Konstanz-based GATC Biotech AG is a life science pioneer in the use of dynamic ‘Web 2.0’ and social media applications. The company uses many new channels to enhance the contact with its customers. Elke Decker, Director Strategic Marketing & Corporate Communications, and Christian Heckmann, Assistant Corporate Communications, talk about their positive and negative experiences with the new media and the prerequisites for successful online communication.
GATC Biotech AG first decided to use social media as part of company communication in the wake of American president Barack Obama’s successful use of social media during the presidential campaign of 2008. Prior to this, companies that chose to use social media for PR activities were frequently looked upon with suspicion; questions like ‘what is the point?’ were common and certain hurdles have been difficult to overcome. “Many companies are concerned about the potential loss of control over media and messages, the extra financial resources and people required to manage modern media channels and the difficulties in calculating the risks of “opening” themselves up on the Internet,” said Elke Decker, Director Strategic Marketing & Corporate Communications at GATC Biotech AG, who studied the subject in depth at Krems University (Austria).
GATC Biotech did not hesitate for long before hiring a ‘social media’ manager: The company felt that the high-quality management of GATC Biotech’s communication activities required a full-time post, a position that was soon filled by Christian Heckmann. The time GATC dedicates to the management of its social media activities – i.e. its presence on Facebook, Twitter and blogs – is no more than half a day a week; the management of the company’s corporate website takes up more time. “We do not make a clear difference between standard Web and Web 2.0 applications; the new media have become just another tool in our company’s PR toolbox,” said Heckmann. The company groups different types of news into different categories before publishing: press releases are the media of choice when it comes to publishing news about product launches or new business partnerships; however, many items of news had previously been neglected as there were no suitable publication channels. This situation has since been remedied with a blog, which has become part of GATC’s online presence. A platform for uninhibited and critical discussion, the blog provides information on workshops for training the company’s team in the use of new equipment, for example. “Rather than on focusing on technical aspects, we focus more on the people aspect,” said Elke Decker explaining that personal stories contribute to creating a “brand community” between company staff, customers and other online visitors. “When people read and publish this type of information, many of them feel a common bond and will perhaps say ‘well, that is exactly what GATC is’,” said Decker highlighting the effect that this type of integrated company communication has both internally and externally.
Blogs need to be updated at regular intervals so that they continue attracting the visitors who log on regularly. GATC Biotech AG’s ‘PacBio Story’ has attracted a great deal of attention. The ‘PacBio Story’ is all about the arrival and setting-up of one of the most modern sequencing instruments (‘PacBio’); the story began with a Facebook live stream and many people actually watched the arrival of Europe’s first PacBio RS. The story has continued with weekly updates about the instrument being powered-up, passing tests, generating the first sequencing data and it has boosted interest in the GATCBLOG. “Lesson learned,” said Elke Decker emphasizing that it is not the “Web 2.0” applications themselves that create user interest, but the interesting content and “solid information” it contains.
GATC Biotech has been relatively successful with all its PR channels. The “Böxle on Holidays” photo competitions have been the company’s most successful online activities so far. The second of these competitions has just ended. People are invited to send in photos of a 'GATC Böxle' – a small, orange box the company uses to dispatch DNA samples – in scenic surroundings. The GATC Facebook fans post their photos on the competition site and the photo with the most “likes” wins. A huge number of photos were submitted to the first competition and even more to the second competition. Due to the growing popularity of the competition, the company has created a Böxle Calendar to reflect the vast diversity of photographs. All the competition’s Facebook friends receive a Böxle Calendar. “This contact with the photographers has given GATC an unexpected and highly interesting possibility to get to know the fans of its Facebook page better. It came as a surprise to the company that many ‘fans’ were actually GATC customers.
In contrast to the success of the “Böxle on Holidays” competition, with the 2010 competition contributing to increasing the company’s popularity in the sector and doubling the company’s Facebook fans, GATC launched a Christmas campaign which was much less successful. The company has speculated about the reasons – stress during the Christmas season, perhaps the prizes were seen as unattractive or perhaps because the campaign was launched during the biotech industry’s peak season when clients are particularly busy – but has not come to a final conclusion. “We are in a testing phase,” said Elke Decker emphasizing the learning curve involved.
Technical knowledge is required to work with social media applications, but this is far from being the only skill required. “People must have some understanding how the Internet functions, but they also need to be “communicators”,” said Christian Heckmann explaining what his job is about. Working with highly dynamic Web environments and social media platforms that change every day, means that people have to be prepared to constantly be learning new things. “They need to have some affinity for this type of work; you have to constantly stay up-to-date, test things and understand what taking risks is all about,” said Heckmann, describing his work in more detail.
GATC Biotech AG's Web 2.0 specialists find it difficult to assess the future development of Web 2.0 applications. However, they have the impression that the biotech sector is not that keen to experiment with the new Web applications and that many people do not have the level of information that they need – despite the fact that some companies have followed GATC’s example and would like to achieve similar success. Decker and Heckmann see their experience of the application of social media in certain contexts as a positive thing, but they are a long way from taking similar risks with other types of communication: “We do not report product development and procedures on social media as this is the very basis of our company business,” said Decker adding that social media are not used to obtain expert information.Elke Decker and Christian Heckmann attach great importance to frequently expressed concerns about the uncontrollability of Web postings: GATC has published blog guidelines asking people to discuss subjects in a fair and factual manner, refraining from racist, indecent and similar comments. “We have reserved the right to take legal action in the event of people violating our guidelines,” said Decker highlighting that the users of the company's blog adhere to the guidelines and take part in discussions in a “factual, friendly and answerable” way.Christian Heckmann believes that the fear of losing control is unjustified. He tends to believe that the contrary is the case: people who communicate via social media are in a better position as they are able to control the discussions. He also believes that this is the only way of “taking part in discussions about our companies and our products in the context of the Web, which is normally rather anonymous”. Elke Decker concludes that social media are not suitable for all companies. Decker: “I believe that small, research-focused companies are better advised to use other media. On the other hand, now is an excellent time to learn with and about the new media, to try something out and to gradually understand what it is all about.”
Elke DeckerDirector Strategic Marketing & Corporate CommunicationsTel.: +49 (0) 7531 81 60 30Fax: +49 (0) 7531 81 60 81e.decker(at)gatc-biotech.com
Christian HeckmannAssistant Corporate CommunicationsTel.: +49 (0) 7531 81 60 525Fax: +49 (0) 7531 81 60 81c.heckmann(at)gatc-biotech.comGATC Biotech AGJakob-Stadler-Platz 7D-78467 Konstanzwww.gatc-biotech.com