Market research - social media mashup: WorldOne acquires Sermo

The race for capturing the online attention of prescribers gets more competitive

For over a decade, WorldOne (New York) has been building a global database of healthcare providers to whom it offers sponsored surveys and other interactions. In the past year, it launched WorldOne Interactive, with the goal of creating online communities and other interactive venues. Now, it looks to turbocharge that effort by acquiring Sermo (Cambridge, MA), one of the leading online communities linking US physicians together. Purchase price was not disclosed.

“Sermo fits in perfectly with our strategy to extend our digital footprint across healthcare market research and enhance our growing portfolio of innovative engagement solutions,” said Peter Kirk, CEO of WorldOne. “Combining Sermo’s technology and social media expertise with WorldOne’s global scale enables us to rapidly accelerate our growth while offering the most enriching, collaborative online environment for physicians anywhere in the world.”

Sermo says that it has 130,000 credentialed, verified physicians as members, across 68 specialties. Since 2009, it has been offering pharma marketers a variety of mechanisms for informing physicians, or for obtaining feedback on prescribing practices. In May, it formed a partnership with Kantar Health (New York) to provide market insights to Kantar pharma clients, and last August introduced iConsult, an iPhone mobile app for physician communications. At WorldOne, the company has built out a membership of over 1.7 million medical professionals in 80 countries (including 350,000 in the US) who, according to the company, completed nearly a half-million online surveys during 2011. And WorldOne has been experiencing a growth spurt, opening new offices in China and four other locations in the past year.

The Sermo acquisition appears to have had some financial pressure behind it (Sermo has been funded by several private-equity firms since its founding in 2007). Although said to be the largest online physician community, Sermo has seen membership growth slow to a crawl in the past three years, rising by about 4% annually--not a bad number, but one that doesn’t excite the fast-paced online marketplace. The 130,000 membership count represents about one-fifth of the population of US prescribing physicians. Current CEO Tim Davenport (formerly a founder of Revolution Health, which was started by ex-AOL founder Steve Case several years ago) came onboard in March, replacing founder Daniel Palestrant, who had left the company earlier this year to start a new healthcare venture.

In its latest Taking the Pulse survey of healthcare providers, Manhattan Research (New York) noted a flattening of interest in social media channels by physicians, commonly used by only 7% of them. At the same time, the business of master data management of physician identities, demographics and affiliations is morphing into a market research tool and social media channel. Firms that have traditional marketing fulfillment, sample distribution and related services haven’t been standing still—they have been building online tools for interaction with physicians, e-detailing and the like. The online space for prescribers’ attention is getting crowded.