Two weeks ago — in advance of an SXSW interactive panel on the topic — I called for more patient visibility at medical conferences. In this age of the empowered patient, ignoring the most critical piece of the health care system is dangerous.

But over the course of my time at SXSW, I had the opportunity to spend a great deal of time with the great participants on the “Friending Pharma” panel — Kerri Sparling, Alicia Staley, and Allison Blass — as well as breast cancer advocate Jody Schoger, who drove up to meet us. And over the course of our conversations, it became clear that the issue of giving a voice to patients wasn’t as simple as handing the mic over to a well-known “e-patient” for an hour.

That’s a tact that has been taken, if not by large medical meetings, then by numerous conferences on e-health. Yet reviewing the agendas for some of those meetings, even those nominally oriented around patients, the patient perspective is relegated to window dressing. And I worried that SXSW was the same way. Yes, our  “Friending Pharma” panel had patients, but those voices were swamped by the dozens and dozens of other panels swamped with consultants and entrepreneurs and corporate execs.

So I am coming to believe the challenge is broader than just getting some patients to play a token role. What’s needed is a critical mass of patient voices coming together to tell the rest of the system — the doctors and the payers and the pharmaceutical industry and the pharmacists and the nurses — what it is that patients really need (rather than the other way around).

That’s going to require a different kind of conference/meeting/symposium/confab, one that’s run by patients, for patients, and where the rest of us are present only to the extent to which it helps the community get resources or information or answers. That would be a revolution, but it’s one that’s sorely needed.

[UPDATE: In the comments, the always-informative Susannah Fox pointed me to Lucien Engelen’s brilliant “Patients Included” effort, which is a fantastic effort to get us closer to real patient involvement. Again, I think this is a matter of not just ticking a box, but making sure that patients are fully integrated into a program. I’ll certainly be looking for the “Patients Included” badge on future conferences, and I hope you will, too.]

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What is SXSW?

If you haven’t ever been to South by Southwest interactive (SXSWi), it’s somewhat of a surreal experience. For anyone in the digital/social media space, it has become “the” conference to attend due to the sheer number of startups, brands, thought leaders and level of networking that goes on during the course of the event. This year, nearly 25,000 paid attendees descended on Austin, TX — many more attend without a badge — to network, attend sessions, drink and eat good BBQ (and not necessarily in that order).

Given that this was my fifth SXSWi and it’s been interesting to see the changes that have taken place with the event since 2008. The biggest shift in the event over the years has been the involvement of big brands and a transition of mostly blogger and social media types to folks that do PR and marketing as their full time jobs. It’s also meant more corporate sponsorships, more hype and more traditional media coverage. None of these things are good or bad, they just change the vibe of the event significantly. And while some people who have been attending SXSWi for a while feel like the conference has lost its mojo, I see it as part of the maturation process of social and digital media in the corporate world.

SXSW Dashboard

This year, our agency, WCG, pulled together a dashboard* to track some of the conversations and activity happening at SXSWi (pictured above). One of the things we wanted to measure was the overall share of conversation of some of the SXSWi sponsors based on Twitter conversations… and more importantly, how some of those sponsors stood up to popular Austin phrases like breakfast tacos, cowboy hats and boots. Our search query looked for the presence of a #SXSW hashtag with one of the keywords on Twitter. Not surprisingly, we saw breakfast tacos overtake the likes of Apple and Samsung a day into the event. We also tracked things like:

  • Twitter velocity – how many tweets mentioning #sxsw #sxswi or #precommerce, the tag for our own pre-SXSW client event
  • Check-in activity around downtown Austin
  • Top words mentioned in conjunction with #sxsw (in a word cloud)
  • Top mentions of @wcgworld (one of our Agency’s Twitter handles)
  • Most active Twitterers mentioning #sxsw

While part of building the dashboard was for fun, we also wanted to get a better sense of what the macro activity around SXSW would look like this year. The two big take aways for us were 1) spending large sums of money at SXSW doesn’t necessarily get your brand talked about (unless the name of your company happens to include the words “breakfast tacos”) and the volume of conversation on Twitter grew over the conference demonstrating that Verizon, AT&T and Sprint did their part this year to keep the data connectivity up and running this year (years past, not so much). Understanding how your brand can participate meaningfully in these conversations is a huge opportunity that many companies ignore.

Other Key Take Aways from SXSW

  • Location-based services are here to stay (read: foursquare) but they are starting to evolve into a new flavor that includes something called proximity services. The big players in this space are companies like Highlight, Sonar and In a nutshell, these services connect you to those people nearby that are either in your social graph or should be by looking at your similarities. While these services do provide a value to some, their ultimate utility to the mainstream user is still questionable.
  • Customer engagement is top of mind for many brands that have moved from the ad hoc to strategic use of social media. This means putting more thought and energy into mainstream channels like Twitter and Facebook is critical. It also means paying attention to emerging channels like Google + and Pinterest to evaluate the utility for customers and enthusiasts.
  • Big data is big and getting bigger. For anyone that doesn’t know what “big data” is, it’s essentially the ability to collect, store, process and analyze Terabytes or even Pedabytes of data (think customer conversations, search, location-based activity, census, etc.) Historically, this has been difficult due to lack of affordable storage and processing power. This is quickly changing and spells a whole new way for companies to look at trends and insights.

