Pharma Caught in Facebook’s Interaction Evolution

I’ve been searching for the source on a post from early 2009 when the great brand page revolution began on Facebook. I want to say it was Robert Scoble, but don’t hold me to the source if I’m wrong because I agree regardless who said it, who pointed out that with the right eye, you can see a really clear path of Facebook’s progression and evolution. Not to belabor the point, but consider the history of the wall, status updates and the news feed.

When the Wall was first introduced (fall of 2005), users had only just received the ability to become friends with people outside their network. The Wall started as a way of leaving notes for your friends on their profile page. Two things happened in the 2007 that led us to where we are today. The first involved the Wall – instead of being something that lived on your profile, interactions moved to a new Facebook home page that featured not just your profile and what your friends wrote, but a public display of the News Feed and the interactions that happened throughout your network. The second involved who was on Facebook, because it was right around the same time that anyone with an e-mail address could enter the garden previously reserved just for students. Over the years since, the News Feed went from a perceived invasion of privacy (spoiler alert: it’s not) to a key method of interacting with the growing universe of Facebook users.

Just as it did a few autumns back, Facebook slowly made changes to allow companies and brands to enter the garden – in almost the exact same path as users. Stick with me, and you’ll see the inevitable result of brand integration into how users engage in Facebook. There’s a clear cause-effect for the pharmaceutical industry to note.

The profile option known as “pages” popped up in the beginning of 2009, and the crude beginning offered a few things that early Facebook members will remember: minimal options and the requirement of “destination” interactions. That is to say: you had to go to the profile to see the content. In the years since, things have slowly changed to integrate those actions more into the way we use Facebook users. First, it was a change in the layout, to match the profile page and the creation of a wall. Then, updates slowly worked their way into the news feed, followed by the ability of pages to start acting like users – posting and responding on other pages. The most recent? Now you can tag a brand page in one of your photos – just like it’s one of your friends.*

Sorry for the long history, but it really does matter in terms of the current discussion around Pharma and the reports that Facebook will now prevent pharmaceutical company from blocking interaction features like “commenting.” You may have seen one or more stories on this in recent time (Andrew Spong has been gathering all of them), and it is absolutely important to note. There was a specific reason that companies would want this ability: it allows them a seat in the Facebook agora in a controlled way that would help keep away from critical posts or open comment fields in which a patient could express an adverse event.

This change makes that a lot harder for those who wanted a way that best managed the risks of Facebook. Now, with this news about the changing protocol, some are concerned that Facebook is preventing healthcare and its regulations to play with the global online network. Interestingly, just as many are surprised that such an exception even existed in the first place. This wasn’t a standard setting. In order to get the commenting feature turned off, it required the assistance of Facebook’s technical staff.

Reports, which are quite likely true, indicate that the loophole is going away. Don’t freak out. This is just about timing and evolution, and it has little to do with Facebook wanting to stick it to the heavily regulated health industry. Think back to the history of Facebook and how the community is built around conversation. Facebook interaction is what drives the engagement. Actually, as we the users engage more within the News Feed, there is a pretty sharp decline on the practice of actually visiting brand pages. This change is trying to create conformity among all the different types of pages so that users have a normalized experience.

Pharma just got caught in the middle of the trajectory of Facebook and brand engagement. The hardest thing to do – especially since there are still no clear guidelines for health communication in social media – is to determine what actions are safe to be discussed with involvement from an organization in this regulated industry. There are still very many ways for the industry to put a toe in the Facebook water without jumping in the deep end, it just takes a level-headed approach that works within Facebook’s terms.

*N.b., this last feature is not turned on for every type of Facebook page (just those listed as “brands and products” or “people” , but just like with this other conversation, it’s more likely to happen than not to all pages.

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