P&G Tackles Sensitive Subject With Custom E-Mail Program

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Procter & Gamble Pharmaceuticals is using personalized e-mail to engage people who suffer from ulcerative colitis, a condition so embarrassing that many can't even talk to friends and family about it.


The program has reportedly reduced P&G's acquisition costs for the drug Asacol by more than 60 percent.


Ulcerative colitis is chronic inflammation of the digestive tract that results in lifelong flare-ups and remissions. Flare-up symptoms include bloody diarrhea, rectal bleeding, abdominal cramping, and an urgent need to go to the bathroom. UC sufferers, of which there are an estimated 500,000, can be housebound during flare-ups for weeks.


During remission, UC sufferers often go off their medication and into denial because they feel better, which makes the next flare-up more likely to occur. UC patients also reportedly often rebel against their doctors and the treatment.


"They say, 'I'm better. I don't need you. I don't need the meds. I'm going to live my life on my terms,' and sure enough the next thing they know they're back in this debilitating condition," said Jay Bolling, executive vice president, Roska Direct, the Montgomeryville, PA agency that developed P&G's Asacol e-mail campaign.


To reach UC sufferers and get them taking their medication more regularly, Roska Direct developed the "My Guide To Living Better" direct response program.


"We decided we can't just tell people 'this is what you've got to do.' We've got to bring them out of this sense of isolation," Bolling said.


The foundation of the effort is Living-Better.com, a site with extensive information about the condition.


The campaign started with a P&G database of undisclosed size of people who had signed up to receive an offline newsletter about UC. Prospecting also includes advertising though the Crohn's & Colitis foundation of America, literature in sample packs of the medication, and partnerships with pharmaceutical chains.


The program also prospects through keyword links on Google.com and links on medical Web sites that have UC sections on them, such as PatientCommunity.com.


All prospecting for the campaign leads to Myucguide.com, a stand-alone sign-up site.


Respondents are greeted with their choice of six virtual guides who have the disease: Margie, a 51-year-old junior high school teacher; Glenn, a 21-year-old college track star; Alex, a 39-year-old Web design firm CEO; Hope, a 21-year-old recently married, part-time yoga instructor; Ray, a 55-year-old semi-retired carpenter; and Jeannine, a 32-year-old, single working mother of two.


The guides are composites, and were created to represent a cross-section of demographic profiles so respondents would be likely to be able to choose one with whom they could relate.


"The tone of each of them is very consistent with the demographic of the guide. The way that Glenn talks is very different than the way Margie talks, yet they're saying the same things," Bolling said.


The site is up front about the virtual nature of its guides. Surveys determined that respondents understand that the guides are not real and have no problem with it.


Once respondents choose a guide, they are asked a series of questions so P&G can determine how to communicate with them appropriately.


Respondents are asked, for example, when they were diagnosed with UC, how long they have been in remission, which medication they are taking, whether or not they are following doctors' orders, and what their top concerns are about the disease.


Respondents then begin getting e-mails from their guide, up to 20 the first year. Newly diagnosed patients get more frequent messages. More than 30 percent of patients who visit Myucguide.com register, Bolling said. The e-mail program draws from a library of legally and medically approved messages that communicate to recipients in their guide's voice.


Each message includes a link recommended by the guide to an appropriate section of Living-Better.com.


"By sending people to certain areas ... suddenly this content-rich Web site that is in essence generic becomes customized because Magie sent her there," said Bolling, adding that the average visitor to Living-Better.com stays for more than 15 minutes.


Asacol currently takes a low profile in the campaign.


"The strategy there is to create the relationship first," Bolling said. "In testing, we found that the more we talked about Asacol, the less credible the message."


The idea is to integrate Asacol more prominently into the campaign in the second year of the relationship with each respondent.


This year, P&G plans to introduce interaction with doctors and real patients into the program. Details for the added initiatives are being worked out.


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