Social Media Innovation: What Health Sciences Can learn from retail


Major consumer marketers are always ahead of healthcare in identifying trends and adopting new strategies and technology. What we can learn from their successes in using social media?

By Andy Dé, Author, Health Science Strategy Blog


Visionary retailers and consumer product companies are leveraging social media (and mobility for greater reach) to differentiate the consumer shopping and buying experience. They’re building loyalty through dialog, listening, and engagement with the consumer in whole new ways.Pc0490100

Figure 1. Value and ROI from Social Media (and Mobility) Initiatives in Retail and Consumer Packaged Goods. (copyright Andy Dé. All rights reserved).


There are seven identifiable stages of consumer communication and engagement. Here are explanations of each and their applicability to the life sciences professions. Table 2. Value and ROI from Social Media (and Mobility) Initiatives in Consumer Products, best practice exemplars and Key Success Indicators. (copyright Andy Dé. All rights reserved).


LEVEL 1 Engaging the consumer as “Infomercial or Customer Service Receptor”: Office supply retailer Staples has built a “Tweet Team,” five customer service agents that patrol the Twitterverse, push out promotional offers, answer customer questions, and more. Most pharmaceutical companies, physicians’ practices, healthcare providers, and payors are at this stage of adoption and value delivery today. Leveraging social media as a channel for ‘brochureware, and education, they stand to significantly learn and benefit from the other six stages below.

LEVEL 2 Engaging the Customer as “Offer Seeker” is exemplified by Groupon, which offers a significant discount if a stipulated number of subscribers buy online. Groupon is now being used by dentists, optometrists and even primary care physicians to drive new patients to their offices, potentially build loyalty, and create an annuity- generating revenue relationship. The scalability and sustainability of this model needs to be further explored in a health-science context.

LEVEL 3 Engaging the Customer as “Idea Contributor” involves proactively engaging with customers as “ideators” for ideas that can help improve the services offered as well as newer services, or the customer buying experience as a whole. Best Buy is one of the more innovative retailers here, using a proprietary social platform that asks shoppers to suggest ideas to the retailer, then allows other shoppers to vote those ideas up or down. While seeking service ideas from patients may be considered far-fetched by most life sciences companies today, their potential for crowd-sourced ideation for mHealth and similar services is huge. Innovators will win at the expense of their competitors by bringing these short lifecycle services to market. Crowdsourcing ideas from chronically ill and multi-morbid patients, for remote monitoring, telehealth, and wellness and disease management services, could have significant potential, as well.

LEVEL 4 Engaging the Customer as “Community Volunteer” usually involves developing a community networking platform integrated with social media tools like Facebook and Twitter that enable customers to share their buying, shopping, and consumption experience to aid their peers.

Online reviews are a great way to generate search-engine friendly content for e-commerce sites. Getting users to actively contribute and write reviews can be tricky, but Sears and Kmart have hit upon a successful formula with their interactive sites (see links).

Peer-reviewed healthcare services from a community of customers are offered today by Angie’s List for a fee-based subscription. Angie’s List extends its reviews to physicians and providers of healthcare services today and is a useful resource for patients seeking references. While the success of “Patients Like Me” is well known in healthcare, the potency of the “Community Volunteer” model has been demonstrated by Mayo Clinic with measurable efficacy and success. Sharing Mayo Clinic (RSS Feed) is a blog with stories, experiences and videos of employees and patients relating their experiences at the Mayo Clinic and what makes it so special, probably the most popular of all its blogs. For instance, a video of an impromptu performance by an octogenarian couple within the atrium of one of Mayo Clinic’s buildings that was recorded by another patient and uploaded onto YouTube by her daughter went viral on the web with over 7.2 million views!Pc0520100


While seeking service ideas from patients may be considered far-fetched today, their potential for crowd-sourced ideation for mHealth and similar services is huge.

LEVEL 5 Engaging the Customer as ‘Word-of-Mouth Influencer’ involves using social and other online media, including community platforms to trigger discussions, exchanges and drive to product or prototype trials and eventual adoption.

