Pharma in Social Media
By Greg Singh, Account Executive, Visible Technologies
Is the Return Greater Than the Risk for Pharma Companies Investing in Social Media?
It is. But it starts with understanding customers’ expectations and needs—and considering them in the context of your marketing strategy and industry compliance guidelines.
As marketers and agencies extend their brand outreach by adding blogs, Twitter and social networks to their integrated marketing communications plans, they increasingly face questions from their CFOs and CEOs about the return on investment (ROI).
While most CMOs believe that demonstrating social media ROI is one of their biggest challenges, pharmaceutical companies face their own unique set of issues when it comes to engaging in social media. Despite the Web being a primary source for online medical information, confusion over best practices and compliance guidelines have left many pharma marketers feeling constrained by lack of information on how to successfully monitor, engage and report adverse events. As a consequence, many marketers choose not to take advantage of the powerful opportunity social media provides. For them, the risk seemingly does not yet outweigh the rewards.
A longstanding challenge within the pharma category has been the difficulty in translating elaborate sets of disclaimers that drug brands are required to attach to their ads on the Web. For example, an explanation about the side effects of a drug fits well in print media like newspaper and magazine ads, but there really isn’t any room in a banner. It is also far more challenging in a social environment, such as Twitter, with adverse event reporting. According to the current federal standards, drug brands are obligated to respond to every single comment a user makes about one of its products, whether it is within a community forum, alongside an ad, or on a social network.
The U.S. Federal Food and Drug Association (FDA) has also been undecided on its policies for Web advertising, especially social media. Since meeting to discuss the issue in 2009, the FDA has been surprisingly silent on the subject, causing many pharma marketers to hesitate in embracing online and social media channels. According to the L2 Digital IQ Index: “Pharma & Healthcare Providers,” April 18, 2011, report, while physicians’ time spent on the Internet for clinical practice has quadrupled since 2002, less than 1 percent of Health Care Professionals’ (HCP) marketing spend is allocated to digital channels.
“Every other high consideration category [like pharma] is advertising on the Web, pharma is online, but not to the extent it could be. The Internet is really a failure for pharma ads.”
— Richy Glassberg,
COO MedHelp.org (via digitaldaily.com)
The FDA has apparently postponed plans to issue widely anticipated guidance on social media. In March 2011 the FDA issued the following statement to reporter Ed Silverman at Pharmalot about the pace of its progress on issuing guidance to pharma companies regarding the promotion of FDA-regulated products via the Internet and social media channels.
“Policy and guidance development for promotion of FDA-regulated medical products using the Internet and social media tools are among our highest priorities. Despite our limited resources and increasing workload, we remain committed to this area in terms of both time and human resources.”
The FDA also distributed a follow up e-mail stating:
“The Division of Drug Marketing, Advertising, and Communications (DDMAC) has been researching draft guidance topics on the following issues related to Internet/social media promotion of FDA-regulated medical products: Responding to unsolicited requests; fulfilling regulatory requirements when using tools associated with space limitations; fulfilling post-marketing submission requirements; online communications for which manufacturers, packers, or distributors are accountable; use of links on the Internet, and correcting misinformation.”
The increasing number of engagement platforms only adds to the potential burden drug brands could face in meeting these federal standards, resulting in further apprehension about investing marketing dollars online. This is leading many brands—including big names like Pfizer—to choose to disable comments on their Facebook pages, resulting in an experience for consumers’ that is less socially engaging.
However, to address the fact that disabling comments created a less transparent social experience, in May Facebook changed its policy, no longer allowing for disabling of comments to be an option: It is now a requirement of a two-way social conversation. This means for drug brands, like Pfizer, all consumer responses will be shown on the Facebook page.
Following is an excerpt from Facebook on their communication to pharma regarding this topic:
“I’m reaching out to inform you of a policy change regarding pharma Pages on Facebook that may affect one or more of your brand Pages. As you know, Facebook Pages are a free product for organizations, public figures, businesses, and brands to express themselves and have an authentic, engaging, two-way dialog with people on Facebook. Previously, pharmaceutical brands could submit a request through their Facebook Sales Representative to disable commenting on their Facebook Page. Starting today, Facebook will no longer allow admins of new pharma Pages to disable commenting on the content their Page shares with people on Facebook. Pages that currently have commenting disabled will no longer have this entitlement after August 15th, 2011.”
One thing is certain, for social media to deliver against its promise and power it must be an authentic, two-way dialogue. When social media is used just to repurpose traditional communications (print, radio and other monologue type scripts) the result is a low ROI on marketing spend. This is a significant problem that most pharma companies with an online presence are wrestling with.
DigitalDaily.com recently reported that brands such as Pfizer and Merck have met with officials from Facebook in an effort to persuade them to allow drug brands to monitor comments before they are posted to their Facebook page. Irrespective of whether Facebook complies with this request, the seriousness of the need for pharma companies to have a larger social engagement strategy is fairly obvious given the amount of time people now spend online.
