Take a look at the screen shot below, from Pfizer’s homepage. Believe it or not, I, or anyone else, can now leave comments “on” any website (such as Pfizer.com) using a new tool (currently in beta) from Google, called Sidewiki.
Game-changer? You bet.
While the use of Google’s Sidewiki has ramifications across the entire web, for every type of site or industry, I’m going to focus here on the pharma industry. Because in pharma, it’s all about controlled messaging via corporate sites, and by and large, the idea of people being able to freely comment on (just about) anything is anathema.
The locus of control has just shifted. You can turn off comments on websites and blogs, but now, people can have their say, and the comments are accessible right there via Sidewiki when people come to your site.
How does this work? Google is not the first to try to allow user-generated commentary on any site, but they are certainly the biggest and most sophisticated. All you have to do is have a Google account, download the Google toolbar for your browser (currently IE and Firefox), and activate the Sidewiki capability. That’s it. More detailed explanations of how it works and how to get started are here and here.
I decided to go to fellow blogger John Mack’s site and leave a Sidewiki comment there (above). Now John allows (and welcomes) comments, of course, but with Sidewiki, that is irrelevant. And even for those sites where comments are reviewed before approval, Sidewiki allows commentary completely apart from the intervention or approval of the site owner.
How will this change the game with regulatory issues? Well, it’s a big monkey wrench. A pharmaceutical company already cannot control what people say about it, or its products, on various sites. But now people can express themselves with annotations that are, in essence, sidebarred on company sites! Can a company be held liable for, say, off-label discussions that happen on Sidewiki in association with a product site?
It’s a good thing that the FDA will hold hearings in November about the use of social media/Web 2.0 in pharma communications, because we now have a new issue to put on the table. How does industry and its regulatory bodies view user-generated content that cannot be controlled, yet exists in conjunction with company-sponsored sites?
Some question whether the adoption rate of Sidewiki will be significant enough to make a huge difference. It’s a fair question, but I don’t believe that’s the point. The really important thing is: the wall has been breached. I’m not sure there’s going to be any going back as this kind of (pretty much inevitable) approach evolves – it’s a Pandora’s box.
The rules of the game just changed again. There’s going to be a lot of mixed feelings about this one…
UPDATE: Fellow industry blogger Phil Baumann was thinking about the same theme today! Read his valuable thoughts. And Wendy Blackburn chimes in with some good input on what pharma can or cannot do about Sidewiki.
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Gavin Heaton says
Left a SideWiki comment for you 😉
Love it. But just a little frightened.
Great post, Steve. We were talking about this yesterday, and were hoping that the launch of SideWiki wouldn’t tempt all of our clients’ regulatory folks to TAKE DOWN ALL WEB SITES IMMEDIATELY
That could be a temptation. But obviously it would be a great mistake.
This is an interesting concept, Steve, and raises numerous concerns and issues for Pharma, never mind bloggers.
Imagine the Diggnation trolls show up, what then?
Imagine people posting comments on GSK about the poor child who died this week from a Cervarix vaccination?
Or people venting at any other company who have a product recall or major side effects announced?
I can just see Pharma legal counsels having total kittens at the possibilities this tool raises, both good and bad.
The first challenge is installing it – I had to do a clean re-install of Firefox to get it working, not many will bother with that. It’s a bit geeky in some ways.
The second challenge is that there is no way to moderate comments or even turn it off, at least that I can see.
The third is that some in Pharma are still stuck in an IE6.0 web 1.0 world, never mind web 2.0 and social media and probably won’t even notice that this hidden comment tool even exists for a while!
The fourth is that learning to listen to customers and consumers is a good thing, even if the truth sometimes hurts.
However, it’s one thing Pharma being accountable for their actions, it’s quite another being held responsible for the claims and comments of others on your site, which you have little or no control over, as far as I can see.
We all get trolls; we may choose moderate rude or ad hominem comments, but this concept is actually quite frightening if it becomes a free for all.
A game changer, maybe, but not necessarily in ways that we might wish.
I understand your points, Sally, but look how things have changed in just five years. Who would have imagine the whole Twitter world? 2.0 apps are becoming increasingly popular and being adopted in geometrical proportion. Look at the Twitter growth curve.
With reference to moderation I think that the idea behind is that the final version or at least a future version will allow to cast votes, like YouTube does, and to report any innapropiate comment or abuse. And comments will be ranked according to popularity, influence,…
At the end of the road we all want to be heard. And the role of companies and government should be listen to what it is being said and provide good products, valuable services and a superb education.
Dennis Urbaniak says
I agree completely that this is a game changer, no question. The other comments also raise some very important questions that many of us in pharma will be closely considering. The questions already exist in other social media tools today as well. If you are out there, people will talk, this now gives them the chance to talk whether you have determined to be out there or not.
I understand and respect the opinions stated so far regarding trolls and liability around negative comments. I thought Phil Baumann’ s point of view on this from his post this morning was incredibly interesting.
The other side to this issue though is the huge opportunity to gain deeper customer insights which can help us provide more relevant content in the future. We all say that we are striving to get closer to the customer and now we have an incredible opportunity to do that. We will see who comes and who comments but if you fundamentally believe in the benefits of a social approach, you need to look at this side of the issue and find a way to realize that benefit.
We have a responsibility to timely assess and report potential issues with our products and offerings in all communication channels, written or spoken. We also have a responsibility to listen and to provide relevant customer focused content that addresses true needs. Both risks are important but I think the business risk of not participating and not finding a way to establish a risk position that allows you to participate is much greater than the direct regulatory risk.