Perhaps the best known exemplar of this model is Proctor and Gamble and its in-house initiatives

Tremor and Vocalpoint. Tremor is P&G’s in-house word-of-mouth (WOM) marketing organization. Vocalpoint is a community and e-focus group of women who are active online. Tremor’s successes range from Olay Professional-Pro-X for skincare to Dinner Tool, a new recipe website that helps busy moms decide “what’s for dinner.”

Tremor and Vocalpoint offer a compelling model for healthcare and life sciences. A comparable model in a healthcare context, perhaps, is Patients Like Me, which provides patients with chronic or uncommon conditions an interactive platform to share their real-world health experiences in order to help themselves, other patients like them, and organizations that focus on their conditions. Over time, it could develop its own Tremor and Vocalpoint-like capabilities to better address the needs of its patient communities. It may be possible for wellness and disease management services, mhealth apps and devices providers leveraging communities of patients on Patients Like Me or Facebook, as well as physician communities like Medscape (owned by Web MD) for focus groups, market research, and potential recruitment for clinical trials.

LEVEL 6 Engaging the Customer as “Product Designer” leverages “crowd-sourcing” from individuals to drive “social product development” and is perhaps best exemplified by Quirky, which has simplified the complexity pertaining to financing, engineering, distribution, and legalities that have often been barriers for inventors, designers, and product or concept ideators in bringing their products to market commercially. A similar platform to enabling innovation in an enterprise B2B context is enabled by Innocentive, which is being leveraged by many large corporations to crowd source innovation ideas from its employees, customers, and partners, and connect with the largest virtual ‘problem solving marketplace’ to slash time-to-market with innovation.

“Social product development” potentially offers a compelling model for life sciences companies and healthcare technology vendors to slash time to market with innovation and lower costs. Innocentive’s platform is already being adopted by leading pharma companies like Eli Lilly and Roche, and holds significant potential for healthcare IT products and services as well.

“Social product development” offers a compelling model to slash time to market with innovation and lower costs

In fact, given the demise of Google Health and the relatively modest success with Personal Health Records (PHRs) by Microsoft and Dossia, using open, crowd-sourced innovation platforms like Innocentive may be a viable option. Leveraging a crowd-sourcing platform like Innocentive to aggregate product design, feature, functionality, mobility capabilities and apps to meet the specific needs of core target segments (chronic diabetes patients on Medicaid, seniors recuperating from congestive heart failure or stroke et al) would be well advised. Transforming these specific requirements into a PHR on a familiar platform like a Smart Card that is usable at the doctor’s office, the pharmacy or with the payer may well be the winning solution that patients and the healthcare market is waiting for.

LEVEL 7 Engaging the Customer as “Investor and Evangelist” involves presenting a product/service, project or idea and securing virtual “micro-investments” or pledges (as low as $ 25-50) from interested investors/target customers to fund the development. If the funding is successful and the product or service is developed, then early adopters (who have also invested) evangelize to their peers and friends to further scale investment and adoption.

Perhaps the best exemplar of this model that extends “social product development” to “social product funding” is Kickstarter, with its unique “all-or-nothing” funding model for innovation.

The “social funding and product development model” instituted by Kickstarter is game-changing and potentially provides significant opportunities for small entrepreneurs in the healthcare arena to bring lower-priced mhealth apps and devices/ instruments to market. Companies like NervCell, that aspire to provide an open connectivity platform for doctors and patients to exchange patient data as well as an apps platform for apps developers, are being spawned on Kickstarter right now.


This is a new and innovative model for engaging customers leveraging social media and mobility platforms and tools that are being deployed by leaders in retail and consumer products. These models show enormous promise, value and ROI potential, and present new opportunities for life sciences and healthcare technology companies to engage patients, physicians, clinicians, nurses and other healthcare stakeholders and also bring health-sciences innovation to market.

Andy Dé is a visionary, impact-driven health sciences innovation strategy, marketing and thought leader with blog and Twitter readership in 47 countries. His work has been referenced by the Harvard Medical School, Partners Healthcare, The Washington Post, HL-7 Standards blog and Ohio State University. He has been recognized as one of the top ten tweeters in healthcare IT strategy and social media. Andy has won two Leadership Awards from the Chief Marketing Officer of GE Healthcare IT for his work on their Cardiovascular IT and Imaging platform and holds masters degrees from prominent universities in the U.S., Canada and Israel. He can be reached at, or


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