Gamification and online communities – what can pharma do?

pharmafile | May 10, 2012 | Feature | Business Services, Manufacturing and Production, Medical Communications, Research and Development, Sales and Marketing Boehringer, Facebook, Gamification, Syrum, digital marketing 

Gamification is the new buzzword in digital marketing and has the potential to engage consumers more than traditional strategies. 

This new idea uses gaming as a vehicle to encourage people to adopt new habits or influence their behaviour. Companies are now using it to deliver their marketing messages and advertising to the wider public. 

By far the biggest and well-known use of gamification comes from the Facebook game Farmville. The game’s developers Zynga use the popularity of Facebook as a platform for the game. 

In Farmville players grow crops and can then sell them to their friends, or form a co-operative with other players to build a bigger and more productive farm.

The aim is to level up and users get more rewards the further into the game they go. It has nearly 100 million users and makes money by having players purchase certain items for their farms from the game’s developer. It is also a goldmine for Facebook, as advertisers will be lining up to be seen next to the game. 

Farmville is successful because it keeps to the basic tenants of gamification: it’s simple, competitive, social and above all it offers rewards, which make players return to the game time and time again. This creates a community and a loyalty around the game, and ensures that it remains successful in the long-term. 

Pharma joins the game

Pharma has now jumped on the gamification bandwagon and is starting to use it to promote disease awareness campaigns, but it begs the question: can gamification work for pharma?

Boehringer Ingelheim is betting that it can, and is the pioneer of this idea in pharma. The firm is currently developing a new game called Syrum to promote the industry as a whole, whilst also using it for its own marketing purposes. 

Syrum is currently undergoing beta testing and is the brainchild of John Pugh, Boehringer’s director of digital communications. Pugh is a well-known  trailblazer in pharma’s digital world, launching Boehringer’s Twitter feed in 2007, and making it a true online conversation with followers. 

In January this year, Pugh won the PM Society’s Digital Pioneer Award for pushing the digital boundaries within the industry. His new project works much the same way as Farmville does, but just swaps farms and crops for laboratories and molecules.

Syrum will be available on Facebook where gamers play as an R&D pharma company that has to develop drugs and put them into clinical trials, mimicking the real industry process. 

And there are social media aspects to it, as players can link up with their Facebook friends and give them gifts – these can then be used to customise their offices and laboratories. Players can also trade and collaborate to help create better compounds, but on the flipside they also have the option to steal their competitors’ staff and compounds to get ahead. 

COPD and atrial fibrillation awareness campaigns

Boehringer has already established itself on the web with interactive campaigns to raise awareness. One of these is ‘Drive for COPD’, which aims to increase the diagnosis of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. 

Its most recent campaign is ‘1 mission 1 million’. The campaign – to be found at heartofstroke – is aimed at raising awareness about stroke prevention and atrial fibrillation, which is what its new blood thinner Pradaxa has just gained new licences for around the world. 

This campaign draws on a similar idea to gamification – that of ‘crowdsourcing’ – opening up a problem to an online community and asking their help to solve it.

However in this case, Boehringer is simply donating money – €1 million to be precise – but draws in users by asking them to apply for the funding. 

The donations are only campaigns to raise awareness about atrial fibrillation and stroke, not for treatment. One of the most notable winners was a proposal for an online project, StrokeStrike, which was awarded €100,000. 

The project, now under construction, is a mobile and online social platform that promotes the idea of playing sports and leading a healthier lifestyle to minimise the risk of stroke. It helps promote a healthy lifestyle by offering personalised monitoring of calories, exercise and so on, and allows your doctor to access this information. 


For Boehringer, Syrum promotes disease education for people playing it, whilst also helping them filter their marketing messages for its ongoing disease awareness campaigns. 

At the e-Patient Connections conference in September, Pugh explained that players of Syrum would be regularly asked to fill in questionnaires, or watch videos relating to its recent disease awareness campaigns. 

In return Boehringer, would then offer players new equipment or drug compounds for Syrum as a reward. On the face of it, Syrum is about explaining the pharma industry to the public, and the stresses and strains of getting drugs to market.

But more specifically for Boehringer, is its use as a vehicle to communicate messages about its new disease awareness campaigns to bigger audiences. 

Pharma must tread carefully in these areas in Europe, however, as the industry is not allowed to advertise prescription medicines to the public. This is the whole reason for disease awareness campaigns, which encourage patients to think about their condition, get diagnosed and potentially be prescribed medication. 

The drive to promote COPD awareness is of course rooted in Boehringer’s aim to promote its products for the disease, most notably Spiriva (co-marketed with  Pfizer). But these games can in no way plug its products, and all of pharma’s campaigns include lengthy and prominent disclaimers that they are for providing information, and not for promotion of medicines or services – but their raison d’être remains clear. 

Promoting health

Some are looking at designing new games to promote health without any commercial agenda – and there are already several established apps and games out there to promote healthy living via gaming. 

The ‘Lit2Quit’ mobile game has been developed by an academic team at the University of Columbia, and aims to help people stop smoking by having them do battle with swirling clouds of gas, amongst other things. 

The Department of Health in the UK is also looking to use these types of apps to help patients and doctors understand certain medical conditions, and help with healthier living.

Analysts at Ernst & Young said in its recent report that games are becoming a new way to promote healthy living. 

“Electronic and online games, long viewed as deterrents to healthy behaviour, are increasingly being used to promote healthier behaviours such as better diet and weight control and medication adherence,” the report states. 

Innovative start-ups such as Keas and HealthPrize have developed programmes combining the use of games, social media and technology to serve the growing ranks of employers seeking to motivate their workers to adopt healthier behaviours. 

In another approach to health gamification, Kaiser Permanente’s Garfield Health Care Innovation Centre is researching games to help doctors and other medical personnel improve their skills, and reduce errors. 

Charities are also using gamification: Tearfund, the UK-based Christian international aid charity, is looking to drive engagement with young supporters with the launch of a mobile gaming platform. 

Tearfund has built a mobile app that incorporates social media channels and gaming strategies, in a bid to encourage more young people to become involved in its work and make volunteering efforts. The Pedestrians’ charity Living Streets has also used gamification as part of an online campaign during its recent ‘Walk to Work Week’. 

But the potential for commercial gain is the main driver for gamification, as pharma has the most money to throw behind it. 

Are games able to change behaviour?

But the big question is: can games change entrenched human behaviour? There is little available long-term research to answer this question, but it does not seem that shooting cigarette-shaped enemies will make a player change a 30-year smoking habit, for instance. 

In terms of marketing – and what Pugh is looking to do with Syrum – it certainly seems to grab people’s attention. But ultimately it is simply a new method of marketing for these firms, and has the added bonus of attracting a large interest from many sectors, given its novelty. 

So it is the future? Possibly – but creating a loyal online community takes time and money, and skill in identifying the right audience, and what will inspire them to keep coming back. 

For Boehringer, the process has indeed been a complicated one – the game was pencilled in for launch in late 2011, but its launch is now not expected until the end of 2012. 

Being a pioneer in a new area will always throw up problems, but the game will need to do more than merely be novel to prove its value.

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