VOICES FROM THE INDUSTRY: Communications as usual just won’t cut it anymore

In 1999, when the World Wide Web was in its infancy, Rick Levine and others penned and posted “The Cluetrain Manifesto: The end of business as usual” (www.cluetrain.com). In this Web-focused document, their opening salvo at business as usual-and their wake-up call for American business- went thusly:

“A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter-and getting smarter faster than most companies.”

Eight short years later, even Levine and friends must be shocked at their own prescience. Consider this:

“Primer,” the winner of the 2004 Sundance Film Festival Dramatic Grand Jury prize, was made on a budget of $7,000.

Consumers using only camcorders and home computers are creating advertising that rivals the work of big agencies. Converse, Doritos and the NFL have put these ads on the air; others can be found on YouTube, a social networking site that Google just bought for billions.

Of the tens of millions of blogs on the Web, many are dedicated to raves or rants about specific products and companies.

Podcasts are ubiquitous. Anybody with a PC can become the voice of his or her generation.

All of these developments have turned communications on its ear. And changed the role of traditional media as the socalled gatekeeper of information.

Now, depending on which side of this equation you find yourself, this is either a beautiful convergence and democratization of commerce, consumer and content, or clear evidence that the inmates are running the asylum. But if you’re marketing anything at all-and who isn’t?-the message should be clear: Adapt or get left behind.

No market category is immune to the revolution. Whether your communications efforts are business-to-business or business-to-consumer, transparency rules. Conversations have replaced propaganda. Consumers expect to have opportunities to talk about you and with you. They want a forum for connecting with each other. They want resources that inform them about your organization. And they want you to provide those opportunities, forums and resources, free of Big Brother controls and corporate spin.

But what if your business operates in a heavy-handed regulatory environment, such as, say, health care or life sciences? How are you supposed to participate in this grand convergence with things like HIPAA and patient confidentiality hanging over your head? How do you apply this in industries that have, for a variety of reasons, tended to be tight-lipped?

Well, it is complicated, but not impossible. And the rewards will be worth the headaches. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

Take the leap. This is uncharted territory for many in the health and life sciences arena-and nothing short of a gut punch to close-to-the-vest corporate cultures. Just remember, if you don’t put yourself out into this conversation-based marketplace, somebody-patients, customers, competitors, whoever-will. And the results will not be as satisfactory.

Be prepared to take an occasional beating. Expose yourself to the new-era daylight and you will catch heat. Some of it intense. The good news: You’ll learn more from complainers than sycophants. As Bill Gates once muttered, “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.”

Be prepared to learn that much of what you think you know about your market is wrong. One of the most amazing by-products of exposing your organization to this new world is what you learn about your customers.

Let your legal team keep you out if trouble, not out of the game. God bless ’em, health care lawyers will have a tough time with communication shift. It’s counterintuitive to everything they know. Work with them, but don’t let their caution prevent you from doing what’s legal and prudent but also challenging.

When you speak, speak in a human voice. That you’re speaking at all makes your audience suspicious. Don’t compound suspicion by using spin, a corporate voice or medical jargon. Be honest and forthright. And talk like real people talk.

Don’t say anything without asking for feedback. And when you get it, pay attention. This is especially important in the business-to-business iteration of health and life sciences communication. Your customers are all well-educated and accustomed to being heard. Engage in the conversation-you’ll learn something.

What’s important to note is that this revolution already has hit the health care/life sciences world: Research suggests that each day 8 million people turn to the Web for medical information. But they’re not just finding Web sites filled with words; they’re tapping into an endless supply of digital resources. They’re watching online videos. They’re downloading podcasts. They’re clicking links to other sites. They’re joining online communities. They’re ranting, raving and learning.

And it’s not just patients: Physicians, researchers, nurses, scientists, health care executives and life science entrepreneurs are all finding places to get connected in cyberspace.

In other words, the people you need to reach are engaging in this new conversational marketplace. And if you don’t join the discourse, you might end up talking to yourself.

Smith is an advertising and digital media specialist with Indianapolis-based public relations agency Hetrick Communications. Views expressed here are the writer’s.

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