issues such as off-label comments, adverse event reports and so on. Some companies have a community linked from their website but run by a third-party and the company does not have access to it – this avoids the need to monitor whilst offering HCPs the chance to interact with each other.


“If you invest in a particular therapy area it helps develop your profile as a leader in it.”


Advantages of building your own community

• Customer Relationships. This is the big one. The members of your community have signed up to access your information and many will have also opted-into ongoing email or other communication from you. This gives the opportunity of long-term engagement with these customers.

• Customer Satisfaction. Physicians expect good quality services from pharma companies and speak highly of those companies that provide them.

• Ongoing cost of interactions. Acquiring community members is costly (€50-100 each is a good benchmark) but once they are in your permission database, the cost-per-interaction with each of your customers becomes very low indeed (&lt,€5), a highly cost-efficient way to have an ongoing relationship with customers.

• Exclusivity. This is your community and you dictate the user experience, the content and the ongoing engagement.

• Reputation. If you invest in a particular therapy area it helps develop your profile as a leader in it.

Disadvantages of building your own community

• There’s a lot to get right. The design, information architecture, user experience, data protection, accessibility, platform, content, traffic levels and ongoing communications are all your responsibility. All must be optimised to get the best results.

• Cost. Getting all these things right will not be cheap and will almost certainly involve a number of agencies and a significant project team.

• Long-term commitment. There are too many examples of companies investing to build a thriving online community only to drop it a few years later when the product goes off patent. This does not help your reputation with your customers.

“These customer relationships are too important to lose due to internal politics.”


Choose launching your own community if: You have a long-term commitment to a therapy area (e.g. a significant pipeline of products coming through in the next several years), you want to establish your company as a leader in that therapy area and you want to form enduring relationships with the physicians who interact with your content.

Tips for a successful owned community

• Get the right partner. Work with experts who will optimise user experience and content to delight your customers

• Have a long-term plan. Ensure you have a community manager and ongoing content and engagement plan – it should be funded over time. If necessary have an exit strategy, ensure it is managed, not abandoned.

•  Use an editorial board. Work with experts or thought leaders to ensure your content is top notch and build credibility.

•  Manage user generated content. You may choose to have any UGC, from quick polls to general discussion forums, but ensure you have a risk mitigation strategy in place if you allow any free text input.

• Get buy-in across your organisation. When leaders in pharma companies move on, the new person often sweeps away their initiatives and brings in new ones. These customer relationships are too important to lose due to internal politics. Ensure your leadership and colleagues understand the value of what you have built and will maintain it.

It is not mutually-exclusive

Of course, you can do both. By all means ‘fish where the fish are’ but you don’t have to ‘eat’ your fish as you go, how about hooking them then carefully lifting them into your own tank and nurturing them yourself in future? In other words – run campaigns on third- party communities to reach your target audience, then invite them to join your community for ongoing services and engagement. Interacting with customers in a variety of channels to suit both them and our strategy is, after all, just good marketing practice.



About the author:

Kay Wesley is a digital and marketing expert considered to be a thought-leader in multichannel pharma. Kay was Global eMarketing Director of AstraZeneca for five years and also built Complete Digital, the digital arm of McCann Complete Medical.

With extensive cross-industry digital experience Kay has developed multichannel strategies in oncology, gastroenterology, respiratory, cardiovascular, neuroscience, diabetes and urology, has created a global pharma’s marketing communications excellence methodology and worked with several top pharmaceutical companies on embedding digital across brands and geographies.

Call +44 7711 459740


Twitter: @kaywesley

How can pharma best engage with online physician communities?