Pharma Marketers, It's Time To Get Social

As many as 80% of Internet users go online to find health information, according to a 2011 report published by the non-profit Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C. And almost 20% go online to find others with similar health problems. But, if you have been watching brands on social media, you will have noticed that the majority of pharma marketers are absent from the online conversation. And it's not because they don't realize the marketing potential. Many marketers understand the value social media offers but are at a crossroad, worrying that the rewards do not yet outweigh the risks.

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?

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1 comment about "Pharma Marketers, It's Time To Get Social ".
  1. Jonathan Richman from Possible Worldwide , August 31, 2011 at 9:26 a.m.

    I just wanted to clarify and point out a couple of things.

    First, regarding this statement: "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..." This is both inaccurate and incomplete. Unfortunately, most marketers and their agencies don't understand these requirements either, so it leads to confusion and unfounded concerns. Pharma companies don't need to report every comment users make about their products. Of course, this depends on what you mean by "respond." If you mean that they must post a response or contact the poster of every comment, this is completely false. They are not obligated to do this.

    There are some reporting requirements should the post be a REPORTABLE adverse event. Reportable events must include an identifiable reporter, patient, drug, and event. Most comments about drugs online don't meet these requirements. If something is posted that is reportable, then the company must report it to the FDA, but they don't need to respond to the comment on that site for forum. Further, companies are only required to report the event if it is somehow brought to their attention. This could be by a direct report to them or by it being posted on a site that the company monitors. However, companies are under no obligation to monitor the entire internet looking for comments about their brands so they can report them to the FDA. Google doesn't even monitor the entire internet. So, when discussing these reporting issues, we need to be very clear and precise on what the real rules are so that we don't create an unwarranted concern.

    Regarding the examples of companies using social media, I think there are a few companies that you left out that should be here. Boehringer and Sanofi US are among those who I think are using social media the best (along with J&J). For example, the GSK blog is good, but J&J's JNJBTW blog has been around for several years, while the GSK blog is only about a year old. There are about 50 different industry Facebook Pages out there and about as many pharma-sponsored communities including ones that started from scratch without partnering with an established player like Patients Like Me. Of course, you can't include every example in here, but I've kept a list of every pharma social media program, so you can see some more of what's possible: http://www.doseofdigital.com/healthcare-pharma-social-media-wiki/