Most companies are staying cautious, though one start-up got a big boost from a hit video.
Popular YouTube comedians Rhett McLaughlin and Link Neal created the fake commercial about the Spanner for AbbeyMoor Medical. But the industry's big players have been slow to adopt the latest Web tools, partly out of fear of regulation and liability.
Men who experience problems urinating following prostate treatment probably don't find the situation very funny. But that's not to say the vexing problem can't evoke a few yuks.
At least that's what executives at AbbeyMoor Medical Inc. thought when they contemplated a social marketing campaign for the company's flagship device, a stent for urination-challenged patients called the Spanner.
The tiny Parkers Prairie start-up hired two comedians popular on YouTube to produce a fake commercial featuring two good ol' boys discussing the Spanner. (At one point, the rubes call the urethra the "Aretha.")
The YouTube clip went viral, attracting thousands of views and bolstering traffic to an AbbeyMoor website.
AbbeyMoor's unorthodox move came at a time when marketing experts are encouraging businesses to leap into the evolving field of social media. Fans of Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn and other social media say these tools represent a promising opportunity for medical device companies to reach both patients and doctors. They can also be a way for companies to check out what's being said about them and about the competition.
Why? Experts say medical technology firms fear rebuke from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates medical devices.
In med-tech, "there's so much regulation and potential liability that companies are very concerned that they may be held liable for what they say," said Robert Huff, director of brand strategy for LaBreche, a Minneapolis brand communications firm.
Recognizing the budding social media trend in the drug and med-tech industries, the FDA recently announced public hearings on the topic Nov. 12 and 13 in Washington.
"The fact that the FDA is convening a public meeting indicates a real interest by policymakers at the agency to solicit input and come up with a sensible approach," said Coleen Klasmeier, head of the FDA regulatory practice at the Sidley Austin law firm. She views it as a positive.
But federal regulators aren't the only challenge. Describing the benefits and risks of an implantable cardioverter defibrillator may prove challenging in a 140-character tweet.
Further, the coveted immediacy of the medium may be compromised if every tweet and Facebook post must first be vetted by corporate lawyers. Another challenge, Klasmeier said, is dealing with user-generated content opining about a company or a device.
AbbeyMoor considered the risks and jumped in anyway.
"We thought if we can touch the funny bone in a clip, staff and physicians would share it with one another in urology clinics, and then they would share it with their friends," said Darren Cook, the company's director of marketing. "The whole goal was to raise awareness of the Spanner."
More than a decade ago, the FDA began allowing pharmaceutical and device companies to advertise directly to consumers.
Pharmaceutical companies spent billions advertising drugs such as Viagra and Vioxx on TV and in other media, and sales of the most-heavily advertised drugs soared.
But medical device companies have been far more conservative -- advertising a heart stent or hip implant in a 60-second spot has proven challenging.
"It's a discussion about a complex procedure and a complex application of a complex device, so the discussion is much more difficult,'' said Pat Kullmann, president of Edina-based CG3 Consulting.
Now few device companies appear to be wholeheartedly embracing social media. A recent survey by Boston-area consultants Barbara Bix and Robert DeSimone found that of the 118 individuals that responded, 15 percent worked at companies using social media to reach business prospects and customers.
Medtronic spokesman Chuck Grothaus said the Fridley company is exploring Twitter and Facebook; it recently launched a Medtronic Careers page on Facebook for potential employees.
"We are entering social media with caution,'' he said.
St. Jude spokeswoman Sara Spafford Freeman said the Little Canada company "has not yet taken a position on whether social networking sites are an appropriate medium" to engage doctors and patients.
But some companies have figured out ways to reach doctors and patients in the socialsphere. One way is through smart phones, which are gaining popularity with physicians who ditch pagers and PDAs.
A website and iPhone application launched Monday by Phoenix-based iMobileHealth, for example, helps doctors (and patients) access aortic valve information in mobile form.
For a fee, the app includes information about new devices and the companies making them, experts, blogs, journal articles and clinical trial results.
Patients or their caregivers can enter their contact information, helping them connect with doctors, according to Kullmann, whose firm collaborated with LaBreche to develop the product.
As of last week, the Spanner clip had attracted more than 150,000 views and almost 900 viewer comments on YouTube. Website traffic following the launch soared from a sleepy 80 hits a day to more than 2,300, although it's since slowed down.
The clip was launched around the same time that a positive article on the Spanner appeared in Urology Times, so it's difficult to determine what exactly was driving the traffic, Cook said. It's also unclear whether the clip resulted in a boost in sales of the Spanner.
The clip cost less than $7,500 and company executives rate it a success, even though a few people complained it made light of a serious condition. Plus, the YouTube audience isn't exactly AbbeyMoor's core customer -- men ages 68 to 72.
So far, there's been no word from the FDA, and AbbeyMoor plans to launch more clips on YouTube in the future.
Janet Moore • 612-673-7752