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Local startup brings social media marketing to health care industry

The Internet is one of the first resources many people use to find out about symptoms and possible treatments to ailments. As more people join online social networks, they are also using sites like Facebook and Twitter to crowd source information about health.

Now one San Diego company is capitalizing on this peer-to-peer health care trend. LiquidGrids, founded in December 2010, distills hundreds of millions of online conversations about health into relevant intelligence that allows clients in the health care industry to create targeted, Web-based marketing.

With traditional media such as television and print, customers can’t interact directly with the brand or other customers. Social media has made access to the conversation available to everyone, and businesses are now expected to engage their customers, rather than simply broadcasting their message.

“Pharma spent $4.5 billion on direct to consumer ads in TV and print,” said LiquidGrids CEO Malcolm Bohm. “Consumers are just not there. They’re skipping ads with Tivo. They’re looking to friends, and their circle of friends.”

And for the most part, they’re doing that online.

According to the most recent survey by the nonprofit Pew Internet Project, eight in 10 Internet users look online for health information. Pew Internet research also shows that people are using Web technologies to connect with health information and each other. The Internet enables people to connect with others who share the same health concerns, creating a peer-to-peer network.

LiquidGrid’s proprietary technology sweeps through online dialogue from social networks, the blogosphere and YouTube to find comments that are health related. Its classifier, or filter, can determine which conversations are truly related to health.

For example, the classifier can tell the difference between comments such as “My car is giving me a headache” and “I woke up with a terrible headache,” and which is actually health-related. It can also tell when the conversation is about human health, rather than about a pet, and can sift through misspellings, slang and acronyms to parse out meaningful data. The technology is linked to a dictionary of medical consumer language, as well as standard industry codes for diagnosis and treatments.

The classifiers can filter with more than 80 percent accuracy, and will continue to improve because its artificial intelligence means it is teaching itself along the way, said Bohm, who has a background in pharmaceuticals and health IT.

LiquidGrids then analyzes this information to find out what consumers are saying about a particular topic, such as diabetes. It can provide reports on gender, age, sentiment and the intent of the dialogue -- are consumers looking to get diagnosed, get more information or share their experiences?

Further, the company can identify sources of influence in each conversation. Pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and insurance companies can then tailor a message aimed at the people who are leading the discussion. LiquidGrids can also help clients formulate their marketing strategy.

“We enable very powerful word-of-mouth marketing by virtue of the information on dialogues we’re collecting,” Bohm said.

While data mining software is available for purchase, Bohm said the scale of LiquidGrid’s solution makes all the difference – its software can sample 250 million posts every five minutes. The company’s technology also searches back through the last six months.

Privacy is always a concern with data mining, especially since lawmakers haven’t kept up with the speed of social media marketing. Bohm said the data is anonymized as it is collected, so LiquidGrids never sees individuals’ names. The company also takes precautions to make sure it is HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) compliant. Further, Bohm said the client drives the message and is responsible for its content.

“We don’t take responsibility for what they say,” he said. “Pharma is heavily regulated about what it can say. We have the technology that allows you to get your message out, but the content has to abide by the law.”

Moreover, unsolicited advertisements in social media are viewed as intrusive and annoying. So while you wouldn’t post a Facebook message or tweet about a new drug, you might send a link to the drug’s website or a Facebook fanpage, Bohm said.

The idea is to provide real value to consumers.

“We can identify the right people in a crowd who are receptive to the information. We’re not trying to sell them information directly,” Bohm said, “it’s information that’s valuable within the context of the dialogue they’re having.”

The company is now working on a series of algorithms to predict where the conversation is heading.

“If you could predict what the crowd is going to do next, that’s tremendous power,” he said. “Can we put information in front of people before they realize they need it or want it? We’re taking AI to the next stage.”

Bohm, who has served in senior positions at pharmaceutical companies including Aspreva, Pfizer (NYSE: PFE), and Novartis, funded LiquidGrids himself during its first six months of existence. But these days, things are happening quickly for the company.

In December, LiquidGrids closed $1.2 million in angel funding. It was also chosen to enter EvoNexus, a fully pro-bono technology incubator in San Diego that aims to stimulate the growth of new high-tech companies in the region. The company was named one of “San Diego’s 25 coolest companies” by the San Diego Venture Group and was selected as one of five finalists for the 2012 Connect Venture Roundtable. And in March, the company will present at the 2012 Rock Stars of Innovation Summit.

While Bohm declined to name clients due to contractual obligations, he said the health industry is receptive to his company’s service. In 2011, the industry reported $1.1 billion spent on online and social media advertising -- about 25 percent of the overall budget. The dollars are migrating online, he said, because companies know the power of television and print ads is dwindling.

“Over the course of last year, we’ve seen a massive change in adoption of social media channels, and more creative use of social media channels. We see the life science industry really stepping up,” he said. “It’s perfect timing for us because we’re emerging with the technology to enable that.”

Bohm forecasts social media marketing in the health care sector could become a $100 million business. And that could just be the beginning for LiquidGrids.

“We believe there are multiple different sectors that we can step into,” he said. “So once we work this out in health, how quickly before we step into politics, financial services, in fact, anywhere there is vibrant social dialogue? What we’d like to do is be the tech enabler that unlocks the intelligence of these diverse groups online.”

“We hope to move into the next sector within 2012,” he added.

Klam is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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