Earn Comments for Your Blogs the Organic Way

    July 13, 2007

When I worked in the pharmaceutical industry, I learned that the U.S. Food and Drug Admnistration would send the equivalent of undercover agents to industry trade shows. These spies would hang around company booths listening for any sales or marketing rep to make a claim or statement that violated FDA guidelines. The FDA would promptly turn around and fine the offending company.

It is this fear that leads nearly anybody working for a pharma to proclaim, “We can’t blog.” The same is true in other heavily regulated industries like financial services. I disagree, but my argument centers around blogging on non-product issues. For example, I love the idea of a blog written by the top R&D executive so he can talk about drug research in general—new techniques, equipment, how to staff an R&D function, various stages of drug research and other topics that would make every college chemistry student an avid reader and potential recruit.

So I was a bit surprised to find that Glaxo SmithKline had launched a blog dedicated to its drug Alli. I was interested in watching the blog to see if a pharma could buck conventional wisdom and pull this off. Unfortunately, the blog may well be derailed by a sideshow that erupted when social media consultant Debbie Weil, who advised GSK on the alli blog, posted a message on her site and sent an email asking people she knew to visit and comment on the blog. (I don’t know whether I should be thankful or hurt that I didn’t get one of the emails.) The message on both ended with this note: “If you’re inspired or provoked, leave a comment on any entry. No need to say that you know me, of course.”

The post and email provoked a series of responses, none of them kind. These came from David Murray, Alan Jenkins, the Pharmalot blog and others. Neville Hobson sent a Twitter tweat: “Pimping for comments on client’s blog? What on earth was Debbie Weil thinking?”

Debbie reacted by pointing out the common practice of pitching posts via email; she calls it the blogging backchannel. She has a point. I’ve received many emails from people ranging from Dave Taylor to Andy Abramsom—both people whose blogs I read and whom I respect—asking me to read one post or another and give them a little link love if I think the post deserves it.

I’m not sure this is a parallel situation, though. Asking for link love for your own blog is one thing; asking for comments on a client’s blog is another. What’s more, I’m not sure of the value of comments from business colleagues when the goal should be to get comments from people who could use the drug, who already are using it, and subject matter experts. And finally, whether the use of the email backchannel is ethical or not, it has aroused a lot of disdain. Communicators working on client or employer blogs should consider the reaction of the blogosphere as a criteria, regardless of whether the reaction is justified. If the action is going to produce contemputuous responses, don’t do it.

The way to earn legitimate comments requires more work than a simple appeal to friends and colleagues, work I assume Debbie at least recommended to her client. The authors of the Alli blog should be reading related blogs—blogs about weight loss, dieting, and wellness. Where appropriate, they should be commenting. Not writing about Alli, just making relevant and salient comments about what they’ve read. That is, they should participate in the conversation. The signature appended to their posts should link to the Alli blog. If the comments are interesting, both the blogger and readers will click over to see who wrote the comment. If enough of these comments are interesting, the blogger will add the Alli blog to their blogroll, others will add the Alli feed to their subscriptions, and as the number of readers grows, the number of comments will grow with them.

Building a community around a blog is a slow, gradual process, particularly when it is obviously a commercially-motivated channel. It takes time for people to see there really is value to the blog and to get engaged. There’s no reason to rush these things, and even if the client starts wondering where all the comments are, it’s better to educate him than to solicit comments from anybody you can convince to leave one, particularly when your appeal for comments suggests that you don’t want the client to know these comments are coming from the consultant’s acquaintances. It’s just a more organic, transparent way to achieve the results you want.

Debbie is smart and experienced. Despite her defense of her use of the email backchannel, I’m sure she’ll rebound just fine.