TLC.com recently launched “A Conception Story”, a Web-only reality series that follows the lives of six “dynamic” young (or young-ish) women in their attempts to conceive. And “the idea came not from producers at the network but rather from First Response, a brand by Church and Dwight that makes pregnancy, ovulation, and fertility kits,” according to an article in the New York Times.
Pharma initiating and sponsoring content creation! I decided to take a closer look, to see how the model held up, whether it benefited its audience and sponsor, and whether the same model could be used by other pharmaceutical marketers. Here’s what I found.
A good mix of patient-friendly content, but some sponsorship awkwardness
Videos about its 6 heroines form the core of the series, accompanied by the usual online toolbox: blogs that invite comments, discussion boards, educational resources, expert opinions, and partnerships with credible organizations such as the March of Dimes. Though none of it seems remarkably innovative, the package as a whole is harmonious and convincing, especially because the backdrop of the women’s stories infuses the whole site with empathy and relevance.
Much less successful is the repetition of the same, lengthy sponsorship message that appears before the viewer sees any of the women’s stories. This actually dissuaded me from spending more time watching valuable videos. The series needs to test and refine its balance of content and promotion, or risk losing its audience.
A sensible format
Television-based reality series often sensationalize the banal or the grotesque and encourage their subjects to expose themselves to the point of ridicule. Though blogs and vlogs created by “everyday people” may be more sincerely motivated, they can also be distressingly mediocre. The format of “A Conception Story” takes the best of both worlds. The women record their own stories, but professionals do the final editing, presenting the women in their best light. The narrative of the clips is tight; the emotions are sincere.
The right medium for the right topic
Infertility, and I speak from experience, is tied in with sexuality, social norms, uncontrollable emotions, hormonal fluctuations, and a frightening awareness of the passage of time. It can impact your behavior toward loved ones and your performance at work (especially when you have to skip out to yet another unexplainable doctor’s appointment). Being able to explore videos and resources from the relative privacy of a computer suits the intimacy of the topic, framing it as a meaningful conversation rather than as a voyeuristic take on another person’s life. Moreover, that empathetic, real-world tone may also encourage women to join the series’ online community.
Viral potential and extended shelf life
I predict “A Conception Story” will make the rounds quickly enough, especially since it will benefit from the already established audience of TLC.com (as opposed to a more obscure brand.com destination). It may even garner repeated visits over a longer time, because it covers a relatively broad range of situations, from conception through prolonged infertility. A woman could come back to the site time and again because she has identified with one of the series’ heroines or because she has moved along in her journey and is looking for different content and different forms of support.
The makers of the show will have to navigate the tensions between sponsorship and authenticity. Too much pushing of product and they can lose credibility—and their audience.
Conversely, giving consumers so open a platform presents its own risks, especially with a topic as controversial as reproduction. In her blog, one of the women links to a music video that references abortion. What if she were to take a virulent stance on reproductive rights? What kind of pressure would that create on Church and Dwight?
Finally, committing to a series with real people without knowing where their journey can take them isn’t exactly for the faint of heart. What if one of the women were to remain infertile over a very long haul? Would First Response marketers still want to document her story even if she chose to adopt—and stopped using their products? Or what if the story took an even worse turn? I’ve known marriages that have come undone over the stresses of infertility. Is that also something that the brand would choose to follow? And if not, how would that affect the audience?
Any marketing situation in which consumers are allowed to express themselves directly holds a very real potential for PR disasters as well as victories. It’s best to be prepared…
A model for other pharmaceutical marketers?
Overall, I think “A Conception Story” will benefit both its audience and the makers of First Response products (as long as the company fine-tunes its balance of content and sponsorship). But First Response products are OTC. Would the approach be effective for the marketing and education about prescribed products, which require laborious documentation of frightening side effects and necessitate adverse event reporting? Tough to say.
And would content like this even stand a chance of making it through regulatory if it weren't about an OTC product? The recent warning letter issued to Novartis from the FDA indicates it's less likely to than it was two weeks ago when "A Conception Story" was introduced online.
In any case, pharmaceutical marketers will have to be careful if they want to emulate this sponsorship model. They will need to make the decision on a case-by-case basis only, and never lose sight of the interests of their primary constituents. Patients.
Digital Creative Director
Digital Creative Director