Analysis - by on Thursday, June 26, 2008 13:16 - 3 Comments

Pharmalot finds blogging success with a niche audience

Pharmalot has been a successful blog when measured by any metric — Web traffic, content and financially — according to John Hassell, online editor for The Star-Ledger.

Its success, in many ways, can be attributed to its ability to hone in on a niche. It’s not a personal health blog or a health care blog or a take this when you don’t feel good blog. Rather, it’s a blog about the pharmaceutical industry.

Part of honing in on a niche is having someone who understands that niche. This is where quality beat reporters come in. Ed Silverman has been covering the pharmaceutical industry for more than 12 years for The Star-Ledger and blogging his beat for the last two.

Silverman is one of the most knowledgeable journalists in the country when it comes to the pharmaceutical industry. So when he started blogging his beat, it wasn’t that big of a stretch for him. People naturally wanted to read what he was posting and began commenting a lot. It was a natural fit.

Pharmalot is a blog a blog based in Newark, New Jersey but according to Hassell only about 20% of the site’s traffic comes from New Jersey. The blog has a strong national and international following. Niches don’t have to be local.

Part of having a niche is having a niche audience. Yes, a lot of people are interested in the pharmaceutical industry, but Pharmalot really cleans up with people who are connected with the industry. That’s its core audience.

In fact, Pharmalot has allowed Silverman to grow his core audience beyond what he had when he was a print-only reporter. He has found new sources because of his blogging.

"Ed has broken some very big stories, and the only reason he has broken those stories is the blog," Hassell said. "His ability to get tips has absolutely increased with the presence Pharmalot has given him."

Pharmalot, however, can still improve by becoming more interactive and more social. Silverman occasionally responds to comments left on his blog, and Pharmalot does have a mundane Facebook fan page but nothing too exciting or revolutionary has been done on the social front.

Hassell and Silverman plan to launch a Reddit-like feature on Pharmalot using the Reddit API in mid-July. The plan is to allow 25-30 people, who really know the industry well, to submit stories to the site. Those stories can then be voted up or down like Reddit and commented on.

Silverman’s blog is read by a lot of industry insiders, and he wants to harness the knowledge of some of his most knowledgeable readers. Many of them may be able to find great stories about the industry that Silverman wouldn’t have been able to find or have enough time to find. Then the feature takes it a step further by allowing everyone on the site to interact with it.

After this feature is launched, Hassell and Silverman are going to look into revamping their Facebook presence. A Facebook app might even be in the cards. Hassell and Silverman have been trying to make Pharmalot more social and interactive for awhile and are hoping they can find some winning features.

"We have not figured out the right way to take the next step," Hassell said making Pharmalot more than just a standard blog. "I’m really hopeful that the Reddit feature will help."

Why take the next step if the blog is already successful? Web sites are always looking to increase user loyalty, because the Web allows for infinite competitors. One of the best ways to increase user loyalty is to get people to want to spend more time on a site.

Yes, Pharmalot is profitable, but why not make it more profitable? That would allow for more R&D of new features to serve its niche even better. That’s the approach that they want to take with Pharmalot.

Increasing what users can do on a site is a great way to accomplish those goals. Here are some more features that Pharmalot or any blog could add to increase interactivity:

1. Highlighting user comments — Any successful blog will get quality comments from return users, especially with a beat blogger like Silverman. Successful bloggers organically form social networks around their blogs. That’s why it makes a lot of sense to highlight great comments.

This could be as simple as once a day finding a great comment and making a post for it, which will allow other users to comment on it. And of course, it makes sense to link back to the original post that caused the great comment to happen. This will also make users feel more connected to the community.

Even better would be a special section of the homepage that has a breakout box that really draws attention to these comments. Either way, this feature doesn’t take a lot of time to implement or produce on a daily basis, and, yet, users will love it.

2. Custom e-mail alerts — A lot of blogs send out e-mail alerts with new posts each day. Some might even highlight comments in them. But what about custom e-mail alerts that send users an e-mail whenever a certain subject, product or name comes up on the blog?

For instance, I take the prescription drug Nexium for acid reflux. What if every time Silverman blogged about Nexium or acid reflux, I was e-mailed about the latest post? I’m certainly interested in every study and development with the drug. What if it’s proven unsafe? What if a generic version becomes available? What if a more effective drug becomes available?

With custom e-mail alerts, I would know about the latest developments. I’m not that interested in being e-mailed each day with a summary posts (that’s what RSS is for), but I am interested in custom alerts that highlight topics that are really important to me.

3. Hire an intern — What if a beat blog had an intern whose sole responsibility was to socially promote the blog? This person could make sure each blog post shows up on the appropriate social networks, interact on Twitter with followers (Barack Obama’s camp does this), find and select user comments to highlight, interact with users on the blog and even post on similar blogs.

A lot of beat bloggers already spend a ton of time on their beats. They often don’t have time to do these tasks, but having someone promoting a blog around the Web can drive a lot of traffic. And this sounds like a much cooler and modern journalism internship than most.

Heck, sign me up for it.

4. Facebook app — This is a tricky one, because there are a lot of bad Facebook applications, and this may not make that sense for a blog like Pharmalot that appeals to insiders. But any platform with 70 million users is worth exploring and exploiting.

If you’re going to make a Facebook app, and you’re a news organization, do not make an app centered around a RSS feed. Or anything like that. That’s what RSS readers are for.

Think outside of the box. How about a Facebook app that allows people to follow the money via a visual map? How much money does Merck give to individual members of congress?

I live in Maryland. What kind of contributions did my legislators get? How did they vote on key legislation last year?

This may or may not work, but if you’re making a Facebook app, it shouldn’t duplicate what is already done elsewhere.


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BeatBlogging.org was a grant-funded journalism project that studied how journalists used social media and other Web tools to improve beat reporting. It ran for about two years, ending in the fall of 2009.

New content is occasionally produced here by the this project's former editor Patrick Thornton. The site is still up and will remain so because many journalists and professors still use and link to the content. BeatBlogging.org offers a fascinating glimpse into the former stages of journalism and social media. Today it's expected that journalists and journalism organization use social media, but just a few years ago that wasn't the case.

About the Author of this post
Patrick Thornton is the editor and lead writer of BeatBlogging.Org. He is @pwthornton on Twitter.