As mentioned last week, I was directed by a colleague to a new blog being sponsored by GlaxoSmithKline about it’s new OTC product alli. Because this is so highly unusual, it merits a closer examination.
First of all – a reminder of why it is so unusual. As a highly regulated industry, pharmaceutical communications is a laborious process, one stage of which is usually a review by the Medical Regulatory Department or legal folks to sanitize language to ensure that the communication is not violating any laws or regulations. They are a pretty risk averse group and they tend not to have a sense of humor. In addition, some companies have told me that they refuse to monitor blog content for fear of seeing an adverse event reported on their drug which would require pharmacovigilence to step in and investigate. Yet, here is GSK going ahead with a blog that presumably has some spontaneity to it and where comments that are posted can most certainly talk about adverse events.
Second, let’s look at the product. It is for weight loss, a topic that people has no limit for those who are trying to get down a few sizes. Also, it works by gathering fat and expelling it from the body and if you eat too much fat – well, you have need of a bathroom, perhaps urgently. So, rather than have all the talk of the "treatment effect" occurring in the Wild West of the blogosphere, GSK had the creativity, the guts, the temerity and the smarts to start their own blog on the product, and therefore, its treatment effect. They have already addressed this in a few postings. The dialog isn’t occurring "out there" in an uncontrolled environment, rather it occurs within the GSK domain and allows the company to interact with consumers about a touchy treatment effect that they aren’t denying the product has. To my knowledge, no other major drug company has done anything similar. Granted, since this is an OTC drug, there are fewer restrictions, but nonetheless, I think it a smart marketing idea.
Now let’s look at the alli site itself. Part of the appeal of blogs for people is that they can find people they like, who they believe or who entertain them, and read what they right without the filter of editors or institutions. Otherwise, they would go back to newspapers. So a blog by a company about a specific product is a bit of a strange animal in that it doesn’t quite qualify. This blog is by a team of GSK employees. And, it does take a while to find one’s voice when writing a blog. There aren’t many entries here yet to provide much to go on. In the posting entitled "Welcome to the alli blog" there is a statement that "[w]e’re going to talk to you honestly about weight loss."
That is a nice sentiment, but I’m not sure it is reflected in the blog. Let’s face it, this is a GSK blog the purpose of which is to help sell a product. It is doubtful that these guys are going to tell people who don’t like the product to try another. Also, there are no links to other weight loss resources or to other blogs. In all fairness, I typed in "alli’s blog" into Google and got a blog by a girl named Allison as the first hit. They really ought to exchange links!
So I think the jury is still out on this in the long run and it will be interesting to see how long they keep it up and whether or not they encounter any special problems or issues. But they may have painted themselves into a corner with this if they truly want to talk honestly about weight loss, unless they only really truly want to talk honestly about alli.
By the way, GSK has also done ads on YouTube. Whatever you think of the company, the product, the blog or the ads, I gotta say, it is nice to see a pharmaceutical company embracing new media, rather than being left behind like most of the pack while other companies are afraid to read blogs or don’t know what an RSS feed does.
By the way, the picture – it is NOT a self-portrait!