Commentary

Bring Pharma Into Social Media Mix

Healthcare marketing is predicated on the notion of giving balanced information to enable individuals to make sound decisions about their health. Balance cuts both ways -- to say that individuals can get the most complete information without pharma's participation in the conversation is as inaccurate as saying the only resources to which people should turn for healthcare information are pharma companies.

For a fully rounded picture on health issues you need to have the involvement of pharmaceutical and other healthcare companies that are not only manufacturing the products and services that currently impact people's health, but that are also conducting the R&D that will hopefully lead to new solutions in the future.

It follows then that if the government's public health mission is to enable individuals to lead healthy lives and make good decisions for their care, it is crucial that healthcare companies participate and engage in social media with a goal of facilitating the more informed healthcare decisions.

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Excluding manufacturers or brands from social media impoverishes the discussion and runs the real risk of individuals and organizations sharing inaccurate information in an unbalanced way. So the real question isn't whether pharma should participate in social media, but rather how?

In the rush to play in the "social space," some marketers have failed to grasp the simple reality that ultimately social media is not about advertising, and it's not about marketing. It's about sharing the insight, information and tools that can help people make better decisions.

In that vein, running advertising in social areas or building one-way communication platforms (think Facebook "Fan" pages or YouTube channels with commenting turned off) is no more social than a billboard. So the real need is to be able to participate in conversations and provide value to patients and physicians as a result.

In this context, what if pharma took its cues from marketers such as Comcast and its efforts via Comcast Cares (www.twitter/comcastcares) and used social tools not to promote products but to address questions and issues in a real-time, one-to-one manner?

You can begin to imagine the level of transparency and authenticity that would convey to patients, caregivers, and physicians...as well as the genuine value that kind of pharma participation could offer those individuals as they are wrestling with health decisions.

I am reminded of a comment made by Drew Olanoff, creator of the social juggernaut Blame Drew's Cancer (blamedrewscancer.com), who, when struggling with his chemo treatment, longed for a pharma company to reach out to him in response to his Twitter posts to answer some of his critical questions. Clearly, under current guidelines (or lack of clear guidelines) this type of interaction is problematic for pharma. But if the goal is to enable patient health, should it be?

When we think about the issue of people's health and the myriad topics, concerns and questions that arise, it is no wonder that throngs of people are looking for answers through digital media. On the heels of healthcare reform, we can confidently assume that there will be even more people taking part in the conversation.

Digitally enabled social conversations around health are here to stay, and they will play an important role in how people make health decisions. Just as clearly, until pharma becomes actively engaged with those conversations, the potential for social media to positively impact patient health will fall short of its full potential.

6 comments about "Bring Pharma Into Social Media Mix ".
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  1. Augustine Fou from Marketing Science Consulting Group, Inc., April 23, 2010 at 2:25 p.m.

    Thank you for your insights and commentary Katy. Pharma definitely needs to get involved and one of their main initial roles can be to ensure accurate information is available and easily accessible. This is consistent with the main points of the FDA Part 15 social media hearings from last November.

  2. Bob Hallock, April 23, 2010 at 2:31 p.m.

    I agree with you, Katy. However, the issue of many pharma companies is not whether to employ social media, but how. Government rules on reporting adverse events/reactions have had a chilling effect on pharma companies employing social media, but there are options.

    For over 12 years, we at Wellness Layers have been creating interactive consumer web portals for wellness companies, including pharma. Confirming studies on the value of social media, our clients' experiences have shown that there's a sharp increase in compliance with a patient utilizing social media.

    How this can and should be done is another issue. Merely putting up a message board is not enough. Given consumers' sophistication these days, we believe in a highly customized, brand-centric approach in combining customized online tools (wellness plans/trackers, etc.) with social media and with customized content based on the user's profile. Even when all of these methods are employed, they will not be successful unless the user interface is exceptional because, especially in the wellness arena, people often use any excuse to avoid behavior change.

    Using online means to connect wellness brands to consumers is still underutilized, and I expect to see a far greater push in the years ahead.

  3. Karen Albritton from Capstrat, April 23, 2010 at 4:37 p.m.

    All players in the health care field need to be engaged in the conversation. Patients are turning to the Internet for health information and there's a need for pharma, providers and other credible sources to provide accurate information.

    One of my colleagues recently wrote a post on this, titled "Can self-diagnosing make you depressed?"
    http://bit.ly/9NbANa

  4. Brad Boekestein from Wallrich Landi, April 26, 2010 at 12:19 p.m.

    Amen! Great post Katy. I'm curious to see what health care companies are willing to share and put out on social media.

    While companies must acknowledge the risk of posting medical information and advice in an actively engaged public forum, the benefits of positioning themselves as a trusted voice must be awfully intriguing.

  5. Laurie Gelb from Profit by Change, April 27, 2010 at 5:01 p.m.

    Having worked on the hospital, pharma, biotech, MCO and agency sides, it's bemusing to see pharma tagged as such a key, untapped source of therapeutic information.

    Not only is biopharma the most constrained from a regulatory standpoint, as noted above, but pharmas employ few clinicians who know how therapies perform in practice, outside the trial cocoon. Moreover, updating constituents on self care/ACM, observation, devices [if you sell rx], surgery, etc. is not pharma's mission.

    Pharma's own most common sources of therapeutic insight are studies, staff, outside consultants and databases -- most far removed from patients or docs on the street. (Third-hand reports from sales managers, qual work w/ friendlies and surveys that teach to the test can't rep the street. Of course, savvy marketers find their way there.)

    That is not a rap on industry; objectives and incentives drive behavior there as anywhere else and some of the brightest minds I know are there. However, for many reasons, including its being "outside the care loop," pharma's record on interacting with patients and HCPs doesn't suggest that merely opening social media floodgates will better support choices.

    More fundamentally, no single entity or industry can be the sole or even primary source for more usable, bite-sized, less one-size-fits-all health information. Nor can we eradicate inaccurate info, though we should counter it.

    To support decisions, HCPs have great tools like UpToDate, PDQ(R), DynaMed and eMedicine. Despite a tsunami of stimuli, consumers have fewer useful tools, again for many reasons; this can and should change, but it's going to take more than launching a scad of FB pages, blogs and Twitter accounts.

    Client & agency marketers, to what extent is your cross-channel content geared toward providing decision support as opposed to cheers or sci-babble, which only decrease the perceived importance of choice and expectations of control? When you minimize regulatory constraints via unbranded initiatives, are you being maximally helpful or just removing brand names? Is support withheld out of fear that competing brands will benefit?

    It's in your power daily to unearth where/how/when you can add value to real choices in their real contexts. The trick is staying away from performance art, and instead hanging where unscripted conversations take place. Then, with more actionable information as a foundation, we are more likely to realize the writer's vision of informed decision-making by patients & caregivers (+ clinicians, providers, regulators & payors, since we're all in this cost/outcome thing together).

  6. Dave Mcilroy from PlayFullScreen, April 29, 2010 at 1:27 p.m.

    One should be very cautious about regulating discussion. A powerful lobby can manipulate how and what information becomes available to the public. If there is to be a well rounded and balanced discussion on health, then alternative methods should also be included and prominently exposed. Unfortunately, many of these options have been sequestered in the name of public health and protection. Transparency is the key, providing equal opportunity for all to participate in the dialogue. Full disclosure should also be mandatory so the public can indentify conflicts of interest. The revolving door of public health officials from beuraucrat to drug company executive or a scientist / university receiving funds from Big Pharma, must be clearly disseminated. The balance of power still remains with those who have the deepest pockets but if social media can even in some small way democratize information so the public can make an informed decision then we are all better for it.

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