What did you see at SXSW this year? My colleague, Chuck Hemann, shared his take aways here. If you have a post or observations you’d like to share, please include in the comments below.


*Normally when we build these types of dashboards, we use a broader set of channel data (blogs, forums, Facebook, news) but in this case, we knew a lot of the real-time activity flows across Twitter (we also wanted to keep development cost/time down to a minimum).


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Another SXSW is in the books and most of the interactive world is suffering after five days (or more) of panels, networking events and parties. Contrary to what some of the experts argue before, during and after the show, SXSW still has plenty of value for brands and individuals alike. Has it become too big? Maybe. Can it be difficult to navigate for those attendees who are visiting for the first time? Yes. Is it an accurate reflection of what Austin is as a city? Definitely not. There are certainly some things that could be changed about SXSW, but to say it has no value is completely inaccurate. Here are five things I am taking away from this year’s show:

  1. Geo-targeting consumers is becoming very important – I am not a location-based marketing expert by any means, especially when compared to my colleague, Aaron Strout, but it was clear how important this medium has become. There was plenty of conversation at this year’s show about Highlight, but I’m talking entirely about tools. Marketers want to know how they reach people in specific locations in real-time. That’s where we’re going, and that was a significant source of conversation this year.
  2. The networking value cannot be beat – Even the most vocal critics of SXSW don’t (in most cases) doubt the networking value of the show. Most of the brightest minds in interactive are all in one location for almost a week. If you miss an opportunity to engage with someone that you’ve only met online it’s really your own fault.
  3. How big is too big – In talking to some people over the course of the last week, there seems to be a sense that the show has gotten too big. I’m not really sure how we quantify that because the organizers of SXSW are obviously in it to not only offer quality content, but make money at the same time. To be fair, there are probably more sessions than are needed, but turning away attendees? I’m not sure how that could be done. The growth of the space means we’re likely to continue seeing crowds like we saw this week. It just places a greater emphasis on planning ahead.
  4. We didn’t see the next big app/network – I could be calling this one prematurely, and surely someone will dig it up if I’m wrong, but I wasn’t exposed to an app that I thought was a game changer. Could Highlight be that app? Maybe. There appear to be several flaws (including how it identifies like-minded individuals) in the model that could be corrected, but are currently inhibiting its more widespread use.
  5. Brands can derive value from SXSW – In addition to the networking, a number of brands devote significant resources to establishing a presence at the show. Two of the biggest brands this year were Chevrolet and Samsung. Chevrolet had its Volt Lounge and Catch a Chevy program, while Samsung sponsored the blogger lounge, unveiled their Interactive Hub Media Wall and talked about its U.S. Olympic Genome Project.  Additionally, both brands were on the premises conducting interviews and capturing the event as it happened in real-time. I had a chance to catch up with Stephanie Wonderlin, who was Chevy’s host for the interactive festival to get her take on the show and, more directly, what she was doing with the company’s team. Take a look.

There’s value in almost everything if you know where to look. If you’ve never been, consider coming next year. But, before you do, make sure you lay out a proper game plan. Chances are good it’s only going to get bigger.

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Julie HanksThanks to the SXSW Interactive conference here in Austin, TX, I had the pleasure of meeting with one of the top online voices in mental health education, licensed therapist Julie Hanks, LCSW. Julie participated on an intriguing panel called Online Therapy … Naked?, where she discussed the intersection of technology and serving mental health patients.

While in town, I asked Julie to share her thoughts on a few questions about how technology, particularly social media, is changing the landscape of mental health practice and patient participation:

As a licensed therapist, what are your thoughts about mental health patients entering the more public forums of conversation, especially through social media?

Common for mental health patients is a sense of isolation and being alone in their struggles. Social media and other online forums provide amazing opportunities for patients get support and connect with others who are experiencing similar mental health challenges. Developing a supportive online community can act as a way help to normalize their feelings, and provide helpful information, advice and advocacy. There can be amazing therapeutic benefits in conversing with other patients who have “been there.” Social media enables patients to immediately share information that is helpful to them with others, which is empowering. Feeling empowered is good for mental health.

We want our suffering and our experiences to matter. In my life and clinical practice, I’ve seen many clients express a desire to educate and advocate and provide hope for others who share their struggles:

  • A young adult woman recovering from eating disorders seeks out opportunities to speak to teens about her experience and promote healthy body image.
  • A mother with a severely mentally ill child joins the local National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) to offer education other families impacted by mental illness.
  • A woman with two children who have autism reaches out to offer child care to a new neighbor who has a child with autism.

Are you observing any shifts in the ways mental health practitioners and patients interact online?

While therapists still need to guard against development of dual relationships (relationships outside of the therapy office) with their specific clients, I’m seeing a shift in the way mental health practitioners and patients interact online in terms of sharing educational information. An increasing number of therapists and patients are blogging about mental health. While most therapists are sharing professional opinions as experts, the first-person experiences of mental health patient bloggers allows for another kind of expert, with the sharing of information and offering patients an unprecedented voice.

