Pharma marketers' indecision and reluctance stem from the restrictions associated with marketing medicine. For example, consider how difficult it is to translate elaborate sets of required disclaimers on all online ads. It's not an easy task! Also, let's not forget adverse event reporting, a federal mandate, that requires drug brands to respond to every single comment users make about their products -- a task that can be daunting, given the number of conversations happening online. Simultaneously, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is not helping as it is offering little guidance and remains undecided on its policies for social media for pharma companies.
But let's look at the bigger picture. Social channels represent an unprecedented marketing opportunity to build and foster customer relationships with existing customers and new audiences, resulting in both increased advocacy and ultimately ROI. The few forward-looking pharma companies, such as Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, UCB and Johnson & Johnson, are dipping their toes in social media to proactively engage in healthcare conversations and encourage users to join open discussions. Consider the following examples:
• GlaxoSmithKline launched a corporate blog for the U.S., "More than Medicine," to encourage open, productive dialogue.
• Johnson & Johnson, along with using many other social mediums, created the innovative Acuvue Acuminder Facebook application, where people were reminded when it's time to change their contacts.
• Pfizer is exploring new ways of applying social media by teaming up with Private Access to create a social networking site.
• To address adverse event reporting directly, Biopharma Company, UCB and PatientsLikeMe, an online community for people with life-changing conditions, have partnered to create an open epilepsy community online that captures real-world experiences of people living with epilepsy in the U.S.
This may surprise you, but the majority of online conversations about drug brands is positive and can be very powerful in terms of third-party endorsement value. For example, when someone is diagnosed with a serious illness, they'll likely go online and learn as much as possible about their health issue. They'll be particularly eager to create a sense of community among people who want to share valuable information and support.
By listening to and understanding what customers are saying online, it's easier for pharma marketers to identify issues before they escalate and realize opportunities to proactively (and transparently) supply information about rising concerns. Taking advantage of "social commentary" will also help pharma companies educate their communities and make each person in it feel that they're a member of an informed group established to make their lives better. Ultimately, this helps build brand loyalty and affinity.
If a crisis should hit, harnessing the power of social commentary can stem it quickly by having a vibrant community of established, ardent supporters. Marketers need to strive to establish loyal communities of customers who are motivated to offer personal commentary that can help explain, diffuse and defend against whatever the crisis may be. A new approach to pharma marketing is needed and avoiding the conversation is no longer an option: Pharma companies must start building their social media strategy -- and begin engaging. The question is: When will this turning point happen and how quickly will pharma marketers embrace social media?