May 13

Creating Campfire Brands

Over the last couple of years, a few hundred members of the diabetic community came together for the world’s first, and only, virtual diabetes conference. Registration was completely free and attendees could join from a computer, smartphone or tablet. And this ability to create virtual events is what I firmly believe is the future of social media marketing – community.

When companies first entered social media they did so largely because they saw it as a “free advertising” medium. It was unfortunate because in many cases those companies alienated the very customers they hoped to reach. More importantly, that alienation costs the companies the opportunity to engage with that audience in a free flowing, two-way dialogue that produces rich insights and long-term benefits for the company and its community.

Let me explain why.

The Marketing Challenge

A few years ago, my company, Converse Digital partnered with noted diabetes blogger Scott Johnson to begin a multi-year effort on behalf of our client Metanx. Metanx is not a particularly well known or well funded (pharmaceutical marketing spend wise) product that competes against incredibly well funded and thusly far better known pharmaceutical products.

Combine that challenge with the FDA regulatory oversight that Metanx has to function under, and you have a recipe for a difficult communication challenge. Oh, and just so we could get a 10 from the Russian judge, Metanx provides the distinct nutritional requirements needed by diabetes patients to restore the metabolic processes associated with peripheral neuropathy – one form of which is referred to as DPN.

Peripheral Neuropathy is pretty scary stuff. And DPN is a an especially scary diabetic complication that effects the feet and if left undiagnosed can lead to amputations and even death. It’s not something bloggers like to write about.. in fact, overall, diabetic bloggers don’t write much about complications at all.

Can you blame them though? Talk about downer topics… and therein lies the challenge Metanx gave us.

How do we stimulate online discussions about severe diabetic complications? How can we get folks talking about complications so that diabetics start paying more attention to these things.

After all, it was going to be hard to engage the community, participate in the conversation, and leverage the power of social media to grow the brand without anyone actually talking about the disease state or the product.

Add to this challenge the fact that my firm had no previous knowledge in the pharma or diabetes space.

The Social Media Strategy


That was it… our entire social media strategy could be summed up in one word — ask. Instead of the traditional influencer outreach strategy of identification of Key Online Opinion Leaders (KOLs) and attempting to get them to write about Metanx or PN or DPN, we simply invited members of the diabetic community to join us in private video chats with Scott as moderator. During those chats, which included the Metanx brand management team, we asked attendees how we should approach this idea of complications. How should we try and stimulate these conversations online? We asked them to consult with us for free.

Guess what happened?

They answered. They offered all kinds of suggestions and as they began to talk, a funny thing happened.

The Value of Dialogue

We, and more importantly, they began discovering deep, underlying motivations and fears that were universally felt by all. Fears and motivations that they themselves didn’t even realize were driving so much of their own actions. And as we continued to have these video chats, over the course of 18 months these same underlying fears and motivations kept surfacing even though we were doing nothing to stimulate them.

I’ve been in marketing for over 20 years. I’ve sat through more focus groups and read more market research than I care to remember. And I can state unequivocally that I’ve never seen feedback like we were receiving. And remember, we didn’t even ask for that specifically. We just wanted advice to ensure we properly approached the community. But because we took the time to ask, we received so much more.

At one point, these video chats became much bigger than Metanx or Scott or marketing. They became a bonding experience. A chance for a community of people to come together around a video campfire and just talk openly and freely without fear of their words being used against them. It became a chance to explore deep seated fears, hopes and questions in safe, private environment of their peers.

And it was all made possible by Metanx. Think about that for a moment… your brand as a campfire.

Amplifying The Conversation

One of the really cool insights that came out of these campfire conversations was the idea of hope.

During these discussions we discovered an unmet need in the diabetes world – hope. In summit after summit we would hear bloggers and patients talk about how being diagnosed with severe complications like DPN left them feeling hopeless. Or we would hear how just being diagnosed with diabetes created a sense of hopelessness because the disease isn’t curable.

We thought that this lack of hope should change. We thought that someone should take up the mantle of hope and at a minimum, start creating hope by getting people to talk about complications like DPN. By talking about it amongst each other, with members of the medical community and yes, even with the pharmaceutical companies that supply the devices and medications for diabetics, we could share knowledge and create hope.

We could turn a campfire into a bonfire. And whereas our video summits were capped at a dozen or so attendees, we knew we could create a conference that could hold hundreds, even thousands of community members. All gathered together, virtually, in search of hope.

So in 2013, with very little budget and enormous amounts of risk, we launched the first Diabetes Hope Conference. To keep costs down we used Google Hangouts and the Broadcast Your Hangout feature. Leveraged Eventbrite’s free registration system and created a simple, low cost WordPress website at

We started spreading the word and crossed our fingers and prayed that someone would show up. And I started praying the technology would actually work.

Luckily for all of us, over 250 people showed up and while there were a few technological hiccups, the conference worked. After three hours and three panels made up of panelists spread across the USA, we had succeeded in turning that campfire conversation into a bonfire that would continue to burn for the next year.

Continuing The Conversation

Throughout 2013 and into 2014 we continued to host our video campfires. We invested in better technology that allowed us to have as 20-25 concurrent video feeds — making each campfire even larger. We continued to treat Metanx as a campfire brand focusing on the facilitation of conversation vs the sales of a product.

We continued to learn.

And then another really funny thing happened. Our campers started asking questions. Questions about Metanx, Peripheral Neuropathy, DPN and diabetes in general. They began to ask us to use our campfires to educate them. In turn, they used that education to construct their own blog posts, inform their Twitter conversations and help them to stimulate what they deemed an important conversation — diabetic complications.

And on May 20th, 2014, just over 500 of those voices once again came together to the bonfire we call The Diabetes Hope Conference. For those of you playing the home game, that’s double the 2014 attendance in just one year with very little paid promotion of the event. It call came from Word-of-Mouth…from last year’s attendees telling their friends and followers to come.

Bringing 500 members of your brand’s community together to talk about important issues that directly effect their lives.

Not a bad way to spend a brand’s day or dollars in my opinion.

But what about you? Would that be a good way to spend your brand’s day and dollars? If so, why not give it a try. Best case scenario, you’ll grow your business. Worst case scenario, you’ll make your community stronger, closer and smarter. And chances are… you’ll get some really cheap insights.

And if you’d like to talk about turning your brand into a campfire — Click this link to CONTACT ME.

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Brand Strategy, branding, community management, digital strategy, social marketing, social media, social media strategy

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