Let’s be BOLD! Tell us what you think your industry will look like in 10 years.

While I think that face-to-face interaction will never be replaced by digital interaction, I think that in 10 years we will be doing a lot more interaction online between providers and patients, especially on mobile devices.

It is astounding to me that in 2012 many mental health therapists don’t have websites. I predict that it will be impossible to have a thriving mental health practice without a website and a strong online professional presence. There is a growing mentality among the public that if I can’t find you on Google, you don’t exist. The number one online referral source to my Wasatch Family Therapy website is … Google. And the number 2 referral source is Facebook! A strong online presence and effective social media use is the only way I’ve been able to build a solo private practice from one to 12 therapists.

In 10 years I hope mental health graduate training programs will have business and marketing classes that include technology education, like how to build an online presence, how to understand SEO, what makes an effective practice website, and how to build a Twitter following. Social workers, in particular, are known for their grass roots efforts. Social media allows for the largest grass roots advocacy and education we’ve ever seen. With the push of a button one person can send a compelling message or call-to-action to millions.

I can’t even comprehend the technological advances we will see and their impact on mental health therapy. My guess is that computer simulated interactive worlds, like Second Life, will be used increasingly used for therapeutic purposes, therapist client interactions, group therapy, exposure therapy, and role playing real life situations. The American Psychological Association’s current issue of The Monitor explores virtual environments and their promising application to the field of psychology. I think there is amazing potential to merge gaming and mental health treatment, particularly with children and adolescents.

In addition, the potential for helpful mental health mobile apps is astounding. How amazing would it be to have apps that give feedback to couples when they start emotionally escalating in conversations on what to do to intervene before the fight gets heated. What about an app where mental health providers can type a daily affirmation, a patient homework reminder, or other message to specific clients sent in-between sessions as added support service. If there are any developers out there who want to collaborate, please let me know!

To learn more about Julie Hanks, here are some of the ways you can follow her:


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Riding on the tail-ends of the Iowa straw polls, a different kind of election announced its 2012 hopefuls last Monday.  Although (arguably) not as impactful on the future of our national debt, the opening of the SXSW 2012 Panel Picker caused its own special uproar among techies and corporate CMOs alike. And the campaigning has surely begun- producing a steady stream of tweets using the hashtag #sxsw since Monday.

But in addition to the promotion and voting, there’s something special about this “democracy”.  In the large (but small) social media community, the SXSW panel picker has become a reflection of not only the direction and transformation of our industry, but also an ideology of sorts- not just where we are, but where we’d like to go.

Here at camp WCG, we’re proud to showcase our fearless nominees, speaking out across a variety of industries and technologies:

  • Ultimate Healthcare Reform – Reshaping Our World – Bob Pearson, WCG’s Chief Technology & Media Officer, sits down with Jeff Arnold, founder of WebMD and Sharecare, for an epic discussion on how the technology leaders at SXSW can take people from information to action to create healthier world.
  • Social Media…A Responsibility of WHICH Department? –Matt Snodgrass tackles the elephant in the room during this solo presentation that will dissect various industries and companies to examine where social media responsibility should lie.
  • Friending Pharma: Patients, Industry & New Media – Last Monday was a big day for pharma too. WCG Director Brian Reid joins a sundry team of health influencers including Pfizer VP Ray Kerins, Cancer Health Activist and Patient Expert Alicia Staley, and diabetes bloggers and patient advocates Kerri Sparling and Allison Blass as they examine the risks and benefits of connecting patients and biopharma companies online.
  • My Doctor Poked Me. Giggidy! – Anecdotal evidence suggests that health care providers’ use of social media is in the early stages of an explosion.  Social media analysts Andy Booth and Naimul Huq sit down with long-time MD and leading blogger Dr. Bryan Vartabedian to explore how social media is changing the future of the doctor-patient relationship.
  • Social Networks are Killing the Company Org Chart – Every company has an org chart – but we all know intuitively that work is done based on relationships and connections across the organization.  Mapping those connections can reveal a whole new world to smart corporations. Greg Matthews (a former HR exectutive) and Humana’s Director Learning Innovation Brian Foye explain how social media can map and measure the real corporation underneath the org chart.
  • Inside Out: Internal Social Media & Big Business – Industry leaders Brian Snyder, Jonathan Mast and Blair Klein join WCG Director Brad Mays to bring together the collective insight of some of the biggest corporate brands on best practices for using social media for internal collaboration and productivity.
  • Future of Location Marketing: Dummies Perspective – 2012 marks the three-year anniversary of Foursquare’s launch at SXSW.  Location-based gurus Aaron Strout and Mike Schneider will walk through the 5 golden rules of location-based marketing and how to leverage the “there” there.
  • Social Media Strategies of Top Tweeting Businesses – WCG’s Ricardo Guerrero understands the business of Twitter- if fact, he created most of Dell’s Twitter accounts, which generated $6.5M of revenue in their first 2.5 years.  During this panel Ricardo will examines the top 1,000 business Twitter accounts to analyze whether or not Twitter success translates across social media channels.


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