Of course, these comments represent my personal opinions and not those of my company as we have not yet established a formal position, although like many we are working on this.
Thanks for keeping this dialogue going.
Dennis, I think that’s a very sensible approach. I was eager to know the opinion of someone from the manufacturers’ side. This is evolution by revolution. Thanks for your sharing your personal opinions and contribute to this exciting debate.
Mary Canady says
Great insight/post. There are similarities to this ‘free for all’ type of forum in life science/biotech already, for example the biotech rumor mill. After people learn to ‘consider the source,’ won’t these wikis become something that people mostly ignore? They will likely become spam ridden soon.
Fard Johnmar says
Thanks for this post, the Tweet alert and for inspiring some serious thinking on my part this morning. You’ve tweeted about my thoughts on the SideWiki issue, but I thought I’d share a link to my post here for others who might be interested: http://blog.pathoftheblueeye.com/2009/09/29/google-sidewiki-5-ways-health-organizations-can-anchor-themselves-in-the-social-media-storm/.
Thanks again for stirring the pot!
Excellent Post says
Great post Steve. I’m thinking SideWiki will be less of a regulatory problem and more of a compliance problem with companies. FDA cannot hold companies responsible for things they don’t control, for the most part. A company can only control the content if it is indeed posting it or paying someone else to post it (if I understand SideWiki correctly). It’s conceivable that there may be some need to monitor these for AE’s but I doubt any reportable AEs will end up on a SideWiki (at least in the near future). Its a lot of hassle right now just to get SideWiki working and then get a consumer to post an AE that is reportable. I think its more of a compliance issue, needing to figure out what employees or company agents are doing on Wiki’s and whether the company is responsible for what an employee is writing on a SideWiki. Think CafePharma.
My prediction is that corporate america and not just PhRMA will sue for copyright infringement or something like that. Someone will tell me that this has already been decided in court, but I bet my left hand there will be copyright lawsuits eventually. Once you have mainstream use of SideWiki, you’ll see more controversy and more analysis of whether its legal and then consequently more lawsuits (if there aren’t any already). Citizens have a right to Free Speech but they don’t have a right to trespass on your property, stand in your lobby and shout barbs at people walking in. On the other hand, this could be the corporate picket line, just far enough away from the premises exercise free speech, but such as not to trespass illegally. That’s an issue for the big law firms with lots of smart people (certainly not for me). I’m already mixing legal concepts in an offensive way.
As a consumer, I think SideWiki is awesome. As a regulatory and compliance person, I think its one of those problems where everyone is going to scratch their heads about until the train left the next ten stations. I’m not expecting a whole lot of insight from FDA at the upcoming hearing on this, lots of implications perhaps, though. I think FDA’s perspective will be very simple: If you go there and participate on your SideWiki, you’re responsible for what you post and you trigger all the regulatory requirements of company communications (all the same ones triggered by sponsored links, including the need to report to FDA at time of initial dissemination–different reporting requirement than AE reporting requirements). Any more benevolent insight at this time from FDA, particularly at a public meeting, is not conceivable to me.
I also agree with Dennis above though, even if you were able to dispense with the FDA regulatory obstacles, I think the business risk that he discusses above will be the greater issue, leading to product management and public relations messes (which inevitably cause regulatory issues and legal issues as a result).
Great post though. SideWiki was previously but a fleeting and faint noise on the radar screen. I’m going to be thinking about this now all week (and using Side Wiki).
Silja Chouquet says
Another piece of the powerful technology spiderweb that makes up this thing called social media we are all so fond… and pharma so scared off 🙂
Will it be a gamer changer? All social media tools are potential game changers, depending on who adopts them and to do what.
Will patients use the sidewiki (more than any other existing tool) to comment on webpages? Will they use it to make comments on pharma site in particular? Do they even go there at the moment? Will they then feel compelled to report experience such as severe side effects or adverse events there?
Is it the possibility of this happening, however unlikely, that we need FDA guidance for? Or are we in turn looking for the long sought for validation that social media has become an important source of information?
Isn’t it the FDA’s job to keep patients safe? Should it therefore not rather provide guidance on how to increase and improve the quality of that information? Rather than waste time with hypothetical complications that might occur or not?
I believe any social media tool holds the potential to positively impact the way healthcare is delivered. However this usually does not happen all by itself. It needs to be encouraged, normed and enforced through the community that creates the content.
My advice to pharma at the moment would be to embrace and be the first to comment on their page asking for “safe“ feedback : Hi, thanks for dropping by our page, please let us know how you liked it and whether you found what you were looking for.
This is also a big shout out to all of you – what norms should we put in place to make best use of this tool and to get it to add value rather than great a concern.
Steve — it’s not just sidewiki, though. There’s lots of little apps like that out there on the Web. Technically, it’s out of the pharma company’s control — but I wonder what the legal teams will say. *sigh* off to write a POV for my clients…
I’m doing my bit to try and help make pharma clean up its act!
Not only there is nothing to fear for the big companies, but they have good reasons to be happy about this.
While up to now negative comments accumulate in tons of disparate blogs/forums and PR folks have to police and influence lots of places, the comments will now cluster around the company homepage, which is a location easier to monitor and influence.
Companies will use this space in the same way they use “flogs” (search for it) or they will hire 3rd parties to trash the competition.
It is not surprising google is pushing this feature as ability to control the messaging in these areas, including ad space, is going to be pretty expensive.
For the user population, there is nothing to be happy about wrt this feature.