Award: Healthcare Engagement Strategy 2012 Patient Engagement Award

Winner: Roche Diagnostics, Diabetes Care with the Big Blue Test and the diabetes online community

In November 2011, thousands of people took part in a mass diabetes blood test exercise and shared their results online. It was the biggest test of its kind to date and a practical demonstration of the positive effect that exercise has on blood sugar levels. The Big Blue Test encouraged people to test their blood sugar, exercise for 14 minutes or more, test again, and share their results.

The event was sponsored by Roche Diabetes Care, whose support for the community of online diabetes patients was highlighted in last year’s Healthcare Engagement Strategy Awards when The Diabetes Hands Foundation won the ‘Connecting Patients Award’. At that time Manny Hernandez, the Foundation’s President, referenced Roche’s support including sponsorship of a book of poetry and that year’s Big Blue Test.

What is remarkable about the latest Big Blue Test event in 2011 is the four-fold increase in participation levels, resulting from increased engagement and leading to further reach of the test’s educational aspect, to demonstrate in a practical way the difference that exercise makes to blood sugar levels.

For the team at Roche Diabetes Care, part of Roche Diagnostics, the Big Blue Test in 2011 marked the culmination of years spent engaging people with diabetes who are active on the Internet, collectively known as the ‘diabetes online community’. In 2009, Roche had hosted a ‘Blogger Summit’, a meeting of around 30 diabetes bloggers, in order to learn how to connect with them more effectively.

This all started in 2009 when we had our first Blogger Summit, and we started talking with Manny Hernandez”, says Rob Müller, Associate Marketing Manager with Roche Diabetes Care, describing how the company’s involvement with the Big Blue Test started. “It’s the culmination of this approach we have of really engaging the diabetes online community and being a partner with them.

After sponsoring the Big Blue Test in 2010 and achieving 138,000 views of a video about the Big Blue Test, Müller says that Roche decided to go beyond views and set a target based on participation in the test itself. “Going into 2011 we thought, instead of just views of the video, let’s get people to take the test and post their numbers and track that. We had similar numbers in terms of views of the video, but the year before we only had around 3,000 people do the big blue test. This year, in a matter of a few days, we had over 8,000 people do the test and post their results.

Müller says that the Big Blue Test fits Roche’s strategy of using social media to educate people rather than to carry out direct promotion of products. “In the social sphere in particular, we want to use the channel to educate, not push marketing messages. People just want to engage.

He says that Roche’s Blogger Summits, which have now been run for the past three years, confirmed that the diabetes online community wanted to learn from the company. “When we were talking to the bloggers at these Summits, what we heard was, ‘We want to know what you know, with the information you have that can help us manage our diabetes better’. This was a confirmation to us that what we were doing was the right approach, to get out there and educate and engage, and be a trusted partner in diabetes management with the diabetes online community. And to get to know them and for them to get to know us.

The Summits themselves were not the first contact that Roche had had with the diabetes online community. Müller says that the company started by listening and then engaging online via established social media networks. “Before going into the first summit, we had set up a listening platform. We really just listened to the community, to try and understand what they wanted to talk about, and we were very transparent about it. We let everybody know we were there; we went in and told everybody, ‘Hi, I’m Rob, I’m with Roche, I’m here to answer any questions you have’”, he says, adding that the community responded by asking practical questions about their blood sugar levels.

The question that we kept seeing over and over was, ‘I’ve just been diagnosed; my doctor handed me a meter; my number is 136; is that good, is it bad?’ …we wanted to be an arrow pointing to these excellent online resources that can answer these questions”, he says.

You can’t control the message

Müller says that inviting bloggers to the first Summit was viewed with extreme caution both internally and externally. Internally, the idea of hosting bloggers who could tweet whatever they wanted at any time, from the Summit, and could say anything they wanted, was challenging. “I think as marketers you can feel that you have to control the message. And with social media, your biggest hope is that you can be a part of the conversation. You can’t control the message.”

Having overcome the internal hurdle of doubt, it took a few years of Summits before the doubts of blogger participants about Roche’s motives in hosting the events were allayed. “If you look at the blogs about the Blogger Summit from 2009, you can see a progression of comfortableness”, says Müller. “It started with ‘it was great to see all my online friends that I’ve never met in person but I don’t know what the point was’. And then the next year there was a little bit more camaraderie, they were a little more comfortable with us, and then this past year they were saying ‘now we consider Roche as friends to the diabetes online community’. That’s a big leap in three years.

And he’s right – when diabetes bloggers write about Roche’s latest Summit, there is a widely positive tone. After the 2011 Summit, for example, Kerri Morrone Sparling, who writes SixUntilMe blog, reflected on her relationship with Roche’s team: “Seeing my fellow diabetes bloggers and advocates is always the highlight of this summit.  I can’t lie about that.  Walking into a room and wanting to hug everyone in it is a rare thing. However, since this was the third Roche Summit I’ve attended, I sort of wanted to hug the Roche people, too.  Todd [Siesky, Head of Communications & External Relations, Roche Diabetes Care] and Rob [Muller, Associate Marketing manager, Global Marketing, Roche Diabetes Care] are dedicated to this community, and they have never once tried to ‘hard sell me’ on using their company’s products.  Instead, they seem like they are happy to learn from our perspectives as people with diabetes.  I appreciate that openness.

Roche sure does a great job reaching out to people with diabetes!” reads one of the comments from other members of the diabetes online community that follow the post.

I’m also excited to hear more about what Roche has been up to, and what ideas they have for the upcoming year”, writes another blogger, Scott Johnson, before the start of the Summit.

The result of Roche’s now trusted relationship with the diabetes online community is evident in its relationship with the Diabetes Hands Foundation, according to Müller. “I think the best, most visible fruit, is the great relationship we have with the Diabetes Hands Foundation and what we’re doing with the Big Blue Test. It makes a real impact, not only in educating the diabetes community, but also the outreach we’ve been able to do in Latin America, in North America with the charities, and the year before that in Africa”, he says, referring to the charitable donations of $75,000 made each of the past two years to organizations providing insulin to the needy as part of Roche’s support for The Big Blue Test.

Keep listening, transparently

I asked Müller what advice he would offer others looking to engage a patient community online. He says that the first step must be to listen. “First, you’ve got to listen. Things change. A topic that’s hot one month might not be the next. Something that you think is very important, if you’re not listening, might not be resonating at all.

And be completely transparent in what you’re trying to do”, he says. “You have to approach it delicately …if I’m here to listen I want to let people know that I’m listening and I want to let them know why.

And finally, Müller describes social media as a cocktail party to which manufacturers like Roche have not been invited. “It’s a cocktail party that as a manufacturer, we haven’t been invited to. It’s their party, it’s not ours. You can’t bust through the doors and talk very loudly about how great you are. You have to understand who’s in the room, what’s the topic of conversation, who the players are, what is important to them, where’s their point of pain, what do they want to talk about.

Roche Diagnostics, Diabetes Care, with the Big Blue Test and the diabetes online community, for engaging face to face, sharing and learning together, we award you the Healthcare Engagement Strategy 2012 Patient Engagement Award.