Fake Patient Campaign Exposes Real Social Marketing Critics and Questions

In March medical software and services firm Medseek introduced Sara Baker – a fake “epatient” with a Facebook page. Her persona was created to distinguish the firm from competitors in the eyes of hospital executives, its key clientele. A month later Medseek was getting panned on healthcare and pharma marketing blogs for failing to recognize that social media environments are places for real conversations among real people – not phony composite characters posting advertorial messages.

But the company is sticking with its original approach, and even plans to introduce additional fictitious personas meant to represent the patients its clients serve. While many of the people who have posted disapproving commentary about the Sara Baker campaign mistakenly assumed it was a consumer-aimed effort, their opinions – and Medseek’s decision to continue with the campaign – suggest that healthcare industry marketing best practices are not written in stone.

Sara Baker [pictured left” was created as part of Medseek’s campaign launched in conjunction with a healthcare industry conference. As it says on her Facebook profile, “She represents ePatients nationwide who are ready to experience healthcare the same way they experience other industries: online. She books travel arrangements, pays bills, applies for credit, manages her investments, even buys movie tickets online.”

“We decided to create a persona,” explained Rich Grehalva, Medseek’s SVP marketing and strategic consulting. “By creating Sara Baker’s story, we were looking at the archetype of what is it that the epatient is looking for.” Sara – a mother character who has recently given birth to twins – was created to help top-level hospital execs envision how patients can use systems like Medseek’s, which allow them to manage health records and communications with healthcare providers securely online.

The company features the Sara persona on its corporate site and in materials used during sales calls to hospitals. Grehalva said Medseek has received positive responses to the effort from its target audience of hospital executives.

“Alex is recovering nicely from his ear infection. Antibiotics for a week now, and he’s nearly back to normal. So far, Brad has no signs!” wrote Sara on her Facebook page recently. There, she also has written about how Medseek Medical, a made-up hospital, which makes it easy to set up appointments with the pediatrician online. Sara has even posted photos of “her” twins in utero, prompting comments calling them “creepy.” The eSaraBaker profile has 81 “likes” on Facebook.

While Sara’s main Facebook profile page states prominently that “Sara isn’t a real person,” healthcare and pharma industry observers suggested the profile is confusing and defies the more generally accepted practice of engaging honestly with people through social media efforts.

“Sorry, I’m lost. Is Alex the ’Sarah Baker’ fake-patient-construct’s baby, or a real one, or yours-the-author-of-this-page, or someone else’s or… This page gives me a headache,” wrote one Facebook commenter. Medseek’s marketing communications manager, Lori Moore, responded, explaining, “Alex is Sara’s son. We plan to continue posting under Sara’s pseudonym to share her experiences and demonstrate how technology and eHealth can educate and empower patients, give them greater access to their own healthcare information.”

“Sara isn’t conversing with consumers (someone else or some thing is),” wrote Phil Baumann, a registered nurse and online consultant for health care providers in April on his philbaumann.com site. “[I”n spite of the tiny disclosure in her profile, there’s nothing in her stream to indicate that she’s not real – other than the fact that her status updates are droll and mechanical,” he continued.

“By putting out a fake patient in social media, they’ve kind of violated that authenticity and trust that people are looking for,” said Wendy White, founder and president of Siren Interactive Corp., a consulting firm that handles relationship marketing for rare disease therapies.

Medseek’s critics may be surprised to learn the company originally wanted to have a real person post to Facebook about her actual experiences communicating with healthcare providers during pregnancy and after giving birth to real twins. Indeed, according to Grehalva, a relative of a Medseek exec was pregnant with twins while the company was developing the campaign, and the company asked her to consider posting to Facebook about her own healthcare experiences.

“It would have failed,” said Grehalva, who believes that in the end it worked out for the best that she declined. He suggested that the real-life experience would not reflect the promise of the firm’s online communications and healthcare management offerings. Rather, they would only be representative of existing, arguably less-efficient, processes.

Boston Medical Group, a company that offers treatments for erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation, developed its own series of social media personas for its consumer-aimed campaign, including Twitter accounts and blogs associated with patient Andrew, and a sex education vixen who goes by SexEdKate. The company’s ad agency told ClickZ it uses the personas to gain credibility with its audience.

Sara and Boston Medical Group’s Andrew may be joined soon by another Medseek persona. The firm will introduce new characters representing other types of patients in the future, according to Grehalva who said we can expect to learn about the healthcare experiences of Sara’s father soon. He had a heart attack.

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