Digital Spend on the Rise
Despite the challenges for pharma in social media, the industry accounted for 4 percent of
the $25.8 billion spent on overall US online advertising last year, according to new estimates from eMarketer.
eMarketer also predicts that healthcare and pharma advertisers will see double digit growth over the next few years, rising from U.S. $1.03 billion in 2010 to $1.86 billion in 2015.
“Healthcare and pharma spending will continue to move online, but spending will likely be affected by the loss of patent protection for several blockbuster drugs and forthcoming guidelines from the US Food & Drug Administration, which many in the industry hope will provide clearer direction for how pharmaceutical products can be marketed online.”
(via Medical Marketing & Media)
Effective Paths in the Meantime
In other industries, social media strategies have proven effective in enhancing communication and engagement with consumers — leading to increased brand recognition and value. This brings us back full circle to the questions posed at the beginning of this paper—Why social media and pharma? Why now? Are the benefits bigger than the potential risks?
Following are two primary benefits for pharma marketers to consider when deciding whether they should— and if now is the right time —extend their outreach online and through social channels.
#1— Third-party endorsement is powerful
Industry research has shown that adverse event reporting is a small percentage of all social conversation on pharma topics. The majority of the conversations happening online can be very powerful in terms of third-party endorsement value.
Consider those who have been recently diagnosed with an illness such as diabetes, a dietary condition such as gluten intolerance or a seasonal problem like an allergy. One of the things they are likely to do is go to the Web to find out as much as possible about their health issue. They join forums, communities, blogs and groups of others with the same condition. They eagerly seek information, support, and guidance from likeminded people and knowledgeable resources.
In the case of someone seeking to live a gluten-free lifestyle, he or she might look for tips on where to shop, seek knowledgeable references for the best bread and pastas to buy, and how to make the lifestyle changes necessary to succeed. The more serious the illness, or permanent the condition, the more knowledge is sought. And just like consumers who seek out sites such as ‘Trip Advisor’ or ‘Angie’s List’ for “in the know” insight, people are looking for advice from those they feel do not have a purpose behind their message (like brand or product advertising). This is why becoming a skilled “conversation architect” is important for every pharma brand engaging with consumers online and in the social sphere.
If a blogger shares how taking a specific medication helped them, when that person recommends the drug to others their words carry weight. In nearly every instance of people commenting on social channels about how a drug made them feel, other people are responding on how they managed their symptoms, or countered a negative report by sharing their positive experience with the drug. By doing so, they are essentially providing support for the product—valuable “endorsements” that the company itself did not write. By listening and understanding what customers are saying online it is also much easier to understand issues before they escalate, realize opportunities to innovate and proactively provide information to address concerns.
So, pharma companies are wise to take advantage of the social commentary that can help them educate their community and make each person in it feel that they’re engaged in an honest dialogue and participating in an open sharing of ideas designed to make their lives better. This will extend marketing dollars to build awareness at a far lower cost than traditional channels, such as television or print. It will also build both brand loyalty and affinity.
#2— You can’t avert a crisis without a community to support you
If a crisis should hit, harnessing social commentary will lead directly to a second benefit: The ability to stem the crisis more quickly, which your company may not otherwise be able to do without a vibrant community of ardent supporters already in place. A following of loyal customers and community participants who will stand by your brand and offer personal commentary can help to explain, diffuse and defend against whatever the crisis may be.
The important thing to keep in mind about social media is that this channel values open dialogue. In exchange, the social sphere offers support, loyalty and access to information. And isn’t that what every good marketing campaign is about — dissemination of information to cause a specific action in response?
Consider the power of Apple iPhone loyalists in the weeks following the launch of the iPhone 4. During the so-called “Antenna Gate” debacle when users were dealing with dropped calls, loyal customers lent their personal voice of endorsement, offering suggestions for fixes and defending the brand even when it did not perform as advertised. While an iPhone can elicit very emotional responses from consumers, things that people feel have made their quality of life better, such as medicine, can trigger even more emotion.
For pharma companies such as Pfizer, GSK and Johnson & Johnson, the power of social media is being embraced. These companies have established a digital footprint and are using social media in various ways to proactively engage in healthcare conversations and invite open discussions. For example, GlaxoSmithKline launched a corporate blog for the United States titled “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. Additionally, 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 United States.
As time spent on traditional media decreases, it is evident that the ROI for these channels will drop proportionately as pharma companies realize the growing power of the social medium.
Social channels represent an opportunity for pharma companies to build and foster customer relationships by opening up new conversations, gleaning insights and inviting human interest stories that give consumers the opportunity to advocate a brand. Carefully planned social media campaigns afford opportunities for adding digital capabilities that improve traditional investments and extend them to new audiences. Pharma companies can no longer afford to wait on the sidelines; it’s time to start figuring out a social media strategy. There is an opportunity to open dialogue, build trust and create a more personalized healthcare service.
About Visible Technologies
Currently, Visible®’s social media monitoring and analytics platform, Visible Intelligence®, is used by large pharmaceutical companies to support their social media programs. Our consulting services team provides guidance and best practice leadership to assist pharma companies in managing social media programs for maximum results.
To request a demo of Visible Intelligence click here.